Under The Shadow Of Jets, A Syrian Town Presses On

Syrian air force jets bombed the rebel-held town of Al-Bab in northern Syria Monday, killing at least 18 people, according to Syrian activists.

Over the summer, the rebels gained control of a number of towns and villages along the Syrian-Turkish border. Now, those places are being bombarded from the air and from the ground by government forces.

Azaz, in northern Syria’s Aleppo province, is one of these places. There, the tombstones in the old section of the town’s cemetery are laid out in neat rows.

But in the new section, where the graves are fresh, the tombstones are pieces of stone; the names are handwritten.

Death is a daily event now. A dozen new graves have been dug in anticipation of more funerals.

A Premature Celebration?

Just a month ago, Azaz was celebrating after lightly armed rebels drove out troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Abu Ibrahim, a school administrator, says he rushed back when he heard Azaz had been liberated.

“We were very happy, maybe we didn’t celebrate properly because also financially, it’s difficult to celebrate now, but we were very, very happy,” he says.

Now, the residents of Azaz live with nightly shelling. Army troops still control a military airport eight miles away and regularly fire artillery shells into the heart of the city.

Abu Ibrahim says a rocket fired from the military airport burst through a wall of his house. His panicked family packed up and left.

“My mother was here and I took her away because this area is being targeted and I told her, ‘Don’t come back here anymore because it is dangerous,'” he says.

Over the past month, many have fled — reducing a town of 70,000 to a ghost town of 10,000 people. Abu Ibrahim says the town has gone back 50 years. Electricity is off, the phones are down, and the Internet has stopped working. Most streets bear the scars of the shelling.

The biggest exodus came on Aug. 14, when the Syrian air force dropped two bombs in a residential district in Azaz, killing more than 60 people.

The bomb site remains as it was the day of the explosion, when people frantically dug survivors out of flattened houses.

Paying A High Price

Um Fuad, a young mother with three children, was injured on the day of the airstrikes. She has moved in with her parents, who live in a large house with a basement, for protection. Her sons say they are not afraid, but her daughter, Leen, doesn’t like the planes.

“I’m afraid both from artillery fire and when I hear the airplane,” she says.

The six-year-old can tell the difference between the two.

At the city hospital, Dr. Ammar, the only doctor still working in Azaz, says he’s seen 50 cases of traumatized children.

“Many parents come to me and say, doctor, I don’t know what’s happened, she became pale and lost conscious, or that a child is not eating,” he says. “It’s fear, anxiety, cases of emotional trauma with kids.”

Ammar and his assistant, Enis, have stayed in Azaz to treat wounded rebels and civilians. The other doctors have all fled to Turkey. Enis has videos on his phone of the large protests staged in Azaz when government forces finally fled.

He chanted with the crowd that day and repeats his performance for a visitor: “The free one will not die, death is better than a bitter life,” he sings.

Azaz has paid a high price, and no one in the town believes that they are really free yet.

Ammar is the bitter one. Without any international help, there will be another exodus of refugees soon, he says, joining the thousands that have already fled to Turkey.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.