Aleppo: Five years to ruins

Story highlights

  • Syria's civil war began in 2011
  • The tide turned in Aleppo when Russian air power began helping the regime

(CNN)In 2012, Aleppo was well into its fourth millennium. It was Syria's economic hub, its most populous city and a tourist attraction drawing thousands of visitors to its UNESCO World Heritage sites, including a 12th century mosque and 13th century citadel.

But the spread of the rebellion against the rule of Bashar al-Assad would soon engulf the city in what was billed as -- and what turned out to be -- the mother of all battles.
    In July 2012, as the Free Syrian Army built up manpower for an assault on Aleppo, the West worried. The US State Department said it was concerned about a "massacre;" the British feared a "devastating loss of civilian life and a humanitarian disaster."
    Within weeks, some parts of Aleppo were complete battle zones.
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    Food prices quadrupled, no one was working. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Power failures began.
    Returning to the city where he had lived and raised a daughter in her earliest years, CNN's Ben Wedeman wrote: "What we saw during our trips in Aleppo were not images of the city I knew: The shelling, the snipers, the destruction. I never imagined this city would be standing in the middle of warfare. Nobody imagined it would turn into this."
    Toward the end of 2012, the rebels controlled most of Aleppo. Already, one key hospital had been destroyed by airstrikes -- a harbinger of what was to come with attack after condemned attack on medical facilities.
    Those who had fled Aleppo and those who had stayed were hungry, cold and hurting.
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    Under siege, under attack

    And that became "life" in Aleppo -- with death at every turn. Some neighborhoods stood, others were destroyed. Punishing air raids ebbed and flowed. But the attacks went on and on. Hundreds were killed in a week at the end of 2013. A doctor said he had simply "lost count" of the number of amputations he'd had to do to try to save lives.
    More people fled, leaving behind homes, histories and memories.
    It became increasingly difficult to get safely in and out of Aleppo to report on what was happening. The Assad regime did not cede the city to the rebels. In January 2014, the government even flew journalists there to show off its gains.
    And the fighting continued. By June 2014, with the world's attention seemingly elsewhere, CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reported the city "has had the life bombed out of it."
    The bombing had turned crude and indiscriminate -- barrels full of explosives and shrapnel dropped from helicopters into populated areas. The bombing had become inhumane and cruel -- one attack would be followed 30 minutes later by another to target those who had gone to help victims. Potential rescuers were turned into bystanders, waiting for the second hit in the hopes it would be "safer" to go and help.
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    Aleppo slipped into the world's unconscious by the start of 2015. ISIS was on the rise, we know now that terror would strike in European capitals, American cities and many other places. But in Aleppo, too, fear was ever present, but so was defiance. Hundreds of thousands of people remained there under rebel control and living some kind of life -- there was even a secret school still running where children learned English.

    Youngest victims, most impact

    But still there was no let-up. The impact of the Syrian civil war spilled onto Europe's shores with the flood of families seeking refuge. Talks were held. Sometimes the streets and the skies would fall silent in one ceasefire or another, but the battle was never over.
    As they so often do, children and their plight sometimes cut through the never-ending, hard-to-explain morass of Syria's bloodshed between government forces, ISIS, moderate rebels, hardline rebels, and all that misery.
    Children trying to shelter from an airstrike under a mattress; a little boy called Omran, dazed but not even crying as he wipes blood from his face; a young girl called Bana, starring in her mom's tweets about how they lived in Aleppo.
    More talks took place. Ceasefires and humanitarian convoys were planned and sometimes came to pass. And then the bombings would start again. More homes destroyed. More hospitals destroyed. More lives destroyed.
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    Aleppo was a city on edge and on the edge. Perhaps still, the rebels would be victorious over Assad. Perhaps. But if this was already a David and Goliath battle, Goliath got a big helping hand from the Russians in 2016.
    The noose tightened around Aleppo's neck. And then the rebel coalition dramatically broke the siege in August 2016, handing a setback to Assad and prompting dancing in the streets. Briefly.
    The violence did not let up. "Life" continued. Babies were born -- even as their mothers faced death in airstrikes.
    Aleppo teetered.
    Aleppo teetered more.
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    Another ceasefire ended. And now, Aleppo is falling.
    Now, there is "liberation." Now there is "butchery." So many ruins. So many lives in ruins. And so many dead.