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From Liberated Aleppo

This post is part of a special series of articles by blogger and activist, Marcell Shehwaro, describing the realities of life in Syria during the ongoing armed conflict between forces loyal to the current regime, and those seeking to oust it.

Taking flight in Aleppo. Photo by Zaid Muhamed. Used with position.

Taking flight in Aleppo. Photo by Zaid Muhamed. Used with position.

I am writing this article while repeatedly hitting the F5 key on my computer to reload the Facebook page with news about Aleppo, to see what the fighting on the front lines brings.

It seems my city is living a new situation, moving towards the liberation of some of its parts. We still don't know the size or extent of the new areas, nor can we verify what we're hearing. But all of us—those eagerly awaiting the liberation as well as those against it—are anxiously following the news.

The revolutionaries are hoping to reunite parts of the city, which has been divided for about two years. With some areas under government control, and others in the hands of the rebels, we residents of Aleppo have ourselves become a divided people, separated within ourselves. Parts of us live on in the memories we have left behind in areas of the city which we cannot visit for security reasons, while other parts try to integrate themselves into new areas of the city, and force ourselves to love these places.

The liberation of Aleppo started in July 2012. On that day we had dreams of peace which we are reassessing today, realising how naïve we were to assume that a peaceful movement of any magnitude would be able to overthrow a regime backed by international powers, on the one hand, and whose crimes—among them the use of chemical weapons—have been met with international silence. Between our dreams of instigating change in a peaceful manner in the exhausted countryside subjected to months of bombardment from the heart of the city, the liberation of huge swaths of the city took place. The armed revolutionary resistance forces took control of 70 per cent of Aleppo.

Liberation is usually accompanied by the destruction that takes place wherever firearms are used. The chaos and vandalism are compounded by the creativity of the regime and its airforce, which leaves behind the horrible stench of death wherever they fly. Suddenly, all the inhabitants of the liberated areas disappeared, moving either to the regime-controlled or occupied areas, which are safer from the bombardment and fighting, or towards the refugee camps on the Turkish border.

The four million inhabitants of Aleppo have no doubt been affected by the arrival of war at their doorstep. Those who believed in the importance of change as well as those who resisted it, have felt the impact of the liberation, which has changed the flow of time and life: the opening and closing hours of shops, the use of fuel, the constant cuts in the supply of electricity, water and communications services.

On the side of the war would rise warlords, profiteers who would not want the battle to end, who wanted to steal all that was good in us to sell to others.

The schools in the government-controlled areas were turned into refugee centres, to accommodate those who left the liberated areas and provide them with humanitarian aid: a wonderful gesture of comradeship. We believed this situation to be temporary, so some of us took the life-changing decision to move to the liberated areas and fill the places of the journalists, doctors and aid workers who'd fled. We were under the illusion that the complete liberation of the city would not be long in coming, and that we would soon be reunited with our families and return to our normal lives. Many left with nothing more than a small suitcase, not realising that they would be prevented from returning to their homes for almost two years.

At the time, I lived in the occupied part of Aleppo. On an almost weekly basis I was called in for a different type of interrogation—an experience I will write about one day. The interrogation was enough to paralyse all my activities related to the revolution, but it wasn't sufficiently threatening to force me to move to liberated Aleppo or outside Syria.

The areas which we heard were being liberated were as strange to us as the jungles of Africa, and didn't seem part of the city I have lived in my entire life. They were poor areas which we had no opportunity to learn about because of the lack of on-the-ground social work in Syria. They were areas which our social class, and perhaps our sectarian tendencies, prevented us from visiting before.

It's said that the Syrian revolution ignited the fire of sectarianism; some claim that before the revolution we lived together in harmony. But the bitter truth is that we lived side by side, in boxes which completely separated us from each other. It was in fact the revolution that brought all Syrians together, regardless of class, culture and sect. It wasn't until after the revolution that I heard the names of some of the district in liberated Aleppo, even though they're a mere a 10-minute car ride from my own neighbourhood. I had never had friends from those areas, and it would only after the revolution that I ever entertained the possibility that I would.

Salahuddin? The first revolutionary neighbourhood in Aleppo, and where I spent an entire year protesting almost daily? I never knew it exisited on the map of my city until 2012.

Aleppo was being liberated. It was being destroyed. And those of us sequestered in our cardboard boxes became subject to choices and uncertainties which mirrored those being experienced by the city itself. We had to chose between remaining captive in a self-imposed refugee centre, in an atmosphere of fear and the resistance of change; and liberating ourselves from that places in which we walled ourselves and our possessions, moving towards the others, joining them in the revolution with all its pain and sharing with them the anxiety and fear of barrels falling from the sky.

We complained constantly about all the friends we left on the other side whom we can no longer see. With every battle, a new extremist or a spiteful man wanted to rule us with his gun. We had to bear the feelings of neediness, sadness, and accumulated memories. Aleppo was changing, and we were changing with it.

Aleppo was liberated. Its new borders remained stable for almost two years, separated by a bloody passage manned by regime snipers ready to reap ten lives a day from among those who resisted the separation and crossed from one part of the city to the next. The alternative route between Aleppo's two sections, by car, took 10 hours, instead of the one hour it did previously. One day I will write about the impact of this division, and how the regime succeeded in making us spite each other.

The Aleppo which wasn't yet liberated was subject to the whims of the dictator. When he signalled his planes to rest, its residents would lead an almost normal life; and when he decided that no life should exist there, they'd have no life at all. This Aleppo is also on the threshold of a question: Are the liberated areas really liberated, given the existence of those who are forcing the city to look only like them? We were forced to lose parts of ourselves constantly, with every friend we have left on the other side.

Aleppo is redrawing its boundaries once again with blood: blood being spilled so we can move towards liberation, blood being spilled to maintain the status quo, blood being spilled to make us pay the price for opposing the oppressor.

Today we are all looking forward to a miracle that would make us all live in one city. So we can summon up the courage to dream of going back to having one state where we are all united in freedom. 

We have the right to dream of unity.

And I have the right to dream of living as an individual, whole.

Marcell Shehwaro blogs at marcellita.com and tweets at @Marcellita, both primarily in Arabic. Read the other posts in the series here, here, here, here, herehere and here.

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