x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'I fear Aleppo will turn into Homs'

Elias's biggest fear for his family in Aleppo is that they will be taken hostage.

Syrians walk by a building damaged in a government airstrike in Aleppo.
Syrians walk by a building damaged in a government airstrike in Aleppo.

Elias's biggest fear for his family in Aleppo is that they will be taken hostage.

That was the fate of a UAE-based Syrian friend of his recently when he went back to check on his business. The friend was released only after his family handed the Shabbiha (the pro-Assad militia) Dh250,000.

For female relatives, the overriding danger is rape. "Honour of a girl is the most important thing for us," said Elias, who lives in Dubai. "We would rather a hundred people killed before a girl is kidnapped."

Until recently, the city has been mostly peaceful, with the government firmly in control. But to retain their grip, a month before Ramadan tanks rolled into the city and people started to flee.

Since then the shelling has been relentless. "I fear the city will turn into Homs, they are doing to us now what they did to Homs before."

Most residents are largely without telephones, water and electricity. "Electricity would work for two hours, and then not for 10. Just because it had to be switched on for regime supporters."

And relatives living outside the country are sending money as often as possible - when the exchanges are open - to keep up with inflation.

"Whoever can leave, leaves," he said. "Tens of thousands have left."

The safest option is to go to Turkey's refugee camps, but many people have preferred to move to Aleppo's countryside areas, or to cities in Turkey.

"My [relative] was a businessman, he didn't go to the camps, he went to Turkey. Why would they go somewhere where they would have to wait to get a loaf of bread when they are well off already?" Others in his family have stayed to hang on to their jobs.

Although Elias dreams of the day he can be reunited with his family, get married and go to university, for now he fears he would be captured if he enters the country.

"They want me for the army, so I'd be either killed if I defect, or a killer if I turn on the people," he said.

"But I cannot complain, nothing compares to what is happening to people back home."

* Ola Salem