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Fractured Memories of Aleppo: A Personal Account of Revolution, Siege, and Survival

Often, without even realizing it, my hand brushes against my right shoulder, where I feel the lingering ache of a fracture.

I manage a smile despite the pain, but what hurts beyond measure is that someone took away my physical health for no reason other than having a weapon that could have killed me. And yet, they chose to leave me with just a fracture, and leave their face imprinted in my memory for as long as I'm alive.

What I came away with from the days of the revolution in Aleppo was a fracture in the bone of my right scapula. While it's often claimed that the revolution took off relatively late in Aleppo, the truth is that when it finally ignited within the city, the regime's response was shockingly brutal.

Some towns in the countryside of Aleppo preceded the city in holding protests against the regime, including Maraa on April 9, 2011, and Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) on the 12th of the same month. After those protests erupted in the countryside, a demonstration took place at the Faculty of Arts in Aleppo University on the 13th day of the same month.

Due to arrests, suppression, and brutality against protesters by security forces and thugs, activists resorted to ‘flash protests’, lasting no more than a quarter of an hour, in neighborhoods including ‘Tariq al-Bab’, ‘Al-Sakhour’, ‘Masakin Hanano’, ‘Al-Sha'ar’, ‘Al-Marjah’, ‘Al-Firdous’, ‘Bustan al-Qasr’, ‘Al-Sukkari’, ‘Jam'iyat al-Zahra’, ‘New Aleppo’, ‘Seif al-Dawla’, and ‘Salah al-Din’. These protests played a significant role in effectively shattering the barrier of fear that had been thus far constraining the population. It was on May 25, 2011, that the first protest ventured beyond the confines of the university, serving as a catalyst for the protest movement within the city.

The initial movement took on forms beyond protests due to the intense security measures, such as raising the revolutionary flag on important landmarks like the Aleppo Citadel, or writing opposition slogans on the university dormitory wall.

Security forces and thugs responded to school students joining the protests by restricting entry, spreading throughout the campus and its entrances. However, as teenagers, we did not hesitate to jump over the walls to participate in the protests alongside university students. The experience of joining the university protests was a turning point in my life at the age of 17. It marked the first time I entered Aleppo University, not as a student, but as an activist. Through networking and chance encounters, I managed to interact with various groups of anti-regime activists who were older and more politically aware than me. I learned a lot from them, and their discussions and disagreements piqued my curiosity to understand revolutionary terms and methods I hadn't heard of before.

I witnessed their debates and conflicts, but what united them was their hatred for the regime. Interestingly, I found myself echoing the words of university students to my friends at school, sitting on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes, pretending to be knowledgeable about the political scene, as if I were a contemporary Che Guevara.

Aleppo University students adopted various strategies to confront the repression of security forces and informants, who were conscripted by the regime within the university campus. For instance, at times, simultaneous protests were organized to confuse security forces. On other occasions, demonstrations were orchestrated by the students of neighboring faculties, convening in nearby squares to amass large numbers. This maneuver made it challenging for regime forces assigned to the area to suppress the gatherings, fearing potential student uprisings. This granted the protesters extra time to rally, as they awaited reinforcements, while also leading to an increase in the number of sit-ins and protest assemblies within the colleges.

Any sit-in was met with aggression from thugs and security elements, prompting students to barricade themselves within the college buildings. Outside, thugs congregated, surrounding the buildings, waiting for anyone to emerge to capture them individually or storm the college, as witnessed in the Faculty of Dentistry building where I studied for five years. There, security forces and thugs stormed the building, resulting in arrests, injuries, and the destruction of the college laboratories.

I still vividly recall the demonstration known as the "International Observers," a moniker we bestowed upon it. After that day, Aleppo was no longer the same. The delegates of "observers" decided to visit Aleppo University on May 17, 2012, acknowledging its status as one of the largest bastions of revolutionary activity in Syria. This occasion sparked the city's biggest protest to date, filling the university square as hundreds of students converged around the observers' vehicles, parked in front of the Ba'ath Party branch on campus. Chanting anti-regime slogans and advocating for freedom, the students engaged energetically. As the observers arrived, the regime's forces retreated from the scene. With time, both the observers and the protesters moved towards the university's main gate, continuing the demonstration. The students lowered the Syrian flag from the flagpoles and raised the banner of the revolution. The numbers of demonstrators grew exponentially. In that moment, I finally grasped the essence of freedom. It felt as though the regime had fallen, as if I were crafting a complete history for my country. The demonstration persisted for three hours. Regime forces didn't hesitate to employ tear gas or physical force against the demonstrators, even in front of the observers.

