Aleppo: the plight of the people, victims of the conflict between the army and rebels
AsiaNews presents a testimony on the situation in the Syrian city. Food prices are constantly increasing; certain goods are only available on the black market. Medicine is starting to run low, the health system risks paralysis. Without schools, volunteers organize lessons and games for children. The appeal from the International Red Cross.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) - The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed "concern" about the appeal launched by the Red Cross, unable to deliver humanitarian aid to the Syrian people battered by the war between rebels and soldiers faithful to Assad's regime. Yesterday Peter Maurer, President of the International Red Cross (ICRC) said that the situation is "deteriorating" and the agency "is unable" to perform its duties. A request re-launched today by Navi Pillay, head of the United Nations for Human Rights (UNHCHR), who defines as "significant" the fact that it is no longer possible for the ICRC "to carry out its core functions."

Field agents report that many of the stocks and consumer staples directed to Syria, fundamental due to the approach of winter, are being confiscated by the regime in Damascus or resold. The High Commissioner, in Indonesia to attend the Bali Democracy Forum, did not spare even the UN Security Council from criticism, so far incapable of taking appropriate measures to stop the violence.

To date, there are about 37,000 victims of the conflict between the army and rebels that broke out in March 2011, according to what the sources of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say. UN estimates speak of at least 1.2 million people in need of assistance, while the humanitarian situation is likely to deteriorate.

On the war in Syria and the plight of the population, AsiaNews presents a document of rare objectivity, written by a group of credible witnesses of goodwill, among whom there are also some religious. It describes what is happening in Aleppo, in northwest Syria, one of the theaters in which the war between rebel militias and government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad is being fought. The story recounted goes back to the beginning of October, but the reality - local sources confirm - has not changed, except for the worse while the population awaits a winter that could further jeopardize the plight of the displaced persons.

This is a trip report drawn up in the wake of a mission on the ground, which lasted seven days, in the area controlled by the Syrian regime. The data included here was collected from many witnesses - activists, religious, merchants, civil society, teachers and the displaced persons themselves - as well as from direct observation in the field, particularly in the reception centers for evacuees. Here, then, is the testimony:

Shaken since 20 July by violent and intense fighting between the forces of the Syrian regime and the factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Aleppo is in extremely critical condition. In just a few months, this war has caused the death of many civilians and provoked considerable damage, especially undermining the significant historical and artistic heritage classified by UNESCO.

Todat the city is divided in two: on one side, the districts that have come under rebel control (between 55 and 60%, concentrated in the areas to the east, south and north) and on the other, those which have remained loyal to the Assad regime (between 45 and 50%, grouped in areas west of Aleppo and in the center). Entering the heart of the city becomes increasingly difficult: many roads are cut off, the Syrian military and rebel troops have created artificial barriers along the streets, and ever tighter controls regulate the transit in and out between the two "enemy" sectors.

The Aleppo airport is still in the hands of government forces, but one cannot reach the city without having to make a long detour to avoid the combat zones. The risk is greater or lesser depending on whether one travels during daytime or at night, and also varies depending on the intensity of the fighting at the time of transit. The area under the control of the FSA is accessible through Turkey and the "liberated" areas in the north of Syria. The areas controlled by the regime are accessible from the west, through the road to Damascus.

In the front line, where the fighting rages, the water pipelines and electricity infrastructures have been completely destroyed. Most of the buildings are empty, and the property damage appears to be very significant, even if it is not possible to assess the extent of the area, since they are still very dangerous and therefore impractical.

Without reflecting any particular political affiliation for or against the Syrian regime, the civilian population who lived in those areas fled spontaneously into areas controlled by the rebel army or into the area controlled by soldiers loyal to Damascus, both considered "relatively" safer. The transition from one area to another is very dangerous. Any civilian trying to cross the boundary line becomes immediately suspect: the rebels presume he is a public official or a military man in civilian clothes; the regime brands him a member or supporter of the opposition.

The military situation on the ground is deteriorating, but neither of the two warring parties manages to gain the upper hand. For weeks, the front lines have not moved an inch. Although the rebels are mainly the "masters" of the battle by land, the balance of power does not bode well for the guerrillas. The powerful regime army controls the skies through aviation, using planes, helicopters and fighter-bombers. In addition, tanks and mortars allow them to carry out incessant and extremely effective ground-to-ground bombardment. The inferiority of their weapons and of the material available to the rebels allows them to do nothing more than maintain the areas conquered at the beginning of the Battle of Aleppo. In addition, all observers agree that the war's duration is becoming one of the most critical factors.

