‘Aleppo will remain a mark of shame on the international community': 5 residents say goodbye

The evacuation of civilians and fighters from the 3km pocket of land still held by Syrian opposition forces in east Aleppo city began on Thursday. As of early afternoon Damascus time, the first group of buses carrying the wounded reached rebel territory in the countryside west of Aleppo.

Aleppo, the ancient industrial center in Syria’s north, was slow to join the uprising that began in 2011. The first mass protests in the city were held roughly one year after they began elsewhere in Syria. But, as elsewhere, protests ultimately gave way to armed conflict, airstrikes and blockade.

This week, after more than four years, the battle for Syria’s second city drew to its bloody close.

A revived ceasefire deal brokered by Turkey and Iran provides for the evacuation of an estimated 50,000 people—civilians, fighters and their families—from east Aleppo to opposition-held territories outside the city. Aleppo will return to the control of the Assad regime.

On Thursday, the first day of the evacuation, Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier spoke with five east Aleppo residents. If the ceasefire deal stands, they will leave their city in the coming days.

 A boy waits on a bus before leaving east Aleppo on Dec. 15, the first day of evacuation. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Media Center.

Among the five civilians Syria Direct interviewed, one is a citizen journalist, who sits in his home, waiting to leave. The bodies of his son and parents lie under rubble elsewhere in the city, in neighborhoods recently captured by the regime. The journalist can’t get to them to give them a funeral. Meanwhile, an orphanage director looks forward to a better life outside of the city for the children in his care. A lawyer is exhausted, but wishes he could stay. A doctor is in shock.

A nurse wonders if the city’s countless, silent dead lost their lives for nothing. 

“All my words betray me,” she writes. “The pain is too much.”

Abdelqader Abu Salah, 29, is a citizen journalist. He is a married father of three children, one of whom died in the latest bombings, along with his parents.

Today, only our bodies say goodbye to Aleppo. Our souls remain in its streets and squares. The memories of our childhoods, the memories of the massacres, those are in our minds. We are forced to leave. There is nothing left that we can do.

In every house, there is a martyr. As for me, my mother, father and son all died in the latest attacks. Their bodies are still under the rubble. They haven’t been buried yet.

In these moments, I wish I would die, rather than leave. But I hope to God that we will return victorious.

I have stayed in my house, in the Mashhad district, throughout the days of bombings. My neighbors and I have burned everything we own—our cars, our houses. Now we sit and wait to leave Aleppo. These are moments of defeat and tears. You can see it in the faces of all the people of Aleppo today.

 “Oh Aleppo.” Photo courtesy of Revolution Spring.

Asmar al-Halabi is the director of the only orphanage in east Aleppo, which houses and cares for 50 children.

Today, the kids were just kids. They’re happy not to hear shelling. They laughed when we were told that we’d be evacuated to the countryside. The only home they’ve known is the orphanage.

We are now waiting for the Red Crescent to evacuate the children and orphanage staff. I don’t know what to say when I hear the children’s laughter. I am happy, because there is nothing left for us in Aleppo. If we stay, they die.

I am all these children have. They lost their loved ones. I am glad that they might have a better life in the countryside.

Ghassan al-Abed is a lawyer who works with the Judicial Council in east Aleppo. He is also the father of Bana al-Abed, a seven-year-old girl who, along with her mother, tweets updates from the city.

Since the beginning of the revolution, we worked to document the crimes of the Assad regime in pictures and documents, but Aleppo has faced a war of extermination. East Aleppo has been wiped out. The infrastructure is completely destroyed, alongside 80 percent of the residences.

The people of Aleppo have lived a bitter, oppressive reality. They are tired.

You ask me about how I feel, saying farewell to my city. You can’t ask any person being forcibly displaced from his city what he feels. After all this blood and destruction, Aleppo is destroyed, not fit to live in.

Even with all that, if we could have held out, we would have stayed and lived in it despite its destruction.

Our hearts are sick, leaving Aleppo. We gave everything that we had. We have nothing left to protect it with.

Doctor Yahya, 38, worked at the now-defunct al-Hakim Children’s Hospital in east Aleppo.

Ever since the revolution began, I never expected to leave Aleppo. We’re in shock from everything happening around us. It is as though we are in a dream. Today we leave a place too precious to say goodbye to. I’m really going to leave Aleppo. My heart is broken. The memories of war and destruction remain, too cruel for any human to bear.

In recent weeks, we lived in a state of constant movement and displacement. We went from place to place because of the continuous bombings, the destruction of our homes and the homes of our relatives. We didn’t realize that, in the end, we would leave Aleppo itself, without achieving what we worked for since the revolution began.

Aleppo will remain a mark of shame on the international community, which is still paying lip service to humanitarianism and human rights. Every meaning of humanity fell and disappeared in Aleppo, with the souls and blood of the innocents who have died and are still dying. 

History will remember how hard we tried to stand strong, and that we did not surrender our city, despite all the massacres. We are only people. Great countries are fighting us, using internationally banned weapons against us with impunity.

 A shoe in the rubble in east Aleppo, September 2016. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Media Center.

Umm Yazan al-Halabi, 30, worked as a nurse in the al-Hakim Children’s Hospital. Here, she addresses her city directly.

“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” [Ed.: An excerpt from Surah Maryam, in the Qur’an.]

How beautiful your doomsday is, Aleppo. I am crushed, leaving you.

The bombings were kinder, for me, than leaving. But the nations gathered against us. The scenes of our deaths, the destruction of our homes on top of our heads became old news. It happened again and again and the blood of your children became cheap in the eyes of the world.

I would rather stay, despite the bombing, because I’ve grown accustomed to the sound of rockets and all kinds of weapons.

I leave Aleppo today with tears of defeat. I will look out onto your destroyed streets and compare them to memories of the time I spent there.

I write to you, and all my words betray me. The pain is too much. I think with anguish of your young men, children, women who sacrificed in order to stay free. I ask myself if their lives were lost in vain.

Will a day come, after everything that has happened, that we will return to the control of the murderer? That we will return to obey him?

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.