Evacuees from the Syrian city tell how life continued through years of bombing until it was impossible to stay

The Aleppo Thaer al-Halabi left behind was a ghost town filled with the shadows of friends lost to war and the shattered dreams of a different Syria.

Still, the parting resembled physical pain. He was born in Aleppo, in a house in the old township with a courtyard shaded by vines, where his family had lived for over a century. He raised a family and built a career there, and then, for four years, gambled everything he had on the possibility of setting up taking down Syrias president, Bashar al-Assad.

When we were forced to leave Aleppo it had already been destroyed entirely. You didnt consider a city, merely ghosts, in a ghost city, said the 57 -year-old engineer turned opponent legislator.

I am very sad I have left our city, its at the centre of our hearts, part of our bodies. But because we need liberty we cannot live there.

Halabi said he was incarcerated three times by the government before the war, so when the mutiny against Assad first turned into armed rebellion and rebels took half of Aleppo, he didnt think twice about joining them. We had freedom for four years, he said.

Aleppo, which was Syrias cultural and economic hub before the conflict, became a byword for desolation far beyond the countrys borders, after years of brutal air raids to try to oust rebels.

In the early years of the fighting, life in rebel-held regions was not all horror and violence. There was a local council set up to govern, schools still operated. People went to work when they were not severed from their offices by the frontline, or set up new businesses and tried to ignore the war.

Syrians wait in line to buy bread in October 2012. Photograph: Scott Peterson/ Getty Images

Life went on amid the bombing, said Sara, a 47 -year-old teacher who also stayed in Aleppo until the enclaves final days. There were schools, industries, stores, there were goods and people, entertainment, everything.

For the young in particular, rebel-held Aleppo offered the wild liberties of an unfiltered web. On the other side of the city was regular Syrian government that block everything they dont want, said Halabis son, the activist and journalist Rami Zein.

On our side of the city it felt like you are in a place open to the world. Before the siege it was a great city, you had everything you need, could bring everything this is necessary from the border[ with Turkey ], all kinds of trade, everything was there.

As the war intensified though, death and destruction touched growing numbers of families. Aleppo became notorious for the horror of barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters on civilian areas to spread death and fear.

The footballer Mohammed Khalifas sister was among the early victims. The family had moved house to escape heavy shelling in their old neighborhood, nearer the frontline, where planes could fly over rebel-held areas with virtual impunity.

The barrel bomb that took his sisters life also seriously injured his daughter, who was raced to Turkey in an ambulance. Khalifa followed more slowly through the border checkposts, and where reference is reached the hospital a doctor mistakenly told him his daughter had died.

I raced in to try to see her body, he said, and they told me she actually was alive but had serious head injuries. She survived, thank God, and is with me now.

The bomb also destroyed a small store they had put in, along with two automobiles, but despite their losses the family decided not to leave as the bombings intensified and a siege began.

Members of the Civil Defence rescue children after what activists said was an airstrike by forces in June 2014. Photograph: Sultan Kitaz/ Reuters

I wanted to stay in Aleppo because of my commitment to the revolution and its principles; I started that route and wont change until I finish, said Khalifa, 30, who said he played with “the member states national” team before the war began.

The growing bombardment prompted an exodus to refugee camps and bring those who stayed constant misfortune. We lost so many people not just to bombs and other weapons, but also because of displacement, said Sara, who has three children and asked to use a pseudonym to protect relatives still in government-held areas.

Like many civilians in rebel-held zones, she stayed in touch with household, friends and former colleagues in west Aleppo by phone, although Assads surveillance state usually made all but the most anodyne conversation impossible.

We cannot talk about the war because our friend may be in danger, only hello, how are you and a few words, because Assad is watching everything, said Halabi.

After Russia joined the air war in September 2015, the bombing raids on Aleppo became more intense, with huge bunker buster missiles, white phosphorus and a range of other munitions added to the constant rainfall of barrel bombs.

Satellite images provided by UNOSAT shows the Resafa neighborhood of Aleppo on 21 November 2010 and 18 September 2016.
Satellite images provided by UNOSAT shows the Resafa neighborhood of Aleppo on 21 November 2010 and 18 September 2016

The shelling would not stop, it continued without mercy, said Halabi. Just to go to the market, you had to believe you were already dead, so you could have the heroism to leave the house. When we got back to the house this was a new life.

Then the siege began in August, as the government turned to a technique that had helped reclaim other cities: starving and demoralising fighters and the civilians who supported them into submission.

In every corner of their own lives you find something missing, like your mobile charge, your laptop charge, even warmth if you are cold, water for showering. You have to use everything carefully and think twice, said Zein.

They would run short of water because there was no gasoline to pump from the wells. Zein felt permanently weak, cold and dirty, and would sleep for up to 15 hours a day, when illness and the temperatures let. When I get out of Aleppo, he said, I couldnt remember the last period I had a shower.

As government forces closed in, people who had turned down many chances to leave eventually decided to flee, dreading imprisonment, torturing, demise or forced conscription if they came here under Assads control. Most left in mobbed bus with little beyond the clothes on their back.

Aleppo lost rebel province

Finally we had to get out. I couldnt take anything except my dignity with me, said Khalifa. He is now in nearby Idlib province, crammed into the home of a relative with his wife, two children, two brothers and their families.

At the checkpoints they stopped us, searched us and took stuff from people with us. Our fund, our automobiles, our generator, our house, all of them are left in Aleppo. We came out with nothing. As regards the future I am lost, lost, lost.

They feel luckier than most of the people evacuated to Idlib, who are struggling for shelter and food in a province are covered under snow and still a war zone. The UN has said Idlib may be the next Aleppo, a focus for a new pushing by forces loyal to Assad.

Some who endured Aleppos siege and bombardment say they are prepared to suffer further rather than flee into exile, because while they have lost their homes, they still have their dream of change.

I am not going to another country, unless in the end they push me out, like they did from Aleppo, Halabi said. I will try to stay in my country if I can.

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