Life under siege in Syria
This week, BBC aired a fantastic documentary titled Aleppo: Life Under Siege, offering rare peek into the lives of civilians trapped in the embattled city of Aleppo. Commissioned by the Beebs, the extraordinary story of ordinary civilians and their daily struggles to survive is told through the eyes of five citizen journalists.
Described as “an intimate portrait of ordinary people struggling to stay alive, the film goes behind the headlines into the backstreets of east Aleppo to show the horror, chaos and fear of daily bombings and airstrikes, but also the surprising humanity, resilience and hope of the people who couldn’t or chose not to abandon their homes. In any case, you need money to leave and start afresh elsewhere.
One of the world’s oldest and greatest cities, Aleppo had been once home to more than two million people. It was on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. Today, it has been nearly reduced to rubble after five years of civil war and destruction rained from above. The city’s population has come down to around 250,000, some 90,000 of them children.
The last bastion and stronghold of rebels, Aleppo has been constantly under fire from the Syrian regime and its Russian friends, witnessing maximum destruction. Barely 40 km from the border with Turkey and close to crucial supply lines, the city has been at the heart and is the main stage of Syrian conflict.
Divided between opposition-held east and government-controlled west, it is the ordinary civilians who have been suffering the most. Yet the brave hearts who decided to stay on in what remains of their homes and city refuse to be cowed down.
All this has been captured by the five citizen journalists. They document common men and women who show uncommon character when pitted against impossible odds.
There is Ismail who is a member of the White Helmets, a civil defense volunteer group quietly working to save lives in Syria. Responding to emergencies in his battered car that also works as an ambulance, Ismail cannot help being affected by tragedies unfolding all around him. Like when 15 people are killed in an airstrike on a funeral.
The White Helmets are often the first to arrive on the scene after an attack in Syria. The aid group, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, has been credited with saving thousands of lives. It has 3,000 volunteers like Ismail, making a critical difference between life and death. The group is said to have rescued some 60,000 people since 2013.
The group was awarded the Swedish Right Livelihood Award in September, also known as the alternative Nobel, honoring its yeoman service to humanity. Indeed, the White Helmets were hot favorites to win the Nobel Prize this year. Watching Ismail in action you know the group indeed deserves the honor and more.
Then there is the 26-year old cabbie Rehma whose family recently survived an airstrike. His young baby sustained shrapnel wounds. Rehma constantly lives with the fear of losing his loved ones. When he is not driving his taxi, he works as part time ambulance driver for the White Helmets.
Mahmoud is another dad who is worried sick about the safety of his large brood of lovely children. He doesn’t let them get out of sight. They scurry for cover or into his arms whenever they hear an explosion nearby or the thunder of approaching jets.
Arwa, the 19-year-old who got married at the age of 14 and soon lost her husband to a sniper’s bullet when the war started, is another witness. She has a strong reason to stay alive in her 4-year-old daughter. She does not think of ever leaving Aleppo.
Arwa divides her time between working at a nursery of war-scarred children and a dispensary. She dreams of life beyond the war and perhaps marrying again. This is her act of resistance.
Bassem, one of the cameramen, offers his own version of resistance by finding love and deciding to get married. His friends dress him up for the big occasion and throw a party to celebrate as gunships roar in the background.
Another bearded man has been silently and determinedly sending up gas balloons with nails in their bellies into the sky, hoping to bring down Bashar Al Assad’s angels of death. “They can stay up for about 15 hours and wreck plane engines, insha Allah,” he explains with a naïve but touching confidence.
His neighbor, a car mechanic whose garage has been just destroyed in an airstrike, thanks God that he has survived. “Assad sent his warplanes to kill us but Allah decided that today was not our day to die! Alhamdulillah! Alhamdulillah,” he says.
There are other acts of resistance, like children burning tires in the streets, hoping to hide their homes behind the smoke from the eyes of bombers in the sky. They make victory signs with their tiny, little fingers and reaffirm their faith: Allahu Akbar. God is great!
Others scan the sky and say again and again, as though to reassure themselves, that they are not afraid of Assad’s planes. They curse Assad hoping Allah will deal with them.
Yet they remain strangely steadfast, ready to deal with whatever the future has in store for them. It is this faith that seems to have helped the people of Aleppo — and Syria — retain their sanity all these years, holding on to the promise of a new dawn of hope. Alhamdulillah.
• Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based writer. Email: [email protected]
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