Published September 18, 2013
BEIRUT – The prisoners are crammed together in small, dark rooms with no water or electricity and barely enough food to survive. Diseases such as scabies and tuberculosis are rampant among them. Every so often, the crash of artillery shells rocks their sprawling prison complex, a stark reminder of the civil war raging outside.
They are the inmates of Aleppo's central prison, caught in the deadly stalemate of Syria's civil war.
Rebels have been besieging the facility for the past five months, saying they are determined to free the more than 4,000 detainees inside. Fighters have barreled suicide car bombs into the front gates twice, lob shells into the compound and battle frequently with the hundreds of guards and troops holed up inside. Still, they've been unable to capture the prison.
Meanwhile, more than 150 prisoners have died during the siege, killed by shelling, dying from lack of medicine or outright executed by guards, opposition groups say.
The siege is emblematic of the bloody, cruel war of attrition into which Syria's conflict has descended during its third year. In the north, including Aleppo province, rebels have succeeded in seizing large swaths of countryside. But they have been unable to take control of urban centers. The military of President Bashar Assad has been able to hold onto bases and other strongpoints around the area, from which they can bombard rebel-held communities — but they can't take back territory.
The relentless carnage nationwide has left more than 100,000 dead, driven millions of others from their homes.
The sprawling prison lies on a highway about 4 miles (6 kilometers) north of the city of Aleppo, once Syria's prized commercial center but now devastated by its own stalemate — with rebels controlling part of the city battling regime forces controlling the other part. The rebels launched their assault on the prison in April not just to free those inside, but also to uproot a regime pocket amid neighborhoods largely held by opposition forces.
Now those whom the rebels aimed to liberate are trapped in the battle. The prison's 4,600 inmates, including 150 women, are a mix of common criminals, rebels and opposition activists and supporters, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground. Around 1,300 of the inmates have completed their sentences but have not been freed by authorities, the group says.
Diseases have spread in the jail, including more than 200 cases of tuberculosis, of which seven have already died, according to the SNHR. It said vomiting, diarrhea and poisoning are common among detainees because water tanks have not been cleaned for months and are full of plankton, worms and dirt.
"The life of detainees in that prison is dismal," said Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed. "The guards give very little food to the prisoners and sell them medicine for as much as $10 for a painkiller pill," he said via Skype.
Since they began their siege in April, rebels have launched several assaults trying to overrun it. In May, fighters mainly from the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic group broke in after setting off two simultaneous car bombs at its gates. They battled troops within the walls until the regime forces, backed by warplanes, drove the rebels out. In August, members of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra set off another car bomb near the prison, but failed to breach the walls.
Otherwise, the rebel fighters surrounding the facility periodically blast it with rockets or mortars.
The commander of one of the rebel groups participating in the siege said they are careful to spare civilians from shelling. "We know where the detainees are and where the regime soldiers are," said Abu Thabet, the commander of Aleppo Swords Battalion, speaking on condition he be identified only by his nom de guerre to protect his security.
He said some inmates have mobile phones and communicate with the rebels outside.
Still, several times, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activists group, has reported inmates killed by the incoming shells.
"The prison is surrounded from all sides," Abu Thabet said. But rebels have been unable to take it because the troops inside have large amounts of ammunition "that will last them for a long time."
A government official said the troops inside have been able to keep resupplied despite the siege. He would not saw how. But the military is known to send supplies to troops at other besieged bases in the area by helicopter airdrops. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have both reported acute shortage of food for prison inmates in Aleppo prison.
After extensive negotiations facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, rebels in July began allowing the Syrian Red Crescent to deliver food into the compound. The Red Crecent brought in some 5,000 meals during the subsequent Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
The organization now delivers food to the prison two or three times a week, though rebels only let through precooked meals since they don't want the government forces inside to stock food, said Khaled Iriqsousi who heads Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Both the Red Crescent and the ICRC say food shortages continue inside, despite the deliveries.
"The food is to be eaten immediately and it is hardly enough for the detainees and guards," Iriqsousi said by telephone from Damascus. "There is no doubt that the situation in the prison is bad. It is in the Middle East, not in Switzerland ... The situation was bad before the crisis, so how can it be with the siege."
Iriqsousi said the agency also has occasionally helped bring out released prisoners from the facility, but added they had no access to the prisoners themselves.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the battle for Aleppo prison must stop.
"The human conditions in the prison are catastrophic," he said.
"We hope that the operation that aimed to free the detainees does not end up killing them."
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