There was nothing new in it – the Syrian government was again sending intimidating text messages, there were loudspeaker announcements and leaflets were being dropped in the days building up to it. But there was something more sinister in this latest chapter of psychological warfare.
The boast of an all-out assault felt more confident, more chilling for many in besieged Aleppo. Living under siege, they were already surviving on crumbs and facing a reduced number of attacks in the three weeks building up to the offensive.
Some of the leaflets read: “This is your last hope … Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated.” They ended by saying: “You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help”.
And then it began.
A relentless campaign of air raids, followed by helicopters dropping crude barrel bombs – just above the range of the rebels’ most powerful guns. And when they stopped, a barrage of artillery shells followed. Social media was flooded with crying fathers, scared children, helpless mothers – the sanitised version of the horrible reality of dozens of bodies being collected in pieces.
The strategy was simple: Use the blunt end of brute force at the most vulnerable choke points. It’s effective, especially when the objective is territorial gain regardless of civilian casualties.
From the start, the videos shared by activists and the White Helmets made it clear that it was a bloodbath where nothing and no one was safe.
The global silence was felt by the people after videos of children being pulled from the rubble, the lifeless infants being carried to shallow graves by only the closest members of the family (because funerals attract air strikes as well), were shared.
For the first few days there was no reaction from the world. And then the second phase kicked in.
The bombardment wasn’t limited to the frontlines. The next target were those trying to maintain a semblance of life under siege – medics and rescuers. One after another the hospitals were taken out, ambulance and white helmets centres were hit. A calculated assault to kill their hope.
United Nations humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien put it best: “The tactics are as obvious as they are unconscionable. Make life intolerable; make death likely. Push people from starvation to despair to surrender. Push people to leave on green buses.”
Yet the most powerful, the most rich and the most influential could not stop the killing of civilians that we have watched in slow motion, unfolding in front of us.
The people of Aleppo see us as the audience of a medieval amphitheatre, watching the blood and gore as spectators – some in disgust while some cheer on.
And many of them starkly warn that this silence will come back to haunt us. A Syrian turned to me and asked, “Is it judgment day yet?” Surely the apocalypse can’t be worse. How do you respond to a father who lost his home and shop other than to offer a hollow reassurance?
It’s been five years since I started covering the conflict. Talking to activists, rebels, self-declared intellectuals and civilians has become second nature.
But it was the first time that their everlasting flame of hope felt as if it were flickering. And then Hanano fell, a neighbourhood which had stood against the government since 2012.
Some former residents of Aleppo, now far from the city, couldn’t hide their pain.
They shared videos from four years ago of the chanting children, the marching youth, who were all punished for opposing their ruler. Even those fleeing the onslaught were not spared.
Two days of attacks on a road linking besieged neighbourhoods killed more than 96 people – bodies strewn across the streets with belongings on their backs. Aleppo was seen as the heart of the revolution – an alternative capital to Damascus – the place that constantly fought with the regime, ISIL and al-Nusra Front simultaneously – the last remaining beacon of a peaceful revolt which turned into a bloody battle.
It’s easy to talk about the millions displaced, the thousands made into refugees, the half a million dead.
But it’s hard to look into a little girl’s eyes who has lost a leg and a brother and tell her it will be okay. To meet a brave, smiling five-year-old who lost her vision to a sniper’s bullet. To stare into the eyes of a man who lost his family and both his legs. To meet doctors and engineers and students and barbers and lawyers who live in perpetual limbo of the shadow of a war which has no end in sight.
But then you meet the bright young men and women still pursuing their careers, still swooning over the beauty of their neighbourhoods, still romanticising the idea of people power, still hopeful for a future of opportunities to rebuild and start over again.
Aleppo may have all but fallen but the past five years of interacting with resilient Syrians has made one reality very clear – their unwavering refusal to give up.