22 Jul 2013

Aleppo: how Syrians risk their lives to cross the divide

Crossing the line between the government-held west and the rebel-held east can prove fatal. But the people of Aleppo need to cross for basic food supplies – and they are refusing to be divided.

For the last 12 months, the city of Aleppo has been cut in two by civil war.

Government forces control around a third of the west of the city, while the remainder is in rebel hands – and neither side want civilians to pass from one part of the city to the other.

The Garage al-Hajz checkpoint in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo is the only crossing point in the city between the two sides. It is Aleppo’s no man’s land.

However 10,000 people make the perilous crossing each day. Most of them are coming from the area controlled by the Assad regime.

If you are not on their side, they (jihadi rebels) will kill you – Aleppan woman

Channel 4 News has spent weeks gathering material and can show a rare glimpse into the lives of those living on the Assad-controlled part of Aleppo – and how they survive.

Those who make the crossing are coming to shop for basic commodities: the regime areas have been besieged and cut off from the world by rebel forces for the past 12 months.

Food is scarce; inflation is rocketing – and the people are desperate.

Syrian government snipers are watching them as they cross, and the foreign jihadis who man the checkppoint fire back.

A short walk can suddenly turn fatal. They are risking their lives to go shopping.

Rebels crack down

The jihadi brigade – which is linked to al-Qaeda – tolerates civilians crossing from the government side, but is not so forgiving when it comes to supplies potentially reaching its enemies.

“We banned people from taking food to Assad’s gang on the other side eight months ago,” said one jihadi rebel fighter. “Here it is ‘each man for himself’. They want to smuggle petrol and fuel to the other side in order to make money.”

We banned people from taking food to Assad’s gang on the other side eight months ago. They want to smuggle petrol…to the other sideRebel fighter

In a video seen by Channel 4 News, the rebel fighter then stops a man wheeling something wrapped up in bin bags on a trolley.

“Take this one,” he says. “He is taking all this to the Assad gang areas. Could you come over here? We need this stuff.”

The Syrian opens the bin bags to reveal meat.

“We have an order from the court that banned even one kilo of meat being taken across to the other side,” the jihadi fighter adds.

Read more: Why Syria’s conflict is turning from a just war, to a cold war

‘Is Bashar making you hungry?’

Sometimes, they treat civilians with contempt.

In the same video clip, a television suddenly comes under suspicion. The contraband includes a bag of tomatoes, potatoes, some lettuce, a honeydew melon – and a bag of fresh parsley.

The fighter asks: “All of this because Bashar is making you hungry? Are you liberating your country? Do you love Bashar?”

The man wheeling the television looks dejected and says it is food for himself. When asked, “is Bashar making you hungry?” he replies: “Yes”.

It is the accumulation of humiliating incidents like this that is making many Aleppans grow unhappy with the rebels now controlling much of the city, which, until a mass-exodus of those displaced by the fighting, was home to more than two million people.

“They (the rebels) think the people in the government side of the city support them. But this is not true,” one woman tells a reporter.

“If you are not on their side, they will kill you. My mum is very ill in hospital, suffering from cancer. I just need a bit of bread for my breakfast, that’s why I’ve come here. Just give us some bread to eat!”

Watch again: The horror in Homs

Protests grow

At the start of July the number of people travelling to the Garage al-Hajz crossing increased. Video footage shows them waiting for the best moment to enter the danger zone with their shopping.

But in a city dominated by anti-regime demonstrations, there is a new phenomenon: civilian protests against their new rulers – the jihadi rebels.

On 13 July the citizens held a demonstration – extraordinarily – to protest against the rebels’ behaviour.

As the tension escalated, the crowd started to accuse the jihadi brigade at the checkpoint of being no better than the pro-Assad Shabiha militia.

“You cannot humiliate the Syrian people!” they chanted.

“You’re all the same! The same thieves!”

“Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!”

This city has seen 12 months of war. Its heart is still beating – just. And it is through the artery of the Garage al-Hajz checkpoint that its life-blood still flows.