BEIRUT — The old Aleppo cemetery filled up a year ago. The new one filled up last week. Now the dead are left in the besieged enclave’s streets, buried in backyards and overwhelming the morgues.
Medical officials secured yet another plot for the dead. But they say they have no way to dig graves with government troops now crashing into opposition-held eastern Aleppo, shelling civilians as they flee and forcing thousands to squeeze into a chaotic, devastated and shrinking pocket of neighborhoods.
“We have no more room,” said Mohammed Abu Jaafar, the head of the local forensic authority. His department is so overwhelmed, the staff registering the dead pleaded with him not to take any more bodies.
“Even if I were to consider mass burials, I don’t have the machines to do the digging,” he said in a telephone interview.
Dignity in death has been lost as the rebel-held enclave that has held out for four years collapses.
For two weeks, government forces bombarded the area, killing more than 310 civilians, including 42 children, and up to 220 opposition fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Then last weekend, ground troops stormed into the 17-square-mile enclave, captured half of it and advanced on the rest.
U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien pleaded Wednesday for access to eastern Aleppo, home to some 275,000, “before it becomes one giant graveyard.”
In some ways, it already has. Bodies have been left to rot on the streets. Ambulances and rescue vehicles can’t reach them because they have been targeted or because fuel has run out. As troops close in, there are now more, multiple front lines all too dangerous to approach.
Residents of a southern neighborhood close to a government advance only learned that a body was lying in the ditches when a cat started eating at the corpse.
“A woman from the neighborhood came and reported it to the morgue. We still don’t know who the corpse belongs to,” Abu Jaafar said, holding his breath. “I swear to God I cried. And I am one who is used to horrific scenes.”
With eastern Aleppo under a tight siege since July, supplies and food are running out.
Just before the ground offensive, government airstrikes knocked out all seven medical facilities in the enclave, including five equipped with trauma and intensive care units. With the government advances, the medical complex where four of the hospitals are located is now only a few hundred meters from conquering troops.
The hospitals were evacuated. The doctors scattered around the strip, setting up small underground medical points to avoid detection but able to give only the simplest basics of care.
“Every wounded is a potential martyr,” said Zakaria Amino, the deputy head of the eastern Aleppo Local Council.
A nurse who works in one underground clinic said some wounded have died as they waited for medical attention, and because of a shortage of blood. The enclave’s blood bank was hit and shut down. Even worse, some after surgery could not survive the cold weather, she said.