Since September 30, 2015, Russia has been carrying out air strikes in Syria in support of its ally President Bashar al-Assad. The campaign has been relentless and growing in intensity, with Russian jets flying 444 combat sorties against more than 1,500 targets between February 10 and 16 alone.
Moscow insists these attacks have been aimed only at fighters from ISIL and other “terrorist groups” such as al-Nusra Front. But monitoring groups, including the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, say thousands of non-combatants have also been killed or wounded.
Amnesty International and others have said the bombings may be war crimes. Indeed, Amnesty has also cited consistent reports of second bombardments from planes returning to kill and injure rescue workers, paramedics and civilians attempting to evacuate the wounded and the dead from earlier raids.
So are civilians being deliberately targeted – and could Russia be guilty as charged?
In this exclusive report for People & Power, Danish-born filmmaker and journalist Nagieb Khaja went to investigate. His remarkable film, shot in Aleppo, Idlib and other rebel-held areas of Syria at the end of last year, is a harrowing, tense and at times breathtaking portrayal of life underneath the Kremlin’s bombs. Viewers may find some of the images disturbing.
Editor’s note: Russia and the US announced a ceasefire in Syria from February 26. However, air strikes against ISIL and al-Nusra were excluded from the deal. On March 14, President Vladimir Putin announced to pull out Russia’s main forces from Syria.
By Nagieb Khaja
“Where are the terrorists?” the rescue worker, Abu Rahmo, asks while he shows me around a district in Aleppo that was levelled by Russian bombs.
Abu Rahmo is wearing a blue vest and a cap with the logo of the English Premier League club, Liverpool FC. He jokes a lot, and at first it’s difficult to understand how a man who sees death and destruction every day can smile like he does. But maybe this is the only way to survive doing his job.
“Russia says they are fighting Daesh [Islamic State], but Daesh has not been in our city for two years. There was not even any Free Syrian Army here,” he says. “There were only civilians living here.”
I can see no sign that were any military forces here. There is no military equipment. And strewn among the rubble of the houses, there are children’s toys and kitchenware – the ordinary stuff of everyday life.
I spent three weeks in North West Syria, filming for Under Russia’s Fist, and everywhere I went I saw evidence of civilian casualties: schools and houses and marketplaces that had been destroyed by Russian bombs.
In Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, people still go to work, send their children to school, and eat in the many restaurants lining the streets, but at any minute they could be killed by the seemingly arbitrary Russian and Syrian regime strikes. I filmed what appeared to be Russian warplanes flying over the city. I heard the explosions of the bombs hitting the ground close by, and I filmed the huge columns of smoke rising from the impacts.
I embedded for a day with Syrian Civil Defence Force rescue workers as they rushed to the places where the bombs had hit, and found civilian neighbourhoods full of smoke and dust, and homes reduced to rubble. I filmed as these volunteers, better known as the White Helmets, rushed from one attack to the next. And this was on what they told me was a quiet day – when only one person was killed in their section of the city.
I did not see any rebel fighters in these places that were hit. Of course, there are rebels – from many groups with differing agendas – in Aleppo. However, the major concentrations of rebel troops are on the front lines outside the city, far away from the civilian areas that I saw being hit.
Thousands or civilians have already fled. Those still remaining have decided that they either cannot or will not leave the city. Some have decided it is better to stay in their own homes rather than become refugees. Other are simply too weak or poor to flee. And then there are others who did flee, but after experiencing life as second-class citizens in neighbouring Turkey, decided it was better to return to their homes.
Abu Rahmo stays out of defiance and determination to resist the regime by saving people from the bombs. Two of his kids were killed by regime attacks, and now he has made it his own mission to save other people’s children.
As he shows me around we hear planes overhead. “Harbi Russi – Russian airplanes,” comes the warning voice from his radio receiver.
“Everybody can see the difference between Syrian and regime airplanes,” he tells me. “We have been bombed so many times that even our children can see the differences between the airplanes that are attacking us.”
On a street in the Ferdaus neighbourhood of central Aleppo, a shopkeeper is drinking a cup of coffee on the street when he’s interrupted by a huge blast. A thick cloud of grey and black smoke erupts in the distance, and then slowly dissipates in the evening air.
“Where should we go?” he asks rhetorically. “Should we flee? Leave our country? That will be over my body. There are only civilians here. Just show me one fighter, one militant in this street!”
Human rights groups later reported that 32 civilians were killed by Russian bombs in Aleppo alone on this day. Soon after I left Aleppo, the Russian bombing campaign escalated and regime troops began a major push to encircle and besiege the city. Supply lines of food, fuel and medical equipment for civilians in the city have been cut. The situation in Aleppo is now becoming even worse. Even after five years of constant horror and atrocities, a humanitarian crisis is now unfolding on a scale that has not yet been seen in this war.