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Sunday, December 11, 2016

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

When Omar Naasir wants a restful night’s sleep in Aleppo, he says, he stays as close as possible to the front line of the ongoing clashes between Syrian rebel and government forces.

Farther back in his rebel-controlled neighborhood, Naasir says, the risk of death greatly increases because of the barrel bombs and other explosives raining down daily amid the government’s bombardment campaign.

“Between us and the regime army is sometimes less than 100 meters, so they don’t drop barrel bombs there so they don’t strike their positions,” he said via Skype, referring to the deadly oil drums filled with TNT.

“With barrel bombs, there is a feeling of paralysis that is indescribable,” said the former peace activist turned rebel.

Even when airstrikes intensified on Aleppo’s opposition-held neighborhoods in late December, many residents vowed not to be driven from their homes. But as the attacks continued and in the last two weeks increased to sometimes 30 barrel bombs a day, most civilians fled, opposition activists say.

About 10 percent to 30 percent of the population remains in the city’s rebel-held areas, they say. Most are fighters, activists and aid workers.

“Very, very few people are left,” said Naasir, a member of the Ansar al-Haq rebel group.

Since Jan. 1, activists say, an estimated 800 to 2,000 people have been killed by barrel bombs alone. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday that more than 400 people had died in February, including 109 children.

Now major portions of the northern Syrian city, long a bustling commercial hub and home to millions, are deserted. Residents have fled to government-held neighborhoods, the suburbs or Turkey.

Those interviewed said they could no longer cope with the government bombing, coupled with internal clashes between rebel forces such as the Free Syrian Army and fighters with the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which until recently was affiliated with al-Qaida.

For weeks, they said, barrel bombs have struck homes, schools and mosques.

On Wednesday, at least 38 civilians were killed, according to activist groups. In a video recorded just after the strike, civil defense members and fellow residents pulled the dead and wounded from a partially collapsed building. They called out for blankets to carry the mangled remains. The gore has become a daily ritual for those unable or unwilling to leave.

“We carry the wounded and then we continue what we were doing,” said Naasir, who was sleeping when a bomb recently fell about 50 feet from his building. He said he helped retrieve those killed and wounded in the early morning attack and then went back to bed.

The bombardment has continued this week as a second round of peace talks began in Switzerland, but it has not been a topic of the negotiations aimed at ending the conflict, which began in March 2011.