GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Word that another barrel bomb has crashed into Aleppo comes on a two-way radio. When he gets the news, Mohamed Younes Shasho, a 25-year-old activist in the northern Syrian city, can't help but think about the severed body parts he's likely to find. Then he rushes out to the scene of the blast, riding shotgun in an ambulance donated from Britain as his friend in the driver's seat struggles with the fact that the steering wheel is on the wrong side.
The barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters by government forces, have been pounding Aleppo since December at an unprecedented rate. The numbers can't be verified, but activists from Aleppo say the city has been rocked by the bombs almost daily in recent weeks — sometimes hourly, they say. The attacks have caused mass displacement and, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, hundreds of deaths. Opposition activists and administrators in rebel-held parts of the city say it's the worst devastation they've seen in more than two years of brutal war.
Despite his frequent trips to the blast sites, Shasho is still unnerved by the carnage. His task is to get the wounded to the ambulance, but as he scrambles around the rubble, he makes an effort not to look at the scattered remains.
"I don't want to have these images in my mind," he said, speaking from Aleppo by Facebook chat. "But I need to continue my work, because there are people who need help."
Even amid a civil war that has caused more than 100,000 deaths, the barrel bombs are an especially devastating weapon. They don't take much effort to make, involving little more than stuffing explosives and shards of metal into oil drums and dropping them from the choppers. But the blasts are powerful — often enough to knock a building to the ground. Unverified videos coming out of Aleppo feature mounds of smoking rubble, charred corpses, and screaming survivors.
Yusuf Mousa, an Aleppo-based activist, said the randomness of the bombs makes them all the more terrifying for residents. They are hard to aim, and seemed to fall anywhere at any time. Meeting at a café in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the border, on a short break from Aleppo, he scrolled through Facebook photos showing the bombs' toll: a crumbled apartment building, a split skull. He highlighted one in which a group of pedestrians simply stood on a street corner, gazing up at the sky. Some looked terrified, but others looked casual and resigned. "People look up and just wait for the bombs," Mousa said. "It's not direct. There's no target. It's arbitrary."
Many residents who'd stayed in the city through the preceding chaos, Mousa and other activist and opposition members said, had finally fled. Some crossed into the relative safety of regime-held territory, while others packed into schools and mosques in the countryside. Many of those who remained inside the opposition-held parts of the city, they said, had relocated to the front lines — where they hoped the proximity to government forces would spare them from the barrel bombs.
One Syrian activist based in Gaziantep, who volunteers in humanitarian aid, said she'd seen thousands of Aleppo residents newly massed along the border with Turkey, stuck on the Syrian side as Turkish aid workers scrambled to provide them with food and shelter. "They are there with nothing, on the flat ground," said the activist, Alaa, who asked not to use her last name because she visits Syria regularly. "They are traumatized."
Some 35,000 people are massed at the border, near the Bab al-Salaam crossing, said an official with the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which distributes aid across the border. He said there had been more than 15,000 arrivals within the last week, and that aid workers were working to set up camps on the Syrian side.
Turkey, already hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, has been unable to keep up with the surge of people fleeing Aleppo, which is less than 40 miles from the border. Though some crossed legally into Turkey and found places in government-run camps, activists said that others were coming into the country illegally and could be found sleeping in bus stations and garages, or on the streets.
Inside Aleppo, people like Shasho, the ambulance volunteer, still struggled to deal with the ongoing carnage. Shasho is an independent volunteer, but the responsibility of dealing with the aftermath of the bombings falls to a group called the Civil Defense Units, part of the umbrella of the main opposition-in-exile, the Syrian National Coalition. An administrator for the group in Aleppo, who gave the nickname Abu Al-Bara'een, said that more than 100 volunteers across the city tried to coordinate search-and-rescue operations after each blast. But they were badly under-supplied for the task, he said, needing everything from foam to put out diesel fires to trucks for transporting volunteers and heavy equipment for digging victims from the rubble.
"The problems most of the time is that when a building of four or five floors is demolished, a lot of civilians are trapped under the concrete," said a coordinator with the group who asked to use only his first name, Mutasem, for safety concerns. Its members, he said, must keep on constant alert — "because we never know when the barrels are coming."
Over tea in a Gaziantep café on Monday, a group of rights workers from Aleppo tried to think of ways to stir international emotions over the humanitarian disaster playing out in their city — would journalists attend a press conference on the barrel bomb issue, or were there any U.S. intellectuals or celebrities who would take up the cause?
"We're not interested in the news story, because we have blood every day," said Mahmoud al-Hamam, a lawyer and member of the local opposition council in Aleppo. "What we want is to find a way to make people sympathize."
Another barrel bomb hit the city as Hamam spoke, according to an activist report that popped up on his Facebook feed — a building split in half, and a family of seven dead. "There is no safe place in Aleppo. It is total destruction," Haman said.
Hamam and the others said they suspected that the barrel bombs might be a bid to pressure the Syrian opposition during peace negotiations with the regime, whose second round is underway in Geneva this week. They noted that the attacks picked up pace in the build-up to the talks and have continued relentlessly ever since.
A U.S. official told BuzzFeed that the attacks "demonstrate how the regime is negatively impacting the atmosphere surrounding the [peace] process," calling the air raids in Aleppo "disgusting."
"It is extremely troubling that while the regime should be focused on discussing a negotiated political transition," the official said, "the regime is instead focused on inflicting destruction and killing its own people with explosives packed with metal and fuel."
Mousa, the opposition activist from Aleppo, said he suspected that the barrel bomb attacks were motivated by little more than military tactics, and a desire to take back the city at all costs. "These are sufficient. They don't care about Geneva," he said.
Mike Giglio is a correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in Istanbul. He has reported on the wars in Syria and Ukraine and unrest around the Middle East. His secure PGP fingerprint is DD2D D9F4 F1B5 204B 8069 3056 D916 4D69 9ED6 04D5
Contact Mike Giglio at email@example.com.
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