My involvement in the revolution extended beyond schools and the university. I didn't hesitate to participate in protests in neighborhoods like Salah al-Din, Seif al-Dawla, and al-Azamiyah. There, I encountered different groups of protesters. I met workers ground down by poverty, unable to bear their destitution any longer. I also encountered unemployed youth barred from entering university. They had nothing to lose and exhibited a fierce determination in confronting the regime, resolute in their commitment to revolutionary work. Interacting with them has given me a deeper understanding of why we revolt, how we strategize during revolts, how our demands and objectives differ, and how we were not a single mold. I didn’t learn eloquent words to advocate my cause in those encounters. But instead I learned that only iron can break iron, that an eye cannot resist a drilling tool. If someone strikes your right cheek, you should spit in their face and strike them on their left and right cheek in response.

We lost many friends during the protests. Some were killed by Assad's thugs, others were arrested and not heard about since. Some joined the revolutionary armed factions and were martyred in battles. We would utilise funeral processions and memorials as opportunities to stage protests, with heartfelt tears. Often, security forces would attack these gatherings, resulting in more martyrs. This pattern would repeat itself, leading to more funerals, where grief for those who sacrificed their lives for freedom and dignity mingled with the fervor of protest.

In truth, my transition between the university protests and the neighborhood uprisings in Aleppo equipped me with numerous tools to advocate for our cause. I now realize that every context demands its own approach. You cannot engage in a dialogue with someone who chants "Glory to the barrel bombs" while quoting Marx, Gramsci, and Spinoza. Yet, you also need the refined style, etiquette, and adherence to protocols when advocating for your cause and garnering support on the global stage. This approach might be termed pragmatic or realistic – the labels are inconsequential to me. What matters is following all ethical paths to champion my cause.

It's painful to recall a disagreement with a fellow comrade after my last demonstration in Aleppo, centered around the desired image of the state and Islamic slogans. I argued for a secular state while he argued that secularism equated to atheism and disbelief. The debate escalated into a brawl, with our friends intervening.

The peaceful protests were accompanied by a transformation in Aleppo's daily life. As pro-Assad militias spread across the city, crime rates surged – theft, robbery, and abductions for ransom. These were the initial consequences of a series of amnesty decrees for criminal prisoners, beginning with a presidential amnesty decree in May 2011. More decrees and executive instructions followed, halting the pursuit of criminal offenders. They seized control and authority within the city, with the security apparatus deliberately ignoring their transgressions.

Syrian media, both state-owned and privately represented by channels like "Al-Dunya," distorted facts and fabricated reality beyond recognition. In a famous incident, they alleged that protesters stored weapons in Salah al-Din Mosque, while all of Aleppo knew the weapons were planted by actors for the scene. They relentlessly crafted narratives about conspiracies against the state's authority, often attributed to protesters or "infiltrators" as Assad liked to label them. A memorable scene imprinted in Aleppo's memory involves Aleppo-based propagandist Shadi Halwah preaching about the integrity of Syrian-state media, while a young man in the background hurled a shoe at him, exclaiming: "Syrian media lies!"

Interestingly, contrary to the stereotypical image of Aleppians, they did, in fact, begin stockpiling food in their homes. Some even went further, emptying entire rooms to store provisions. With the onset of power cuts during the Battle of Aleppo, they discarded large quantities of spoiled meat in the streets, underscoring their priority for sustenance.

Aleppo’s activists began to arm themselves in early 2012. Factions of the Free Syrian Army from the rural outskirts entered certain neighborhoods in the city. This coincided with Aleppo residents joining armed brigades.

The Battle of Aleppo erupted on the twentieth of July 2012, where fighters from the Free Syrian Army engaged security forces loyal to the regime. They managed to push the regime’s forces to the southern and western parts of the city after a series of military operations. They also succeeded at gaining control over the eastern part of the city.

I was a high school student at the time. Schools were suspended, and I lived in the Al-A'zamiyah area, on the front lines. To be frank, at the beginning, I didn't know for sure whether my neighborhood was under regime control or opposition control. However, with a group of friends, we didn't hesitate to sneak into the Salah al-Din district, which was under the control of the Free Syrian Army, to welcome them, commend their efforts, congratulate them on their victories, and encourage them to continue.

Aleppo was divided into eastern and western parts after this battle. The residents of the east fell under the mercy of barrel bombs and ground-to-ground missiles raining down every day from the regime’s side of the city. My neighborhood joined the west after fierce battles, an area that suffered from a prolonged siege by opposition factions for several months. Civilians could traverse the frontline separating eastern and western Aleppo solely through the “Bustan al-Qasr,” crossing, a source of innumerable tragic stories.

