Skeleton population lingers as Syrian regime punishes the city of Azaz

At night there is a self-imposed curfew among residents, terrified of being targeted by jets

Yousef (13), whose father is a fighter. Photograph: Caelainn Hogan

Yousef (13), whose father is a fighter. Photograph: Caelainn Hogan

 

“The shelling comes especially at night, sometimes every day and every night,” says Abdo Rahim, a father of three, surrounded by his family in their home in the opposition-controlled Syrian city of Azaz, where the almost daily attacks by Assad’s air force have reduced nearby neighbourhoods to rubble.

Along the road from the nearby Turkish border, a large school building lies abandoned at the entrance to the city, its walls crumbling, bombarded by aerial shelling. “Damascus we are coming” is spray-painted on the walls surrounding the school. A lone yellow taxi drifts through the streets.

Ghost town
Azaz resembles a ghost town, emptied of the majority of its 70,000 residents, with as few as 10,000 remaining. In the wake of each attack, more families flee for nearby towns or the Turkish border.

Families that could afford to go left the town for Turkey when the attacks began last February, but others like Rahim’s family stayed, relying on faith.

“We believe in God. If we’re going to die we will,” says Rahim. He explains that at night there is a self-imposed curfew among residents, terrified of being targeted by unseen jets.

For the children, the air raids have become routine. Just the night before there was aerial shelling on the outskirts, and Rahim’s four-year-old niece asked to go to the roof to watch .

His 11-year-old daughter proudly holds up an empty, gleaming tank shell almost as big as she is. Now a toy for the children, the shell was taken from a defeated government during the vicious battle to liberate Azaz 10 months ago.

In the centre of Azaz city, famed for its olives and cherries, shop shutters are punctured with bullet holes and a plastic sign hangs above what is now known as Martyr’s Square.

A silver Toyota pick-up with a mounted machine gun in the back speeds through, past the new town court overseen by the Revolutionary Council.

“The first jet came to Azaz 10 months ago,” says Rahim, who remembers the sound of the first missile reverberating through the town on February 6th. Everyone immediately rushed to the schools to take their children home and the schools have been closed since.

Heaps of debris stand in the place of neighbours’ houses, iron cables protruding from collapsed floors. Three months ago, 18 people were killed here after a jet attack.


Revenge attacks
The attacks in Azaz have led to mostly civilian fatalities, while the local Free Syrian Army headquarters and prison have remained unscathed. Locals say the attacks are punishment by the regime for their support for the opposition.

Two plumes clouded the sky, from fires at Minakh airbase 30km away. where the Free Syrian Army and government forces are fighting for control.

“Minakh airport is very important for the regime: it is the last point in the north,” explains Najam Eddin, Rahim’s brother, a leader with the North Storm Brigade co-ordinating the attack. He said he was confident the airbase would fall to the opposition in a matter of days, liberating the north countryside of Aleppo.