This week marks the first anniversary of the evacuation of 35,000 civilians and rebel fighters from the last opposition-held districts of Aleppo city.
The evacuation deal followed a six-month government siege and ground offensive against Aleppo’s rebel-held neighborhoods that left much of the city’s eastern neighborhoods in ruins.
Thousands of people boarded private vehicles or the government’s green buses starting on December 15, 2016 and rode from Aleppo city to the western countryside, Idlib province or nearby government-held territory. By December 22, all remaining opposition fighters and civilians who remained in the last opposition pocket in east Aleppo had left.
The United Nations-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria later classified the mass evacuation as forced displacement, a war crime.
While some evacuees later returned to Aleppo city, thousands did not. Five of those who did not return are residents Syria Direct regularly spoke with during last year’s siege, battle and evacuations. They include the director of the sole orphanage in east Aleppo during the siege, an opposition education official and a former rebel spokesman.
Now living in Syria’s opposition-held northwest and Turkey, the evacuees spoke to Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar and Waleed a-Noufal this week, reflecting on their first year away from their homes in Aleppo.
Their statements have been edited for length and clarity.
[For Syria Direct’s report on Aleppo city one year after the government reasserted control, click here.]
Evacuated Aleppo residents arrive in the opposition-held countryside on December 15, 2016. Photo by Baraa al-Halabi/AFP.
Hisham Skeif, 41, lives in Gaziantep and works with a Syrian revolutionary organization. He has one son, born six months after the Aleppo evacuation. He calls him the “child of two sieges.”
Yesterday, late at night, on the anniversary of my evacuation, I sat with my memories. I was in Aleppo, and I was leaving, stripped bare, with no memories, no friends, nothing. I left without my family, without my mother [Aleppo], without anything. I made my stand in Aleppo, and I left. Now I’m alive, but I have nothing.
I lived through two displacements. I come from western Aleppo, fled to the east for security reasons...then I was displaced again. I lived through it twice.
We can’t analyze [the success or failure] of the revolution from a military perspective. When the revolution began, it didn’t control one speck of ground. It was not an armed revolt for us to judge on a win-or-lose basis. The revolution is an intifada of the people, born from hundreds of thousands of detainees and martyrs, the wounded and disabled, and millions of displaced and homeless people. The struggle has taken on another form, sometimes political and sometimes popular.
I believe that I will return to Aleppo before long. Truth will prevail.
Asmar al-Halabi, 29, was the director of the last orphanage in east Aleppo. The orphanage was bombed during the final siege and battle. Two of his wards were injured. Al-Halabi was evacuated, alongside his wife and 50 orphans, from east Aleppo one year ago. After leaving, they made their way to Idlib, then the north Aleppo town of Azaz, and finally to Jarablus, where the orphanage is now located.
In Jarablus, the children are living in a big, wide-open space. There are 40 orphans with us, and 20 full-time caretakers. After leaving the bombing, siege and hunger behind, the kids are doing really well. But they remember living in Aleppo—the rooms they lived in, the toys they had. They’re living in safety with the hope of going home to a city without war, bombing or destruction.
On this first anniversary, I’m feeling really bad. I’m far from my city, Aleppo, where I lived all the days of my life. The memories don’t leave me: the districts, houses, people, friends, graves. I especially remember the graves of my friends and brothers.
In Aleppo, everything was beautiful, even when the bombs fell and we were evacuated. It all had a sweet flavor because I was in my city, my home, my neighborhood. I was among my family and friends. Now I’ve been gone a whole year. If God wills, we will return. The regime will fall, and we will go back with our heads held high.
We live on the hope of returning.
Muhammad Qadsi worked as the head of the Education Office within the opposition’s Aleppo Local Council and co-founded the education-focused Takaful Al-Sham Charity Organization in 2012. He works with that organization and lives in the Idlib countryside since being evacuated from Aleppo city.
I worked for 20 years as a lawyer [before the revolution]. After the regime found out I was teaching students in rebel areas and speaking to revolutionary media, a decision came out to seize all my assets. I lost all my money—around $40,000—and two offices in [west] Aleppo.
My house in the al-Indharat district of Aleppo was destroyed as well. There was terrible bombing, and it was hit by a number of barrel bombs.
[Being separated from Aleppo] is a terrible pain, it burns the soul. It is a fire ignited within us. We left our homes, abandoned our people and our friends. Perhaps we won’t meet again. All our memories are there.
I don’t know if I’ll return to my city one day. But I’m not sad, since we did everything we could. We stood against the regime. The revolution continues by the will of those who created it—against oppression, tyranny, hunger, arrests, regime agents and the subduing of men and women. It will continue inside every person, despite the hegemony of the regime and its allies, the Arab regimes, and the legitimization of the regime in world public opinion.
East Aleppo residents wait for evacuation in December, 2016. Photo courtesy of Adeeb Mansour.
Muhammad Haj Qasim, the former director of the media office for the rebel faction Fastaqim Kama Umirt Union in Aleppo. He lives in Turkey and works for an opposition media organization.
One year has passed since we were expelled from Aleppo and bid farewell to the city where we were raised, where we learned the meaning of freedom and dignity. It’s a painful event. It’s like a soul that has left a body and been separated from it. Terrible feelings.
I wish we hadn’t left, despite the bombings and hardship. I work for a revolutionary media organization in Turkey. It’s good work. But there’s nothing after Aleppo. I pray for God to return us to her.
The pat of military activity in Syria has become fragmented because of the infighting, competition for influence, power and land. I left Fastaqim because of the aggression and betrayal of [other] factions. [Ed.: Between late 2016 and early 2017, Fastaqim was dissolved as a result of attacks by rival rebel factions and a merger with Ahrar a-Sham.]
Omar al-Halabi is a journalist from Aleppo city. He currently lives and works in the opposition-held west Aleppo countryside.
We still feel the pain, one year later. We never realized we’d leave Aleppo, the city closest to our hearts. God willing, we will return to our homes, our jobs, our offices and spend our days there after tyranny falls. These are unbearable feelings. We left from under the rubble, but I feel as though I lived in a paradise.
[Imagine,] you burn your home, car, tires, office, everything you own so the regime won’t benefit from it. All the blood and sweat of your life burnt between your hands so the regime wouldn’t loot and steal it.
In western Aleppo, I have steady work as a journalist. But there’s a huge difference, between Aleppo and here.
These interviews are part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of northwestern Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.