AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Syria, government forces are advancing on rebel-held areas of the city of Aleppo. Tens of thousands of residents are trying to escape to safety. NPR's Alison Meuse spoke with one woman who made the risky journey.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Arabic).
ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: My conversation with a woman who fled the siege begins with her asking how I am. She's safe now but won't give her name. She fears for her son, still fighting with the rebels, and for male relatives who've been detained by the regime for questioning. She's gotten used to living under harsh siege conditions and never thought she'd flee.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) It was all so sudden. We weren't mentally prepared. I used to tell myself I'd rather die in my home than cross to regime areas.
MEUSE: But conditions deteriorated quickly. She describes constant bombardment. And just a few days ago, her house got hit and destroyed. She says the scene in her neighborhood was total chaos - people running aimlessly with their children. She and her neighbors made a split-second decision. They would flee to the regime side of the city.
They braved the front line through the crossfire. Some people were shot down along the way. Many cast aside their last belongings to run faster. This is a story thousands of people have been going through. And it comes after four years of holding out amid fighting, air strikes and, this year, siege. Syria analyst Joshua Landis says it's no surprise the families joined that mad rush.
JOSHUA LANDIS: The days for the rebels in Aleppo are numbered. The regime has amassed over 50,000 soldiers from all the different militias and the army and so forth. They have overwhelming force. It's a matter of time.
MEUSE: At the same time, Landis says, civilians are afraid of what's in store on the regime's side. There will be lists of names and a period of intense scrutiny for anyone from the rebel areas, just like the family of the woman reached by NPR. As they fled she, her husband, her sister and brother-in-law and the children reached a no-man's land where they saw their first government soldiers. They directed them to a school stadium and told them to shelter in place.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) Every time someone stood up, we'd tell them to sit down because of the snipers.
MEUSE: When the sun set, the soldiers directed them onward. Children and elderly scaled the school's high walls, trekking over broken glass and rubble. She calls it the most difficult day of their lives. Finally, they reached an area firmly under army control.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) Some soldiers actually helped us carry heavy bundles and suitcases and others literally dug their hands into people's pockets and robbed them.
MEUSE: At a shelter, they were given blankets and food. It was there she realized just how many people had fled, from complete strangers to those she'd known her whole life. They were held there two days while the army scrutinized their IDs, and then they were free to go.
But outside the shelter, they found a maze of checkpoints. She describes officers sorting through piles of IDs, names getting mixed up and, as many had feared, males got little benefit of the doubt. Her 20-year-old cousin was taken to army service. Then, her sister's 43-year-old husband was taken for questioning.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) They told us his name is on a wanted list. First, they told us he'd be out in a few days. Then, they said it could take three or four months.
MEUSE: She thinks they just want bribes. But even if they can pay, she's not sure when or if the men will be released. The rest of the group decided to flee Aleppo entirely to the northern rebel-held countryside bribing their way through checkpoints on the way.
Now she prays for those left behind, her rebel son and the women and children. She says, I just want everyone to make it out of there alive. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.