Aleppo family reunited after months separated by war

Jibrin (Syria) (AFP) - Jomaa al-Qassem fell to his knees and burst into tears on the muddy floor outside a reception point for Syrians pouring out of war-ravaged eastern Aleppo.

Amid hundreds of people at the government-run centre outside the city, he had just spotted his 17-year-old daughter Rasha for the first time in a year and a half.

He scrambled up to hold her hand, kissed her and helped her lift her two small children.

"I thought I would never see her again, as we were so far apart," he said.

"I dreamt of seeing her face even for a few moments before I die, and now my dream has come true."

Rasha was among tens of thousands who fled rebel-held east Aleppo in recent days as the army pressed a fierce assault aimed at retaking the whole of Syria's second city.

After opposition forces overran Aleppo's east in 2012, Rasha and her parents were displaced multiple times by fighting or skyrocketing housing prices.

When Rasha got married two years ago, she moved to the rebel-held east while her parents stayed in the government-controlled west.

Travel across the front lines was difficult but possible -- until early 2015, the last time that young Rasha saw her mother and father.

On Thursday, she walked hundreds of metres (yards) under the pouring rain from rebel-controlled Karm al-Maysar district to a regime checkpoint in Al-Naqqarin.

From there, she boarded a bus to Jibrin, about 10 kilometres (six miles) east of Aleppo, where she had her tearful reunion with her father.

- 'We couldn't help her' -

As soon as he saw his daughter, Qassem, 51, took off his worn black jacket and wrapped it around her drenched shoulders.

Barely hiding his tears, he helped his daughter and her two sons board a bus that would take them to the room where her mother was staying in an abandoned ironworks on the northeastern edge of Aleppo.

"I didn't have any way to contact my daughter except by phone," said Rasha's mother Miriam, gazing at her daughter across the dimly lit room.

"I could hear her voice but the road between us was cut. My eyes melted from crying... I couldn't reach her and she couldn't reach us."

Still in her soaking jacket, Rasha asked her mother for milk for her two-year-old son Ilyan, who was crying.

She and her children survived the devastating four-month siege of east Aleppo, without access to food or medicine.

"She was crying and saying: 'we have no food, no bread. And we couldn't help her'," Miriam said.

After heating up water on a stove so her daughter could bathe, Miriam carefully examined the fingers of her eight-month-old grandson Abdulrazzaq.

"This is the first time I have seen my grandchild. I will not leave them again, and I will give my daughter and her son back every moment I was away," she said.

- 'I can die in peace' -

Rasha's husband was killed in a rocket attack on their home in eastern Aleppo three months ago, leaving her to raise their two sons by herself.

She wanted move to her parents' new home outside the city, Rasha told AFP, but rebel fighters did not allow her to leave Aleppo.

Rasha said she finally got her chance on Thursday, when she joined the mass exodus in the middle of the night.

"I saw all my neighbours leaving their houses and I left with them at three am," she said.

Rasha rested her head on her mother's shoulders, hugging her as fresh tears rolled down her cheek.

"Thank God, now I can die in peace, as I got my daughter to safety," Qassem said, sighing and lighting a cigarette.

Despite their emotional reunion, much of the family remains scattered across war-ravaged Syria and beyond.

Qassem said he and his wife had another daughter in Islamic State group-controlled Raqa in Syria's north.

"We haven't seen her for three years. Another is in Turkey and we haven't seen her for two. The war has made us destitute and split us apart," he said.

"My aunt is still stuck (in Aleppo), and so are many others," Rasha said.

"Ours is not the only story. There are thousands of civilians waiting for the chance to see their loved ones."

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