BEIRUT: The past 48 hours have been living hell for Aleppo. Forces of Bashar al-Assad's regime and allied militias, backed by a vicious Russian bombing campaign, are not only closing in on the last remaining districts of east Aleppo, but have been also involved in mass murder. The United Nations recorded at least 82 field executions where regime forces entered homes and shot civilians "on the spot." Local residents and journalists said that four women and nine children were set on fire by regime forces on al-Firdous Street while an estimated 17 executions took place in al-Kalaseh and 22 in Bustan al-Qasr.
Another 500 men have been separated from their families and rounded up by the Assad regime into forced conscription, illegal detention and torture and likely execution, according to international media outlets that have reported on the disappearance of civilians in Aleppo. In some messages, women have been saying they would prefer that their husbands kill them than to be captured and raped by the regime-allied militias, with some initial reports of female suicides.
"We have no more places left to run in Aleppo. It is not safe to flee rebel-held area into regime-controlled territory- it is walking straight into your death sentence," one of the civilians struggling to find a way out told Annahar.
Those who have crossed over into West Aleppo city, seeking safety, have either been detained or executed, according to local journalists whose claims are consistent with the hundreds of disappearances documented by the UN.
Simply put, evacuation to regime territory is not an option. The only safe alternative is the evacuation of civilians to opposition-held territory, such as western Aleppo countryside or Idlib.
Special assurances need also to be made for local journalists (including many who have been blacklisted by the regime), doctors, medics, and the rescue workers of the Civil Defense- known as the White Helmets- who arrived in the aftermath of Russian bombings to pull children, women and men out of the rubble.
Since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, and well before, the regime has specifically targeted journalists as explained in an interview with MENA senior associate of the Committee to Protect Journalists John Stern. "When you think now about brutality and the spectacle of violence committed against journalists, you often think about ISIS. But they're not the originators of these kinds of tactics; it was the government," Stern says.
Journalists are not the only ones blacklisted as "terrorists"; so are Aleppo's life-saving doctors, who have risked everything to remain in the rebel-held part of the city to care for the wounded and those suffering horrifying burns and respiratory problems from chlorine gas attacks and white phosphorus chemical weapons. These journalists who have intentionally stayed inside the hell-zones of the country's worst atrocities, deserve at the very least to be protected as they have risked their lives to show the outside world the on-the-ground realities through visual and video-reporting, while medics have previously refused to leave hospitals in areas under fire choosing instead, with limited supplies and medications, to tend to the increasing numbers of victims.
Speaking from inside besieged east Aleppo, a Syrian lawyer said: "As a lawyer for 14 years who has been working as a human right activist, the Syrian regime considers me a 'terrorist,' and not only me but my colleagues, doctors and even the midwives, they are all considered terrorists by the regime."
In a call by civil society activists for immediate safe passage for civilians, they reinforced the need to protect journalists, doctors and aid workers who face serious risk of detention, torture and death. The global petition from Avaaz reads: "Anyone who has spoken out against the regime, or documented their crimes, especially internationally, are particularly targeted. People have been wrongly labeled as terrorists and legitimized as targets ‐ on principles such as freedom of speech."
While initial reports of a ceasefire agreed between the Russian and Turkish intelligence and rebel factions are arising, civilians, doctors, and journalists are wary of the Russian initiative and calling for guarantees.
"Russia does not want us to go out alive. They want us dead. Assad is the same," a local resident said in a video post on Facebook.
International activists have prepared lists of medics, journalists, and aid workers with their names protected by stored pseudonym ID numbers, only to be released to vetted officials that are assured to carry out safe and trustworthy evacuation plan.
If the past five years have taught us anything, it is that Moscow has consistently spread misinformation campaigns while its military and the Assad Regime's forces, perpetrators of war crimes against humanity, cannot be trusted with the lives of civilians. "Safe routes" have never been "safe" before, and the thousands of tortured, detained, disappeared and murdered Syrians is testament to the need to protect them now.
The UN, International Committee for the Red Cross and humanitarian aid organizations ought to monitor a credible ceasefire that allows for the safe passage of civilians to other rebel-held zones. However, should an evacuation occur, it is not a scenario to celebrate. Rather, it is a forced displacement that may only see Russia and regime forces continue their "siege-and-starve" and bombard and murder tactics in other opposition-held areas, as further armed and empowered with impunity for their war crimes. If the West and international community prolong their inaction, it will deliver the green light for further slaughter across Syria.
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