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Aleppo at the end of tether: more bombings on civilians. Attacks also against the Jesuits’ home. The Letter of Pope Francis to President Assad: “reinstate peace”

Intense fighting in Aleppo between the government army and the rebels entrenched in the eastern area of the city, forced to abandon their positions. On Saturday December 10 a bomb, fortunately causing no casualties, hit the home of the Jesuits –relentlessly in the frontline, providing help and assistance to the local population. The Jesuit Refugee Service in Aleppo is actively operating in the area of Jibreen, where humanitarian organizations have set up shelters for the people fleeing from the eastern districts of Aleppo. Dozens of thousands of people have left without assistance; high numbers of families with children, many of them are sick for the cold, for the lack of food and poor hygiene conditions. The first-hand account of Jesuit Fr Sami Hallak on the JRS efforts to comfort the victims of violence. Yesterday Pope Francis sent a letter to Syrian president urging to step up efforts for the establishment of peace

Even though on December 10 the international community celebrated the Day for Human Rights, the inhabitants of Aleppo continue being victims of war, witnessing unprecedented violence. In fact, on the same day, around 6:00 p.m., the home of the Jesuits in Aleppo, not far from the seat of the Jesuit Refugee Service (Jrs) of Al-Azizieh, was hit by a bombing attack. The bombs exploded on the second and third floors of the structure, causing serious material damage but fortunately no victim. Three more rockets launched from the eastern side of the city, part of which is still in the hands of the rebels, fell in close proximity. Fr Sami Hallak, director of JRS aid programs in Aleppo, reported the news to SIR.

If the bombs had fallen in the morning hours, when, said the Jesuit priest, “high numbers of refugees, displaced persons and local inhabitants come to our adjacent distribution centre to receive food”, it would have been the umpteenth massacre of defenceless civilians.” The bombings occurred against the backdrop of ongoing attritional combat between the regular Syrian armed forces and the fleeing rebels.

“We hear the constant noise of the armed clashes”, confirmed the Jesuit priest, who said that the living conditions of the inhabitants of the eastern district are “catastrophic.” “In the area where we live (the northern district of Aleppo, ed.’s note) the living conditions are difficult but in the eastern part the situation is even worse. We have been without electricity for about a year, we go on with electricity generators. There is a want of heating materials, which are thus provided by the State in very limited quantities. The same applies to gas.”

Owing to the escalating clashes, thousands of people are fleeing towards the area of Jibreen, east of Aleppo, where humanitarian organizations have set up shelters for displaced persons and water supply systems, and where they distribute personal hygiene kits. “The living conditions of Aleppo’s residents are catastrophic – pointed out Fr Hallak -. Locally-active humanitarian organizations and the government provide basic necessities to all those who manage to reach this area in spite of the bombs and the risk of being hit. It is estimated that two to three thousand people arrive every day.” This continuous flow also raises security concerns: “We must verify that jihadists prepared to do anything are not among them. Only after careful verification are the refugees allowed to pass and join their friends and family. Those with no one waiting for them are accommodated in the shelters or can temporarily rent out dwellings.” To date nobody knows the exact number of Aleppo residents still present in the eastern district. “Those who have managed to escape amount to 50-60 thousand –said Fr Hallak -. There are many families with children. Many are affected by diseases caused by the cold. As JRS we try to address this emergency situation by ensuring medical examinations to the children in our dispensary, thereby providing the appropriate treatment. The same applies to adults who are more resistant to diseases. The latter are given free medical treatment and medicines. In spite of the difficulties – the Jesuit Fr added – every day we distribute two thousand meals to the poor and the displaced. We distribute non-perishable food, fruit and biscuits, since we have no electricity to power fridges and storage cells. In our centre in Aleppo we even manage to give a 60gram warm dish per person.” The escalation of violence is causing thousand of people to seek shelter in the transit area of Al-Mahalej. According to information received by local JRS sources, “over one thousand families have been relocated in the village of Hanano, which, by paradox, is not considered a “safe area”, owing to high numbers of unexploded bombs, and because many buildings in the area are unstable owing to armed clashes that had broken out earlier. In this tragic situation the JRS strongly reiterated its appeal:

“all the belligerent parties must immediately cease hostilities and violence.

We pray and hope for immediate peace in Syria and Aleppo.” These words echo the appeal of Pope Francis, put into writing in a letter to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, delivered directly by the Apostolic nuncio, Cardinal Mario Zenari, on December 12. In the letter the Pope expressed his closeness to the Syrian population, and appealed to President Bashar al-Assad “to step up everyone’s efforts to end the war in Syria and to re-establish peace.” In the meantime the news of the massacre in the Copt Church in Egypt reached the city. Fr Hallak firmly believes that:

“here in Syria no Muslim is allergic to Christian festivities, and not to Christmas.

Some even make Christmas trees in their homes. Many Muslim volunteer workers serve in our centre, and we celebrate together. If something should happen by Christmas it won’t be caused by the festivities but by the clashes due to the ongoing war. The armed conflict continues, and the local population hopes that the armed forces will lead the rebels to flee further away, thereby bringing the line of fire at a distance from the city.”

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