Aleppo’s Tragedies, from the revolution’s start to the great holocaust
August 9, 2016
In Saint Elijah’s sanctuary in the east of Aleppo, which is controlled by fighters opposed to Bashar al-Assad, live several senior citizens. Some of these senior citizens’ children, paradoxically, live in the city’s west side, where Assad’s forces prevail.
“What can we say?” says Joseph, one of many living in the sanctuary, after losing his youngest son, Fady, to a mortar shell shot from eastern Aleppo into western Aleppo by the same rebels who are providing them with bread and tea.
This, one of many surreal situations occurring in Aleppo in recent years, is recounted in Masi Halab: Al-Thawra al-Maghdoura wa Rassael al-Mohasreen (Aleppo’s Tragedies: The Betrayed Revolution and the Messages of the Besieged). Edited by Sabr Darwish and Mohamed Abu Samra, and published early this year through the cooperation of publishers Almutawassit (Italy) and Shararat Azar (Syria), it looks at recent events in Aleppo thoroughly and from diverse angles through witness testimonies, stories, letters, diaries and data.
The book’s main style is a form of investigative narrative, and it’s safe to say that it is a living document that helps us understand what has happened in Aleppo, from the revolution’s beginning in 2011 to the present day.
It depends heavily on witness accounts. The authors write that they collected stories and edited the book with as little interference as possible. As well as letters and diaries, they include other important perspectives: An article by journalist Matthieu Aikins covering the issue of civil defense, and one by Christoph Reuter on daily life in Aleppo. Both translated from English to Arabic by Abu Samra, they enrich this record of the ongoing war in Aleppo.
The book also includes a detailed presentation of all the military brigades battling on the ground against the old regime, with a thorough account of changes in the dynamics of how they work — for instance, shifting views and politics depending on sources of funding and support, whether from Qatar, Turkey, Syrian businessmen or the Gulf.
It is impossible to find language equivalent to the scale of the tragedy in Aleppo, especially in recent days. Is this a holocaust? Genocide? The worst tragedy human beings have faced in the twenty-first century? These thoughts race through your mind as you watch horrific videos of people being literally ripped apart, and scattered body parts, and people dying in the rubble of their own homes.
To report on the Syrian tragedy, you need tools such as dramatic language. All reports about Syrians living in the line of fire thus convert the Syrian into an eternal victim, starting with the moment of confrontation with fate and ending with death. This portrayal as eternal victim is a prevalent response to the ever-increasing fatalities we encounter every day.
Things are quite different from the point of view of this victim: having to coexist with the tragedy, he or she creates a new language that is very different from our dramatic one. In the book, we are repeatedly shown this marked difference. For instance, a group of civil defense members sing on their way to save others who are trapped under their houses:
Hey fucker, you’re buried
We’re coming to find you.
Hey fucker, you’re burning
We’re coming to put you out.
The book starts by documenting the very early traces of revolution in Aleppo in 2011, and the Syrian regime’s attempt to contain them by separating the city from the countryside. Some anti-regime demonstrations started in rural towns north of the city: In Mare’ on April 9, 2011, people began marching, and the same thing happened in Kobani on April 12. Students from the Faculty of Arts at Aleppo University followed suit on April 13.
Because of the arrests, brutality and repression of demonstrations by security forces and armed thugs, activists began relying on “flying protests,” which spend no more than 15 minutes in each location, such as Tariq al-Bab, Sakhour, Masaken Hanano, Shaar, Merga, Firdaws, Bustan al-Qasr, Sokkary, Zahraa, Halab al-Gedida, Sayf al-Dawla and Salah al-Din. These demonstrations played a big role in breaking people’s fear barriers in the areas where the first main protests broke out outside the university on May 25, expanding the scope of rebellion in Aleppo. At the same time, Aleppo University played a major role in the demonstrations, even as there was a shift toward arms by rebels in rural areas.
In a chapter titled “The City Lets Out its Burdens,” a citizen named Aziz Tebsy narrates the drastic changes daily life underwent in 2011. He says the number of thugs on the street and the rate of felonies and misdemeanors increased exponentially, including kidnappings for ransom, robberies and looting. This was an initial result of a series of presidential pardons granted to criminal prisoners starting in May 2011, and followed by instructions to executive authorities to stop pursuing suspects and fugitives. The book argues that this deliberate lack of oversight allowed these people to rise to powerful positions where they could control urban public space.
