Note: The Syrian refugee being interviewed in this post is from Aleppo and will be referred to as ‘M’, for protection. This interview was conducted on 14 December, 2016. Update 1: As of 15 December, reports show evacuations are resuming from E.Aleppo. Update 2: As of 16 December, my colleagues near Aleppo report that Iranian backed militias are targeting evacuees, some 800 of them.
“He has two options: die by Assad’s rockets, or, kill himself,” ‘M’ tells me of his cousin who has been treating injured people inside of besieged Eastern Aleppo.
Over last 2 days, Aleppo has been the center of the Assad regime’s brutal campaign to stamp out the last major rebel-controlled city in a five-year war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced millions of people. ‘M’ is one of the those displaced.
Complemented by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-backed militias, Assad’s forces, on 14 December, broke an initial ceasefire deal that was the only light in an otherwise bleak and terrifying 48 hours for Syrians all over the world. The world has watched, yet again, as our everything human about humanity was allowed to disappear. Some of us, for the first time, are witness to a potential genocide in real time through social media. Update: As of 15 December, reports show evacuations are resuming from E.Aleppo.
I spoke with a Syrian colleague, ‘M’, who was born and raised in Aleppo. He and hundreds of thousands of his peers are living as refugees in Gaziantep, a sleepy city in southeast of Turkey, just a one hour drive from Aleppo.
“There was some hope yesterday about the deal for evacuating civilians. But now, the deal is broken and postponed twice. This makes me very hopeless,” says ‘M’. “It is going to be a genocide in Aleppo. Vacuum bombs are being dropped now on civilians homes. One rocket of this type destroys a whole street.”
Because families are fleeing regime bomb attacks from street to street, most of the 50,000-70,000 people left are concentrated in one small area. Most families are concentrate on a street called ‘Sugar Street’, according to ‘M’. This means that one rocket attack can potentially murder more people than ever before.
“I don’t know what the rest of world is even doing. The international community is just giving us antibiotics―-no cure,” according to ‘M’. “More than 70,000 people remain inside besieged Aleppo. My cousin is there, working in hospital to help injured people. He cannot get out. He may be arrested and tortured until death for working in a hospital and trying to help injured. This is considered a crime for the regime. Can you believe that?”
I ask him what Syrians are desperately seeking at this moment.
“Right now, the main ask is to evacuate the civilians in all besieged areas of Syria―not just Aleppo. The urgent thing now is making safe passage for people from inside Syria. They must be evacuated instantly to anywhere that is not being bombed―-maybe in the north country side.”
‘M’ and many Syrians report that the Assad regime are arresting all young men, and forcing them to join the military. “They have a couple of options,” says ‘M’. “Either get arrested and tortured till they die; join the military, or surrender to field executions.”
And what about the Syrian refugees in Gaziantep, helplessly watching their city be destroyed, not too far away?
“Yesterday, I told my mother this is the worst feeling I have had in my entire life...I feel disabled. My city is gone, and Aleppo means everything to all of us as refugees. I am just 1 hour away and I cannot do anything, just post to Facebook. Refugees here in Gaziantep now feel there is no way to return to Aleppo. Now the balance of power is with the regime, and there is no more home to go back to. They are just thinking about how disgusting it is that this is happening in Aleppo, and nobody is doing any action. We are very angry, very sad, and I can’t describe this level of anger and sadness actually.”
‘M’s last memory of home was his last day in Aleppo. He was surrounded by his fiance and friends, singing, laughing and having fun. “This last day was really nice and really sad because I have not seen them since.”
Why did ‘M’ leave?
“I was forced to leave. I left my degree----that degree meant a lot ot me. Now I can’t go back to school. I was forced to leave because the building in front of my home, just meters from my bed, was hit by a bomb. This traumatized me. Every night now that I want to sleep, I still ask myself, ‘Will it come from this side or this side? Maybe I should sleep this way or sleep here to avoid a bomb. Until now I ask these questions. Whenever I hear a big noise, I feel traumatized. I lived in Aleppo for 2 years with the sounds of bombs and bullets. But when it happened so close to my own bed, this traumatized me. The other reason [I fled] was that if I did not leave, then I would be forced to be in the military. If you do this, this means you will be a killer of your own people. I do not want to be a killer or murderer. I do not want to have any weapons. So, I decided to leave the country. I cannot imagine when I will ever go back to my country now.”
And what are the current feelings of Syrian refugees towards the international community and it’s mechanisms for proteciton and accountability?
“I am hopeless with international community--especially the disgusting vetos of the 5 countries.” Here, ‘M’ is referring to the repeated sabotage of peace efforts by Russia and others in the United Nations Security Council.
“Why do these 5 states have veto and others don’t?” he asks. “ I am hopeless and all Syrians are hopeless with the international community now. But there is also no way to do anything without them.”
I mention to ‘M’ that there are thousands of people outside of Syria asking what they can do. How can people who are not Syrian, stand with Aleppo from far away?
“I believe in the power of people more than in the power of leaders”, says ‘M’.
“Please go out on street and protest for Aleppo. This means a lot for us. We don’t want anything else. Just protest and prayer.”
In the coming weeks and months, Aleppo may disappear from the headlines. The world will tend to fall back on comfortable complacency with the ‘meltdown of humanity’ that transpired in Aleppo. Time brings with it the threat of unacceptable acceptance of the murder of empathy, the murder of children, the murder of our collective dignity. Assad, Russia, and Iran will wait for this moment, and in fact depend on this human behavior. We, as a collective humanity, must not let Aleppo fall victim to this— an even bigger tragedy of social acceptance and indifference to genocide. Allowing this means guaranteeing that our kids and future generations will bear witness, and carry the burden of another massacre...another blow to the very universal things that make us human. It is on us. Not leaders. Not the international community. It is on our watch. So in the coming new year, let’s not forget to protest and to pray, as our Syrian changemakers ask.