The humanitarian situation in areas controlled by the regime

Aleppo is in a state of constant siege; its inhabitants live surrounded, caught between two fires and deprived of any humanitarian assistance from the outside. The price of food has increased by roughly 30% and various products and basic necessities, such as gas for household use, fuel oil, gasoline, and some medications are found only on the black market. A situation that encourages abuses: the price of gas cylinders has increased by 500% compared to their real value and, in the meantime, the spikes in fuel prices have shown a more than 300% increase for gasoline. The situation is even more alarming in the area controlled by the regime, where food and basic necessities when traveling by land are often prey to the rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

Areas under army control

It should be emphasized that unlike the areas which have come under rebel control, the areas which the Syrian regime commands do not have access to external aid passing through Turkey. Damascus' policies, in place well before the start of the war, do not allow foreign non-governmental organizations to operate in Syria. Though a considerable portion of its inhabitants have moved to Damascus or escaped across the border, the area still boasts a population that varies between 800,000 and one million inhabitants, to which are added the 300,000 who have abandoned the front lines. The latter have found shelter in public places, with "makeshift" structures made available to them: about 150 schools have been opened, as well as 50 mosques and Aleppo's large university campus, which alone has welcomed 30-35,000 displaced persons, according to different sources.

Then there is the dramatic increase in food prices, in turn aggravated by the devaluation of the Syrian currency, while the salaries of civil servants have remained unchanged and a large number of people employed in the private sector have lost their jobs. Added to this are the difficulties experienced by merchants, many of whom have been forced to close their shops. Because of the collapse in purchasing power, many inhabitants of Aleppo can only afford one meal a day.

At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult to get access to health care. Some centres and government hospitals continue to operate, but with huge losses in terms of human resources: much of the qualified medical staff has fled the city and significant dysfunctions in the equipment's maintenance have been reported (x-rays can no longer be performed), not to mention the reduced supply of medicines. Indeed, with the destruction of some important pharmaceutical production centres as a result of the fighting raging on the outskirts of Aleppo and Damascus, various medicines are depleted while others have totally disappeared. The blocking of roads does not allow for a constant supply and at the same time it is difficult to import from abroad: air transport is very expensive and pharmacists do not enjoy the right to raise prices imposed by the State.

As a result, many products are now available only on the black market. We emphasize here that for the rescue groups and citizens' associations, contact with a foreign member of a humanitarian association violates the law and the act can be punished with imprisonment. In this context, the plight of the most vulnerable - such as persons with physical or mental disabilities - arouses particular concern.

The most urgent needs and the organization of aid

The humanitarian assistance today at the local level can be divided into two categories. First, the community assistance for permanent residents: in Aleppo, as in the rest of the country, there are networks of solidarity at the community level, which already existed before the war. Each ethnic or religious community has developed its own system of charitable support such as - for example - the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), or the  Da'wat Kheir  Muslim charity organization. They worked hard and well at the beginning of the crisis, but are now beginning to falter: the population's needs are increasing and the financial resources and traditional materials decrease day by day. A problem exacerbated by the exodus of the more affluent Aleppans and by the losses incurred by the city's major manufacturers and merchants.

Second, there is the support to the displaced: it comes from the same networks within the community, in addition to the Syrian Red Crescent and citizens' associations, which act in a coordinated and complementary manner. The coordination platform was established with weekly meetings to exchange information on the available accommodation, the basic needs of the displaced and sometimes to share aid - food and non - according to the needs of each group. Their charitable activities are "tolerated" by the regime.

The efforts of these support networks focused at first on developing centres for displaced persons in public spaces made available, as well as providing mattresses and blankets. Access to food and medicine is also part of their operational priorities. At the same time, a committee has been activated to supervise the hygiene conditions, to assess problems and attempt to provide solutions. Since this year the majority of children have no access to schools, some young volunteers are organizing fun activities and lessons to occupy a part of the day to make up for the needs in this area.

About 200 families have been identified living in isolated villages near Aleppo. Providing them with a care plan entails serious dangers. The delivery of aid is therefore possible only in a random and sporadic manner, depending on the intensity of the fighting. Unfortunately, the efforts of all these people involved in the work of aid to the poor are insufficient due to the lack of means. The displaced people have needs and requirements that nobody is able to satisfy, since the aid of international organizations such as the International Red Cross, United Nations departments and Catholics agencies are irregular and entrusted to chance.

With the approach of winter, finding warm clothes becomes a priority, as does the supply of fuel and gas for heating and the preparation of hot meals. The networks are trying to stock up for the winter. From the city come appeals regarding the lack of medicines, especially those required for the chronically ill, including diabetics, people with kidney disease, liver disease, and multiple sclerosis, as well as vaccines for children. They also need financial resources to cover the costs of hospitalization and examinations in private centres, as the public ones are facing huge difficulties. One of the objectives is also to create a stock of medicines for the treatment of acute cases, reflecting the need to open dispensaries to give at least a minimal structure to the health sector. Finally, to all this is added the fact that the pharmacies' banks are beginning to run low on milk for babies and it is expected that the item will be prohibitively expensive on the black market.

If the supply of drinking water and electricity is still guaranteed in the city - in the areas outside the scene of fighting, the infrastructure has been destroyed - the inhabitants of Aleppo fear a worsening of the situation in the weeks and months to come, aggravated by the risk of an intensification of the fighting. The destruction of the water supply would be a catastrophe for the people, but especially for displaced people living in the community and who risk outbreaks of scabies, cholera and other diseases associated with poor hygiene.