Homes transformed into fortresses because of the lack of security. Blacksmiths were brought in to reinforce apartment building doors, new doors were made for those who didn’t bother in earlier times of relative safety, and iron bars were added to easily reached windows. Electricians soon followed to install compressor door springs, surveillance cameras and visual intercom systems to allow residents to see visitors before admitting them.
Still, hammers and gavels were used to dismantle these fortifications, and locks were shot at. Aziz says these scenes were aired on opposition television, to prompt viewers to identify those attacking buildings in broad daylight as armed gangs.
The country’s worsening economic crisis fueled panic about hunger and supplies, increasing the fear of Aleppo’s residents. Some people emptied an entire room in their houses to store all the supplies they could get — dried goods like bulgar, rice, sugar, lentils and peas, and liquids such as oil, margarine and detergents.
Given the pivotal role of Aleppo University in the expansion of the protest movement in the city, and in response to the influx of school students seeking to join the protests there, security forces denied non-university students access to the university, and the faculties filled with security guards and other thugs. Many students opposing the regime thus abandoned their studies and dispersed. Some joined the Free Army, establishing the University Martyrs Battalion and the Abu Amarra Battalion. Others decided to continue peaceful civil activism and were represented in Aleppo’s local council after it was set up. A third group left Aleppo altogether — mostly students who had came to Aleppo to study.
The start of 2012 saw activists begin to arm themselves, and the Free Army emerged from Aleppo’s countryside and started to enter districts of the city. People from those districts then joined the ranks of the Free Army.
On July 20, 2012, the Battle of Aleppo broke out. The Free Army retaliated against regime forces and, through a series of military maneuvers, were able to push them to the southern and west regions of the city — places like Hamdaniya, Halab al-Gedida, and parts of the Salah al-Din district. The rebels gained control of the eastern side of the city, which includes Mashfa al-Ayoun, Masaken Hanano, Ansar al-Sharky, Shaar, Qatargy, Kady Asker, Gasr al-Haj, Firdaws, Sokkary and some parts of Salah al-Din.
In one of these eastern neighborhoods is the Saint Elijah monastery where Christian senior citizens live, while their children live in the western part with the enemy. They are separated by a border known today as “the frontline” because of the heavy fighting that has taken and still takes place there.
After the Battle of Aleppo and the splitting of the city, life in Aleppo became hell. The book speaks of the atmosphere that emerged, specifically how living conditions deteriorated, how public affairs were managed, how institutions were formed and how armed brigades controlled the “liberated” eastern areas.
Eastern Aleppo’s safety depends on the whims of the Assad regime, which has rained down barrel bombs and surface-to-surface missiles on residents at all times, but people also have to deal with the demands of the Free Army. Even looting became fair game, on the pretext that someone is a thug just because they have some wealth, so stripping them of all their possessions was justified.
People may not cross the front line except through the Bustan al-Qasr crossing between eastern and western Aleppo, which sees tragic incidents happen daily. The crossing actually has many names, according to one resident’s diary. Bustan al-Qasr is used because of the geographical association, but there is also: Karag al-Hegz crossing, Rafah Border crossing (with inspiration from Palestine), and the most famous name these days: the Crossing of Death. Regime snipers shoot at people crossing day and night; thousands and thousands of people have been killed that way. The length of time the crossing is open for depends on the mood of the fighters on both sides and on the intensity of their battles.
A horrific story told by a citizen named Fouad Mohamed Fouad demonstrates the horror. A sniper once targeted a woman carrying two children. He shot the first child, and before the woman could fully turn to see, he shot the other one. She stood screaming “Kill me! Kill me too!” but he would not.
Despite being alone and unarmed, Syrians resist the killing and the systematic destruction of the infrastructure of their cities, determined to live, undaunted by the insipid rhetoric of “nothing can be done” that the world dramatically exports to them.
Do we dare to say that the world and its corrupt capitalist media are a disgrace to humanity? Yes. The Syrians have the audacity to write on a giant sign in Kafr Nabl: “Down with the world… Down with everything.”
Standing alone on their feet after shells and barrel bombs hit them, with all their injuries and their homes turned into rubble, they are able to condemn this world.