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13 December 2016

Trapped inside, defending what is left of life in Aleppo

Human rights defenders in Aleppo are at grave risk of detention, torture and murder as civilians continue to flee the shelling in eastern Aleppo, Front Line Defenders stated on Tuesday.

Weeks into an offensive led by the Syrian regime and backed by bombardment from Russian aircraft, more than 80,000 people have fled their homes. Tens of thousands more remain trapped inside as regime forces close in on the few remaining opposition-held areas of the city.

On Monday night, human rights defenders still inside Aleppo reported that pro-Syrian regime forces (the Syrian army as well as armed militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan) were entering homes and murdering families. Hours later, the UN human rights office reported the murders of at least 82 civilians during regime raids. Photos, sent to Front Line Defenders from activists still committed to documenting the atrocities, show numerous bodies in the streets.

“We are talking, we are shouting, we are sending videos. Not because it will change things, but because if we just shut up, the regime will kill people in silence.” - human rights defender, east Aleppo

Through the night and into Tuesday morning, human rights defenders filmed, documented, texted, and posted audio recordings of the ongoing bombardment. They continue to report on human rights violations despite indications that their activism puts them at an increase risk of being recognised, detained, tortured, or killed if and when they are able to leave the area.

Four trapped aid groups including the White Helmets civil defence organisation appealed to “the international community” to arrange safe passage for 100,000 civilians across a 4 kilometer stretch of government-held territory. The Red Cross has prepared to help with evacuations if an agreement can be reached, urging civilians be protected “before it is too late.” But leaving the rebel-held areas has proven as dangerous as staying. Civilians who survive the shelling have been detained, tortured, and conscripted by Syrian forces in attempts to escape. Hundreds of men from eastern Aleppo went “missing” after crossing into regime territory on Friday, according to the UN human rights office.

Human rights defenders say that regardless of a safe passage deal, even an evacuation from Aleppo does not guarantee safety. Activists, journalists, medics, and first responders have all become well-known faces, and, like many civilians across east Aleppo, fear they will be tortured and killed if and when they move to a regime-held area. Furthermore, the failure of the US and Western governments to secure previous ceasefires and evacuations with guarantees have left many wary of any so-called ‘agreement’ or ‘evacuation’.

For six years, Syrian HRDs have provided the most insightful, critical accounts of the war and human rights violations happening in the country – often at great personal risk. They have been detained, tortured, disappeared, and killed for their work. Today, medics are conducting surgeries on cement floors despite clear evidence that hospitals have become targets. Journalists are still giving broadcast interviews knowing that every public appearance increases the odds they will be recognised and tortured if they try to flee.

The United Nations, external aid organisations, international rights groups, and foreign correspondents at all major news networks depend entirely on the human rights defenders inside to provide credible accounts of the violations being perpetrated.

Front Line Defenders continues to maintain communication with HRDs in Syria in an attempt to remain a platform for their voices.

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