Explainer: What's happening in Aleppo right now?

‘Aleppo’. It’s the name we’ve heard on our radio stations and televisions. We’ve brushed over it in conversation. It’s seemed too far, too big, to understand fully.

Today, finally, we can talk about it with some underlying hope.

Tens of thousands of people who’ve been trapped in East Aleppo, Syria, in the heart of the Middle East without water, food or medicine will hopefully be freed in today’s ceasefire.

The evacuation started at 6am on Thursday morning, Aleppo time – just hours ago – and the ceasefire deal was brokered by Russia and Turkey to allow civilians living in enemy territory to leave the city. The same attempt was made yesterday, but failed due to Iranian opposition.

There are a lot of players involved in this ceasefire. There is a complex history. The most important people are the civilians.

This is the story the world is talking about right now. Here is how to understand Aleppo better:

For four years, the city of Aleppo – once home to 2,132,100 people and famous as Syria’s largest city, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world – has been divided into East and West.

It became divided when the East became held by rebel fighters, and The West by government forces under President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are fighting alongside the Syrian government. The civilians fleeing today are fleeing from the East.

Civilians in Eastern Aleppo following an air strike. Image via Facebook.

Until now, it could have been anyone's fight. The position of strength has pivoted constantly. It tipped to the East in December 2012 when the rebels seized a number of military and air bases, and again in August 2013 when they blocked the Aleppo-Damascus highway into the West. The West gained strength in January 2014 when Islamic State also entered rebel territory. In October last year, the government's position strengthened again when Russia, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran joined forces with Assad's army.

But the residents of Aleppo, who still remember the city library, the parks, the Saint Elias Cathedral, who still reside in the city they once loved? They have been trapped.

On November 22, the UN security council heard of nearly one million civilians besieged in Syria; 250,000 people trapped in Aleppo alone. "Horror is now usual," the Under-Secretary-General For Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien told the Council. "It is a level of violence and destruction that the world appears to consider normal for Syria and normal for the Syrian people."


Aleppo civilians in the East were unable to leave the city, their way blocked by rebels. They were also terrified of escaping and falling into government hands.

"If you are a nurse, you are wanted [by the government]. If you are a doctor, you are wanted. Any activist in East Aleppo you are wanted," one man told ABC's 7:30. "Because we didn't join Assad army, we are wanted. We said 'no' five years ago to his army, we are wanted."

They have a reason to be fearful: this government is no saviour.

"We have received reports of pro-government forces killing at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children," Rupert Colville of the UN Humans Rights Office said in a statement following yesterday's botched attempt at ceasefire, during which some civilians did escape. Already the UN has received allegations that hundreds of men have gone missing since fleeing East Aleppo last night.

The ruins of Aleppo. Image via Facebook.

The government has a history of killing civilians indiscriminately during this war.

In December 2011, they started an unprecedented bombing regime of their own people in Eastern Aleppo.

In March 2013, 147 bodies were found floating in Aleppo's river. The bodies were found by the people in the East, they were the bodies of friends, relatives, shop merchants who had been captured by pro-government forces while shopping or visiting family members in the West. Some of the bodies showed evidence of torture.

The people fleeing East Aleppo today are terrified.

"There was a massacre just 50 metres away at my house, no one can help them. It's horrific," one man told 7:30 yesterday.

"Someone told me the government with its allies are approaching my house, what should I do?

"To everyone who can hear me, we are here exposed to a genocide."

How did we get to this?

It started in Daraa: a small, dusty town on the Jordanian border, just over 450 kilometres from Aleppo.

In March 2011, a group of 15 school children were arrested and detained for painting anti-government messages on the walls of their school. Their protests weren't unusual - at the time, you had to show ID to buy spray cans. There was already so much anger. But the people of Daraa learned the children were being beaten and tortured in prison. They started to protest.

One official reportedly said: "Forget your children. If you really want your children, you should make more children. If you don't know how to make more children, we'll show you how to do it."


The protests intensified. On March 16, a group of women in Damascus - 116 kilometres from Daraa - started a sit-in protest, demanding the release of prisoners being detained unfairly. The women were beaten.

Child badly injured after an air raid in Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo. Image via Facebook.

March 18 saw the first fatalities as security forces opened fire on a protest in Daraa. Four people were killed. It was the moment Omar Almuqdad, a journalist from Daraa now living in Turkey, called "the flame of the revolution". Protests ignited all over the country.

The anger came from receiving false promises. When Bashar al-Assad was first elected President in 2000, he signified hope for a country that had lived too long under the strict regime of his father. Assad was younger, educated. He promised huge reforms and, upon taking office, authorised the release of hundreds of political prisoners. He allowed newspapers to open. He permitted public political meetings. It was the hopeful beginnings of change towards transparency and democracy.

It was also short-lived.

Soon, as early as 2001, the public meetings were closed down. Restrictions were placed on the press. People started disappearing - detained without arrest warrants and held for unpredictable periods. Society again was oppressive and discriminatory. The economy benefited the elite. Islamists and Kurdish activists were sent to prison. Corruption prevailed.

The shootings in Daraa were the beginning of the uprising. Protesters rallied around the country. The government's response was to squash and shut down. Wound, kill, scare, imprison. The protests turned to fighting.

In July 2012, rebel fighters seized Eastern Aleppo.

Since then it's been the "groud-zero" of the war in Syria. Hell on earth. A place where women and children have been killed in bombs from the air, raids from the ground. It has been the most documented war zone in history. The world has watched as people, children, have broadcast their fear and anger over social media. In the words of Stephen O'Brien, the historical city has been transformed to a place where "horror is normal".

Today, for the first time in four years, the city might be liberated. The people freed. The darkness of fear and death and fighting lifted.

Godspeed to those fleeing. You've already been through enough.

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