For Survivors of Aleppo Siege, the News From Syria Is Especially Painful
Posted April 16, 2018 10:19 p.m. EDT
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — As the government siege of a rebel-held Syrian suburb has unfolded, one group of Syrian exiles has felt especially tormented.
They are opposition leaders and activists from Aleppo who survived the devastating government chokehold of their own city.
Fourteen months after they were forced to evacuate the last neighborhoods of Aleppo, they are reliving their trauma from southern Turkey, where they have been spending hours online encouraging activists and rebels in the eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, the Syrian capital, and helping to disseminate videos and news from the latest siege.
“The period that we witnessed and lived in Aleppo was a real hell,” said Hisham al-Skeif, one of the civilian leaders of the Aleppo protests now living in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep. “Now what is happening in eastern Ghouta is bringing it all back.
“The hardest thing is to see despair in people’s faces,” he added, clenching his fists and screwing up his face at the memories and at one point breaking into tears. “They think they are going to die and no one cares.”
A writer and Arabic teacher from an old Aleppo trading family, al-Skeif became one of the most outspoken civilian leaders opposed to President Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, who was president before him.
Al-Skeif’s baby son was asphyxiated by the dust of a bombardment. The father made a last, ferocious denunciation of the Syrian government on video just before the evacuation of Aleppo in December 2016. That placed him on top of the government’s wanted list.
“This regime does not fear weapons. It fears words,” he said. “We had to keep going in our revolution because if we went back, our children would have to live under a third generation of Assads.”
In exile, many of the Aleppo protesters have dispersed or taken a break, exhausted and depressed at the defeat of their dream of freedom from dictatorship. Yet they feel compelled to share their experience, even if they think the outside world only tunes in after the ghastliest horrors, like the April 7 attack that witnesses and medical workers say used chemical weapons to kill scores of Syrians in Douma, a town in eastern Ghouta.
The United States, Britain and France joined in airstrikes Saturday to punish the Assad government for the attack; Syria, and its backers Russia and Iran, has denied being behind the attack.
Monther Etaki, a former design student who was one of the last media activists to document the Aleppo siege to the end, said of the act of bearing witness: “It’s worthless, but it’s a duty to do it.”
A former fine arts student, Etaki, 28, struggles to support his extended family with freelance media and design work.
“I lost my job,” he joked, referring to his activism in Aleppo. “For people who were relying on me for information, I am no longer useful.”
But he continues to blog and post on social media about the war in Syria and to help those still resisting inside.
“I am just talking to friends in Ghouta and giving advice how to survive because I have some experience,” he said. “I am telling them to save their equipment and not be worried, be calm, that everything will be solved in the end.”
Fearful for his family — his son was born July 10, 2016, just before the siege of Aleppo began — he said he lost control at times toward the end. “Once I cried,” he recalled. “Once I burned my car. I forgot to take my things.”
Many of the opposition members set fire to their cars and belongings to prevent them falling into the hands of the pro-government militias that were encroaching into the rebel neighborhoods. In the end, the last to leave were allowed to drive their cars out since there was a lack of buses and in the snow and freezing night, the soldiers stopped checking all those evacuating.
Etaki even left the gas on in his home, hoping to destroy it so the pro-government militias could not use it.
“I was thinking it would burn, but then we did not evacuate that day and I had to go back,” he laughed. There was still just enough gas in the bottle to keep warm that night, he said.
When he did leave, he said, Russian soldiers stole his computers, and his cameras and other equipment were taken as well.
Dr. Hamza al-Khatib, who became known for his work running the last functioning medical center in Aleppo, Al-Quds hospital, warned a friend in Ghouta how the siege would play out.
“The beginning was a complete besiegement, not allowing anything in or out,” he said. “Then there were a lot of rumors, people coming who wanted to negotiate. That takes about three months. Then heavy shelling, barrel bombs and gas attacks.”
Al-Khatib urged his colleague to stay safe somewhere and wait for the organized evacuation.
“I am telling him just not to lose faith in life,” he said. “You and your wife will live and don’t listen to the rumors. We heard that a lot in Aleppo, that everyone is a traitor.”
Many who went over to the government side were arrested, and others who chose to stay in their homes were killed by the pro-government militias who took control after the evacuation, al-Skeif said.
For those who did evacuate, the transition to a normal life has been hard in a different way. Molham Ekaidi, 29, an architecture student who became a rebel commander, spent the first four months in Turkey sitting inside his parents’ home, staring at the walls.
“For years, you only live for the moment. You do not think of the future and you do not think about the previous days,” he said, describing his years as a fighter. “I had to think how to make my living, how to raise my children. It was very hard to start thinking. It took four months before I spoke about architecture.”
When Turkey opened its universities to Syrian undergraduates to complete their degrees, he joined the final year in the architecture degree course.
“I didn’t remember anything,” he said.
His fellow students are 10 years younger than he is, and, he said, they know little about the Syrian revolution.
“It is hard to connect with them,” he went on. “They don’t know anything of my life.”
He avoids watching video footage from Syria, but has not ruled out returning to fight if circumstances were to change. Like other survivors, he describes restarting with smaller dreams.
“I do not have the big dream to have a free country,” he said, “just an aim to make a better life.” Al-Skeif said he was lost.
“There is no plan for my life,” he said. But then he rallies and talks of a new political project for Syrian youth. “I have a dream for girls like my daughters to have political awareness,” he said, “so they never have an Assad in the future.”
Al-Khatib, 31, seems the most positive and confident of the survivors. He works for a relief organization, supplying medical relief to hospitals inside Syria and is planning with his wife to further his education.
“Now we think is a dead time,” he said. “So we thought we can use this time.”
But he is also devastatingly realistic about returning to Syria.
“Maybe my daughter will grow up and by the age of 20 will never have been to her country,” he said.