Date: July 8, 2015
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST Ministries and the ASSIST News Service
ALEPPO, SYRIA (ANS – July 8, 2015) -- Some 240 people, mainly Christians, have been brought out of Syria's second city of Aleppo and taken to Belgium, the government in Brussels says.
All the families had fled their homes and were at risk of repeated human rights abuse, a spokesman told the BBC.
Civil society groups helped take the families to safety in Lebanon.
“Aleppo has been devastated by three years of fierce fighting between Syrian government forces, rebels and jihadist militants,” said the BBC.
“Before the war, it had a Christian population of around 160,000, one of the biggest in the Middle East.”
The refugees, who included Yazidis as well as Christians, were moved out along the only open road from Aleppo to the Lebanese border.
The BBC added that the operation took place over two months and amid great secrecy. Belgium is one of several European countries that have come under pressure to help Christians and other religious minorities in Syria threatened with persecution.
“We did it via civil society organizations which could get them out of there,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Few other details have been revealed, but the spokesman said some of the families had connections with people already in Belgium.
They were met on the Lebanese border by representatives from the Belgian embassy in Beirut with the help of the NGOs and have now all arrived in Belgium.
The families are now expected to be granted asylum in Belgium.
Belgium has until now only offered asylum to Syrian refugees through the United Nations, says a national media report.
Before the rescue of the Christians, Amnesty International reported that civilians in Aleppo were suffering “unthinkable atrocities.”
Amnesty’s report says that from January 2014 to March 2015, government aircraft launched continual attacks using barrel bombs - oil barrels, fuel tanks or gas cylinders packed with explosives, fuel, and metal fragments - on rebel-held areas of Aleppo.
One report alleged that Syrian government forces and many rebel groups were committing war crimes on a daily basis.
Their targets included at least 14 public markets, 12 transportation hubs, 23 mosques, 17 hospitals and medical centers, and three schools.
“I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere. It was how I imagine hell to be,” a local factory worker said describing the aftermath of an attack on al-Fardous district in 2014.
Armed opposition groups in Aleppo were also accused of committing war crimes by using imprecise weapons such as mortars and improvised rockets fitted with gas canisters called “hell cannons” in attacks that killed at least 600 civilians in 2014.
The report also documented widespread torture, arbitrary detention and abduction of civilians by both government security personnel and rebels in Aleppo.
‘Circle of hell’
Amnesty said the widespread atrocities had made life for civilians in Aleppo “increasingly unbearable”, with many forced to eke out an existence underground.
A resident described Aleppo as a “circle of hell”. “The streets are filled with blood. The people who have been killed are not the people who were fighting,” he said.
“More than a year ago the UN passed a resolution calling for an end to human rights abuses, and specifically barrel bomb attacks, promising there would be consequences if the government failed to comply,” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program.
“Today, the international community has turned its back on Aleppo's civilians in a cold-hearted display of indifference to an escalating human tragedy.”
He added: “Continued inaction is being interpreted by perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity as a sign they can continue to hold the civilians of Aleppo hostage without fear of any retribution.”
Last year, according to Asia News (http://www.asianews.it), a Christian Syrian doctor, who has remained behind in the war-torn city, said, “Aleppo residents are filled with weariness and resignation today.” From time to time, he has written “letters” to his Lebanese friends, 'mission reports' on the state of this big city, home to one of the biggest and most important Christian communities in Syria.
Aleppines are resigned to seeing their city cut in two, he writes, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in the areas considered “safe”. Their unstoppable flow continues. Every day one can see small trucks crammed with people, furniture and mattresses, moving through the streets, in search of shelter. Still, a semblance of “normal” life goes on in the city, split in two between loyalists and rebels.
People have become accustomed to the deafening noise of gunfire and shelling, as well as to the sound of military aircraft flying over the city. But every burst of shelling heralds more violence in a city where a special security code regulates driving. Some streets have become sniper alleys; in others, people play Russian roulette with their life, haunted by car bombs that can explode at anytime and anywhere, but more so at rush hour near militarily sensitive points.
The Asia News story stated that wealthy residents are always in danger of abduction. In our doctor's letter, kidnappings are a tale of daily occurrence as armed groups seek ways to finance their struggle or thugs take advantage of the chaos to fill up their pockets.
Allepines have still access to drinking water and electricity but they are rationed: two to four hours a day. Mobile phones and the Internet still work but are frequently cut without notice. The same goes for fixed telephone lines.
In areas deemed safe, traffic jams are a nightmare. However, war and fighting have limited the scope of movements. Sometimes, people walk home forced by local militias.
“I saw,” the doctor said, “young people carry elderly parents or grandparents on their back up to Sheikh Maksoud,” a mostly Kurdish district.
During the day, stalls and street vendors fill the sidewalks, with everything on sale for survival. Poverty is clearly on the rise and more and more beggars walk the streets.
“Aleppo becomes a ghost town as soon as the sun begins to set. Streets are empty as people lock themselves in their homes until the next morning, without much to do other watch TV or listen to the radio,” the Christian Syrian doctor says as he ends his letter.
It is unclear whether this “letter from Aleppo” is an appeal for help or a sign of hope. Undoubtedly, it is both since “life goes on” despite everything, and the people of Aleppo, Christians and Muslims, are not yet at a point of desperation. However, their new war routine is anything but normal.
Although Syrian Christians support their compatriots, their suffering is more specific since their existence is more fragile and under threat than that of Muslims.
Photo captions: 1) A father rescues two of his children from the devastation. 2) Escaping the bombing. 3) Dan Wooding.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 74, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He has traveled widely in the Middle East to report on the situation for ANS.