Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam
BUKULMEZ, Turkey: Smoking a cigarette outside a Turkish hospital near the Syrian border, a man in a gray gown and flip-flops held his sleeping 2-year-old daughter, Aya. On Aya’s right eye was a bandage. In her left hand was a chocolate bar.
Aya lost her eye when she was struck by shrapnel from a shell that also killed her 8-month-old brother, Mohammad, and their mother. The father and daughter were among some 200,000 people who the U.N. said late Sunday have fled Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, during days of clashes between rebels and the military.
Aleppo residents, some severely wounded, are packing up belongings and loading them onto cars, trucks and even motorcycles to seek temporary shelter in rural villages and schools outside the city and dusty tents across the border in Turkey.
Refugees described a city besieged by government troops and beset by incessant shelling. Food supplies and gasoline are running low and black market prices for everyday staples are soaring.
As the violence intensified, the country’s most senior diplomat in London defected. Charge d’affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi is the latest in a string of high-profile diplomats to abandon President Bashar Assad’s regime over a crackdown that, according to rights activists, has killed more than 19,000 people since March 2011.
The battle for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory with a stronghold in the north. A rebel defeat, at the very least, would buy Assad more time.
Activists said regime forces were shelling rebel-held districts of the city and a cluster of surrounding villages relentlessly on Monday, sending entire families and panicked residents fleeing. Many went to Turkey, some 30 miles away, where tens of thousands of Syrians have already found refuge during the uprising.
Reem, a woman in her 30s who fled Aleppo’s rebel-held district of Saif al-Dawleh, was among those who showed up in Turkey on Monday.
“The situation in Aleppo is dreadful,” she said soon after arriving at the Bukulmez illegal border crossing, where she was greeted by Turkish soldiers.