Aleppo’s survivors face a grim, uncertain future

World

HARI SREENIVASAN: When the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war in 2012, the country's largest city, Aleppo, became a bastion for the rebel forces that opposed the Syrian regime.

After months of Russian airstrikes, last week, the Syrian government declared the entire city to be within their control. As Aleppo fell, civilians and rebels were escorted out in a historic evacuation.

Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and videographer Alessandro Pavone traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border to meet those who escaped.

A warning: Some of the images are disturbing.

JANE FERGUSON: These are the survivors of eastern Aleppo, battered by years of war and months of unremitting airstrikes. The lucky ones who lived through the siege come here to Turkey for medical treatment.

Shrapnel from an airstrike smashed into Ahmad's tiny four-year-old body.

His father says that his brother was killed in the same air raid, and that he has had his leg very badly damaged.

Mohanned cradles a severely wounded hand. He is just 17, and says he too was injured by bombs dropping from the sky.

MOHANNED, Injured in Aleppo (through translator): In 11 days, they will do another operation on me, and, God willing, when it is finished, I will go back.

JANE FERGUSON: Outside a Turkish hospital by the border with Syria, the wounded gather.

Two months ago, she says that she was hit with an airstrike, so she has only just now managed to get out to Turkey for treatment. They came here after fleeing Aleppo city, the last major bastion of revolution and revolt against Bashar al-Assad's rule in Syria.

Government forces defeated the city's remaining pockets of resistance last Friday, after a siege and aerial bombing campaign by Russian and Syrian warplanes; 35,000 people, including the remaining fighters and civilians, were evacuated in the last two weeks, after tense negotiations.

They joined hundreds of thousands already displaced to other rebel-controlled areas outside the city. A convoy of buses leaving the shattered city became a symbol of the rebels' defeat. It was a somber exodus of people who once came close to overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.

One of those who held out to the end was Salah Ashkar, an activist from Aleppo. He spent the final days of the bombardment documenting it on social media, and begging the outside world for help. He fled to Turkey just days ago, still haunted by what he saw in Aleppo.

SALAH ASHKAR, Activist from Aleppo (through translator): Death was following us during the last days we spent in Aleppo. The amount of airstrikes we had there, I don't think has been seen anywhere in the world, or the types of bombs they dropped on us. The Russian airplanes were constantly in the air, never leaving.

JANE FERGUSON: But, he says, help never came.

SALAH ASHKAR (through translator): The people of Aleppo lost their faith in countries that supported the revolution. Everyone just watched them dying. They watched Aleppo say goodbye to its people. No one helped us, without exception, not America, not France, not Turkey. They just watched.

JANE FERGUSON: For Salah, the revolution is now over. A man wanted by the Syrian regime, if he returns to Aleppo, he risks arrest, torture and execution.

SALAH ASHKAR (through translator): I think I should search for a safe place where I can be free, I can live my life and express my opinion freely. I am searching for a new place to continue my studies. I cannot go back while Assad is in power.

JANE FERGUSON: Neither can anyone who fought with the rebels. On the outskirts of the Turkish city of Antakya, just across the mountains from Syria, we met with these two men hiding in an apartment after fleeing across the border two weeks ago. Cousins who fought together in Aleppo, they were just teenage boys when they joined the rebels more than five years ago.

Now they are broken men. There is no room for bravado here. They have lost the will to fight any longer.

MAN (through translator): Always there were airstrikes. They controlled the whole situation there. There was no point in fighting against them. It is finished. I felt like there is no point staying there. We could not fight airstrikes with rifles.

JANE FERGUSON: They have little hope for the people who fled rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

MAN (through translator): They are homeless, without a future. If they want to work, they will be beggars. They will live in the street, and have no future. Some lost their sons, others, daughters and wives. For them, there is no meaning to life. It is better to die.

JANE FERGUSON: Despite the dangers, others are still inside Syria, helping the people who have run from the government's advance. In an environment too dangerous for most foreign aid workers, it is often Syrians themselves risking their lives to help their fellow citizens.

U.S.-based Mercy Corps provides food and supplies to many in rebel-held areas. They are only able to do this with the help of those who stayed.

CASEY HARRITY, Mercy Corps: It's incredibly risky. I think it is impossible to understate the risks that our Syrian colleagues and Syrian NGOs are taking to make sure that people have the services that they need. They are on the front lines of a conflict that has not abated and they are risking their lives every day to make sure that these services reach the people that need them.

JANE FERGUSON: Back at the hospital in Turkey, Mehmet Alver, a pharmacist living nearby, helps those who come for treatment. He has been overwhelmed by the huge numbers running away from the bombardment in Aleppo.

MEHMET ALVER, Pharmacist (through translator): I am a human being. I have children. I have a heart. Look at the situation there. I cannot stay in my house just watching. I cannot do that. This war happening next to me, I cannot close my eyes or close my ears or keep silent. Tomorrow or in the future, that might happen to me.

JANE FERGUSON: After being bandaged and stitched back together, these people can't stay here, and must now return to Syria. Most of them will have to stay in refugee camps, now that they have lost their homes in Aleppo city.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson on the Turkey-Syria border.

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