The pictures of Aleppo reveal the truly post-apocalyptic nature of its horror. Thousands of its buildings are empty shells or simply rubble – it is hard to believe it was once Syria’s largest city, with a population of about 2.3 million. It was also the country’s industrial and financial centre.
Four years of vicious fighting in eastern Aleppo have left thousands dead, destroyed hospitals and wiped out food supplies.
Look more closely at those pictures and then understand that within that destruction there are tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, who are trapped. They are not getting out.
The ceasefire that had begun to see them transported out, as agreed, has broken down. Inevitably there is some confusion around exactly what has happened. There are reports that the rebels were attempting to take heavy weapons and captives out with them, contrary to the agreement.
There is also a suspicion that the militias backing the government of president Bashar al-Assad – and they include fighters from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Pakistan – are not sticking to the agreements, or are simply unaware of the agreements.
Syria’s government and its ally, Iran, had insisted the evacuation from eastern Aleppo could only happen with the simultaneous evacuation of two other towns, Foua and Kefraya, which have been besieged by rebels since September 2015. It is possible that condition has not been met.
The World Health Organisation workers on the ground said that the Russian military had halted the evacuation, but had not said why they had done so.
Most worryingly, in an official statement, Russia, which backs the Syrian government, said the operation to remove fighters and their families from the area is “complete”.
The Russian defence ministry said all militants and their family members have left and all women and children have also been taken out of the districts, making a total of at least 9,500 evacuees.
But the difficulty is that by any reasonable estimate there are many more people still in need of evacuation. Just two days ago, the United Nations estimated there were 100.000 people trapped in the small number of eastern Aleppo districts not under the control of government forces.
Yesterday the best estimate was that at least 50,000 are still trapped. There have already been unconfirmed but credible reports of civilians being executed. There can be no doubt about the appalling and inhumane conditions that exist in the ruins of the city.
And we are in danger of standing by and letting this tragedy deepen. Russia’s intervention and the victories of Assad over the forces backed by the UK and the US seems to have left us feeling powerless to intervene or to have any effect on the terrible toll that we can see happening.
Surely now is the time to bring all diplomatic and international pressure to bear to halt the killing and bring relief. We have to urge all governments to do that.