'She said look up ... I saw a Mig jet coming straight for us'
SYRIAN BEAN farmer Yusuf Shahood Danon sat on a carpet with his two young sons, amid the rubble and ruins of his family home, shaded by the only wall left standing.
Three weeks ago, a jet took off from the nearby Minakh Airbase, under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and used its rockets to wipe out Yusuf’s entire district of al-Sad, a middle-class area of Azaz. It is a medieval city close to the Syrian-Turkish border, and for the past six weeks, it has been under the control of the Free Syrian Army.
The city has become an important staging post on the trail leading to refugee camps inside Turkey and for taking supplies and recruits arriving from across the border in the other direction towards the front line. Having failed to hold on to Azaz, the Assad regime is now attempting to dislodge the FSA by terrorising the local civilian population.
“It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, everything was quiet, there were no fighters around. I was up on the roof with my wife fixing the water tank, when she told me to look up. I saw a Mig jet coming straight for us, then there was a huge flash and the earth trembled. The next thing I knew, we were tumbling through the rubble,” he says.
To make matters worse, the family farm is situated right next to the Minakh airbase and therefore unreachable. “Snipers cover every direction for 2km and anyone who approaches is shot on sight. We’ve been left with no option but to let the crops dry out and perish,” he says. “First the airbase took our livelihood, then they sent a plane to take our home. Where will we live now? What will we eat? Have you ever seen a dictator as evil as Bashar?”
Like Londoners during the Blitz, the population here is being subjected to a constant and arbitrary campaign of air strikes by Assad’s warplanes. The towns targeted are those located in a tiny slice of the country north of Aleppo which has wrested itself free of the regime and is currently governed by the FSA. But the victims are civilians like Yusuf, as the regime’s planes aim for residential areas with almost no strategic military value, in flagrant violation of the UN Charter and article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
Employing tactics rarely seen since the second World War, Assad’s forces often follow up the bombings with a practice known as strafing: low-flying aircraft swoop in and attack with machine gun fire buildings where residents have sought refuge.
The campaign is particularly fierce in areas at the edge of the FSA’s sphere of influence, such as the town of al-Bab, on the northeastern outskirts of Aleppo, where activists say between 19 and 25 people were killed by a single strike last week. Local residents claim this town is targeted on a daily basis because of the high number of demonstrations that took place against Assad.
Many civilians have spent months fleeing from town to town, attempting to keep ahead of the bombers. Abu Naser, a teacher originally from a village near the Minakh airbase, fled with 20 members of his family to Aleppo six months ago, after their home was attacked. They remained there for five months but, once the regime’s assault on Syria’s wealthiest city got under way, it was time to move again.
“We were living under a constant air raid. From 8pm to 5am every night the bombs would fall. It was only a matter of time for us, so I gathered my family and took them to Tall Rif’at,” a few kilometres south of Azaz, says Abu Naser. But, as his wife is heavily pregnant, he couldn’t stay there either.
“The bombs still fell on a daily basis. We needed somewhere safe for my daughter to be born,” he says. “We went to the best place we could think of – Azaz.” The teacher and his family are now installed in a hastily converted Azaz school where a classroom serves as the kitchen/bathroom, and the headmaster’s office is their bedroom.
While suffering relatively fewer attacks, Azaz is no safe haven. The lives of Yusuf Shahood Danon and his wife may have been spared, but the rocket attack that destroyed his community also took the lives of 27 members of his extended family. It ripped through 41 homes, killing a total of 46 people and injuring over 100 more.
“I lost brothers, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. Our children are buried under that rubble,” Yusuf says, pointing to a huge mound of bright white bricks, occasionally punctuated by loose cables and personal effects. There are handbags and suitcases, even a wardrobe, among the ruins of what had been until recently family homes.
The blasts were so intense the destruction could have been more devastating, but for the fortifications of nearby Azaz Castle, which absorbed some of the impact, according to the local relief centre. “But this is not an isolated occurrence. Here in Azaz we get bombed or attacked by rockets almost every second day,” says Ahmed Karkouby, the centre’s director.
Yusuf and his wife have now been forced to move into his mother’s single-room apartment, while his two sons stay with a surviving uncle. But on this day, like every other since the bombing, Yusuf and the other remaining Shahood Danons have returned to their district to keep vigil.
“Assad will not move us,” he says, “even if we have to pitch a tent and live in it, we will remain here, where we belong.”