Aid workers warn of largest refugee flow of the entire war.
KILIS, Turkey – Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled rebel-held parts of the city of Aleppo in recent weeks under heavy aerial bombardment by the Syrian government, emptying whole neighborhoods and creating what aid workers say is one of the largest refugee flows of the entire civil war.
The displaced, as many as 500,000 to date, the United Nations says, have flooded the countryside, swelling populations in war-battered communities that are already short on space and food and pushing a new wave of refugees into Turkey, where in interviews many have described a harrowing journey that left them in desperate condition, broke, hungry and, in many cases, sick or wounded.
Much of the human tide flowing out of northern Syria has crashed on this once-sleepy border town where Syrians now nearly outnumber the original 90,000 Turkish inhabitants.
Its sidewalks are covered with destitute Syrians hawking cookies, coffee and cigarettes, and rents have skyrocketed as Syrian families have crowded into apartments. Ambulances regularly scream through town, ferrying war victims to the city’s overburdened medical facilities.
The pounding of Aleppo has accelerated in recent weeks, even as international talks aimed at ending the war have stalled and as the Obama administration has begun reviewing its Syria policy to find new ways to pressure the government of President Bashar Assad.
While the United States explores potential new strategies, analysts say, Assad is forging ahead with his own: pounding civilians out of rebel-held districts or using military means to make life miserable for those left inside.
The U.N. human rights agency warned last week of what it called “a pattern” of government attacks that violate the laws of war, but the strategy appears to be working for Assad, draining the power of rebels near Damascus and allowing his forces to advance near Aleppo.
Driving much of the exodus is the government’s heavy use of barrel bombs, large containers filled with explosives and metal shards that explode on impact, maiming and killing people within a large radius, collapsing buildings and often leaving bodies buried in the rubble.
‘We don’t know anyone here’
“A barrel came down on our neighbor’s house and mixed up the people with the bricks,” said Mustafa Toameh, 43, sitting on the floor of the bus station in this Turkish border town, where he had spent the previous two nights. Surrounding him were 10 members of his extended family he had smuggled out of Syria and a few grain sacks full of hastily gathered belongings.
“We don’t know anyone here, and if we had someplace to go, we would,” he said.
While Aleppo has taken the worst of it, Syrian helicopters have also dropped barrel bombs on Yabroud, an opposition town near Damascus, pushing thousands of refugees into Lebanon. But the bulk of the new refugees are coming to Turkey, pressuring strained medical and social services.
In recent weeks, emergency cases at the main hospital in Kilis have surged to between 20 and 30 per day, said Dr. Mehmet Beyazit, a supervising physician. While some patients are rebel fighters wounded in clashes with Islamic extremists, the vast majority are civilians wounded by barrel bombs. After initial treatments, patients are transferred to clinics elsewhere in town that are dedicated to the war wounded.
On a recent afternoon, the doctors in one clinic grimaced as a 12-year-old boy who had lost his leg to a barrel bomb screamed while having the dressing changed on his stump.
“He was at the vegetable market when a barrel came down and took off his leg,” said the boy’s grandmother, Fatima Abtini.
‘We rushed for the border’
At the time, the family had been debating whether it had become too dangerous to remain in the city, she said. “We kept saying, ‘We’ll go tomorrow’ and organizing ourselves, but then the barrel came and we rushed for the border,” she said.