The United Nations on Tuesday relayed reports that pro-government forces in eastern Aleppo are entering homes and killing civilians – including women and children – in a situation it described as a “complete meltdown of humanity.” Another human rights organization said that “real massacres” are taking place as forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad push to capture the final neighborhoods held by rebels in the city.
U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said there was reliable information to suggest 82 civilians had been killed in four districts of eastern Aleppo, with government forces entering homes and allegedly killing those who tried to flee. “We’re filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of eastern Aleppo,” Colville said.
Ammar al Salmo, leader of the Syrian civil defense in Aleppo, spoke to VICE News about the devastation in Aleppo: “The situation on the ground is catastrophic. Every moment is worse than before. Right now there are 100,000 civilians trapped in 3-5 square kilometers – the remaining part of the besieged areas. Everything has stopped except the shelling, except the starving, except the cold of the winter and the fear and the terror. Everything has stopped.”
The Red Cross has called for urgent action to protect those still living in the besieged part of the city “before it is too late” while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said bodies lie in the streets as people are too afraid to go out and bury them — adding that “real massacres” were taking place.
Ammar al Salmo added: “We prefer death to being detained, to being executed. We prefer death here. Because we have no option right now, either to die by the bomb or to die by detention or execution. What will the world do if we are detained or die in regime detention? Nothing.”
This final push by Syrian forces is the culmination of months of human rights abuses in the city:
- In September, soon after Assad’s forces began their push to retake eastern Aleppo, UNICEF slammed the government for inflicting a “living nightmare” on the children in the city, reporting that 96 children had died with 223 more injured in the bombings. “There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth said.
- The UK, U.S. and French ambassadors to the United Nations walked out of a UN Security Council meeting in September in protest at the atrocities taking place in Aleppo, accusing Russia of committing war crimes. “After five years of conflict, you might think that the regime has had its fill of barbarity, but the regime and Russia have instead plunged to new depths and unleashed a new hell on Aleppo,” UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said.
- In October, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien called what was happening in Aleppo “our generation’s shame.” Speaking to the Security Council, O’Brien passionately described the horrors of life in eastern Aleppo, telling members: “If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this council’s legacy, our generation’s shame.”
- Hours later another UN official slammed the deaths of children at a school in Idlib province near Aleppo. “This is a tragedy. It is an outrage. And if deliberate, it is a war crime,” UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said. “This latest atrocity may be the deadliest attack on a school since the war began more than five years ago.”
- Last month Amnesty International said that Syrian government forces showed a “callous disregard for the safety of civilians” in eastern Aleppo. It warned that “given the Syrian government’s long and dark history of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances on a mass scale, it is even more crucial that civilians are protected in newly captured areas of Aleppo city.”
- With Russia and China blocking the UN Security Council passing any resolutions to alleviate the problem in Aleppo, O’Brien pleaded once again with the member last month. “Month after month I have reported to this Council that the level of depravity inflicted upon the Syrian people cannot sink lower, only to return the following month with hideous and, with shocking disbelief, new reports of ever-worsening human suffering,”
- Earlier this month Human Rights Watch accused Syria and its ally Russia of committing war crimes during bombing campaigns on eastern Aleppo in September and October when more than 440 civilians had been killed. “Those who ordered and carried out unlawful attacks should be tried for war crimes,” Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said.
On Sunday, the U.S. and Russia appeared to be on the brink of an agreement to pause the violence and allow rebels and civilians safe passage but U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby later confirmed that Russia was trying to delay the ceasefire, saying: “We’re deeply frustrated, but we’re not surprised by this lack of Russian and regime commitment to what should be a humane solution to the current brutality.”
On Tuesday, VICE News was shown a letter addressed to U.S. members of congress, and signed by the leader of the Levant Front – an Aleppo-based rebel group who oppose the Assad government. In it, Abdullah al-Othman writes that the group has lost thousands of men while trying to beat back IS and Assad forces, adding: “unfortunately, I must now admit that we have failed.”
The letter alleges that “civilians are being burned in the streets by shelling” and begs the U.S. president to take immediate measures to help the people in Aleppo. al-Othman ends by warning that “the worst massacre of the war could soon occur.”