ALEPPO (RFE/RL) — Armenian-populated areas of Aleppo have reportedly sustained more damage in recent days as Syrian government troops have continued their Russian-backed offensive in and around Syria’s largest city partly controlled by opposition fighters.
Local residents spoke on Wednesday of continuing fierce fighting going on near those neighborhoods mostly controlled by forces loyal to the Syrian government.
Aleppo was home to the majority of an estimated 80,000 ethnic Armenians who lived in Syria until the outbreak of the bloody civil war five years ago. Only up to 10,000 of them reportedly remain in the war-ravaged country now. Many are said to be unable to flee the war zone or simply have nowhere to go.
Fighting in and around Aleppo intensified early this month as government troops backed by Russian warplanes began making major gains, sending tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing towards the Turkish border.
“The army has laid siege to those [rebel-held] areas and is now trying to liberate Aleppo from those armed groups,” Zarmig Boghigian, the editor of the local Armenian newspaper “Kantsasar,” told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) by phone.
“The fighting is very close to the Armenian neighborhoods,” she said. “There are terrible clashes involving rocket fire. They are so close that the population here can see gas shells fired by [rebel] fighters.”
Boghigian confirmed that rebel fire at the weekend seriously damaged a clinic run by an Armenian charity and an Armenian school in the predominantly Christian Nor Kyugh district. A 32-year-old Armenian man, Viken Vosgerichian, was reportedly killed there late last week.
“There is a lot of shelling. They fire a lot of mortar shells towards Nor Kyugh,” a Syrian Armenian woman told her Yerevan-based uncle, Petros Kirazian, Wednesday in a phone conversation heard by an RFE/RL correspondent.
Kirazian, who fled Syria three years ago, said he is now trying to help his brother’s family leave Aleppo. “I’ve sent them money so that they can get passports and come to Armenia,” he said.
According to government data, there were around 16,000 Syrian Armenian refugees in Armenia as of last fall. Officials in Yerevan said more than 2,000 of them fled to their ancestral homeland following another upsurge in fighting in Aleppo in May 2015.
The Armenian government faced last year growing domestic calls for the evacuation of the remaining Armenians in Syria. The government made clear then that it will not encourage them to leave Syria en masse without the consent of the leadership of their shrinking community. The latter has been opposed to such an exodus until now.
“Some people are too old to be able to get out of Aleppo,” explained Lena Shamlian, a Syrian Armenian living in Yerevan. “Others are too attached to their homes. There are also those who get pensions and feel that they won’t be able to support themselves if they leave.”
Mayda Bakkalian, a 60-year-old woman, is one of the elderly Armenians stranded in Aleppo. She said on Wednesday that there are virtually no Armenians left in her neighborhood.
“In the past, when I would go out into the street I would see a hundred Armenians before reaching my mother’s home,” Bakkalian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) by phone.“Now I may not see a single Armenian. Many of them are gone.”
“We’ve had no running water for one and a half months,” she said. “The people have forgotten about electricity, heating and shower.”