This crossing holds a variety of alternative names, including "Karaj al-Hajz Crossing" and a reference to the Palestinian reality: "Rafah Crossing". Yet, it is most commonly recognized today as the "Crossing of Death." This grim moniker has been earned due to the tragic toll inflicted by regime snipers, claiming thousands of civilian lives since its inception. The ebb and flow of the crossing, with approximately 100,000 individuals traversing it daily in both directions, remains at the mercy of armed groups on either side. The situation is further exacerbated by the relentless intensity of the ongoing battles.

During that period, starting in 2013, Aleppo University regained prominence but in a tragic way. On January 15, 2013, a Syrian regime warplane targeted the roundabout of the Faculty of Architecture at Aleppo University and the university dormitories with two missiles. This resulted in the death of at least 87 people and injuring over 160 others. This incident remained vivid in the minds of Aleppo's residents and drew international attention as a "blatant violation" of the safety of vital educational institutions.

Until now, the reasons behind this dreadful incident remain unclear. The university was already under the control of the regime, yet it appears that this massacre was revenge for the courageous revolutionary acts undertaken by students at Aleppo University. Similar to previous atrocities, and despite varying methods of execution, the College of Architecture massacre in Aleppo has managed to evade any form of accountability. It stands as a somber chapter in the annals of the Syrian revolution, remembered as the "College of Architecture Students - Martyrs of Knowledge."

For four years, Aleppo remained divided between eastern neighborhoods controlled by opposition factions and western neighborhoods under the control of the Syrian regime. Throughout this period, it witnessed intense battles that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and massive destruction of buildings and infrastructure in the eastern neighborhoods, subjected to constant aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces.

A military operation by regime forces led to the full siege of the eastern neighborhoods in December 15, 2016. The siege was marked by the use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, cluster bombs, and indiscriminate shelling. This operation eventually led to the evacuation of civilians and opposition fighters from the besieged area. The evacuation process lasted for a week, and shortly after the last buses carrying evacuees departed to opposition-controlled areas outside the city, the Syrian regime declared on December 22, 2016, that it had fully recaptured Aleppo.

With this victory, the Syrian regime recorded one of its most significant achievements since armed conflict began in 2011. On the other hand, losing eastern Aleppo marked one of the biggest setbacks for opposition factions.

Since then, with the support of Iranian, Lebanese, and Iraqi fighters, along with Russian air cover, regime forces have achieved successive battlefield gains, regaining control over many areas.

Throughout the Battle of Aleppo, which can be described as the "Stalingrad of Syria”, more than two hundred thousand civilians, including many children, were deprived of food and medicine due to the imposed siege on the city. The areas of Aleppo were constantly subject to shelling and attacks by the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran. Hospitals and schools were not spared but deliberately targeted to impact the morale of the population. This siege is considered one of the longest in modern warfare and one of the bloodiest battles in the Syrian armed conflict. It resulted in the death of an estimated 31,000 Syrians. Even the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group, were targeted by the Assad regime and Russia, leading to casualties among its members.

The White Helmets faced numerous risks and challenges while carrying out rescue work amidst the airstrikes carried out by the Syrian regime and Russian forces. They dealt with psychological pressure and raced against time to search for and rescue the injured from beneath the rubble to transport them to hospitals. They were formed in early 2013 amidst the constant barrel bomb attacks on Aleppo's neighbourhoods. Activists volunteered to conduct search and rescue operations, evacuate civilians from conflict areas, provide medical services, as well as firefighting, managing emergency shelters, providing emergency housing and supplies, and conducting hasty burials for the deceased.

I cannot describe the pain I experienced daily as I received news from Eastern Aleppo. I watched as the airstrikes targeted civilians on the other side of the city, heard the explosions, and witnessed the regime’s thugs heading out to commit atrocities against the residents. At that time, I was pursuing my studies in the dental college and living in areas under regime control, specifically in the Al-A'zamiyah neighborhood near Aleppo International Stadium, which had become a military point controlled by Iranian militias and Hezbollah. I couldn't even express my sorrow; I had to feign happiness and celebration. Of course, we were expected to celebrate the victories of our heroic army against “terrorists”. This was propaganda we were expected to indulge in, otherwise, you could arouse suspicion and risk arrest.

I don't think many of you would understand this feeling because you haven't experienced being unable to express your grief and solidarity while massacres are happening just kilometres away from you. Or, in short, perhaps because you're not from Syria.

People residing in regime-controlled Western Aleppo also faced an onslaught of brutality. We went to our universities and schools not knowing we would return home safely. The relentless sniper operations made navigating the heart of Aleppo impossible, with many streets being off-limits due to snipers constantly targeting civilians who were passing by.

Seeing bodies lying in the streets as we left our homes became a regular occurrence. In some neighborhoods, Aleppo's residents woke up to the smell of charred bodies in cars and on the streets. No one dared to move those bodies because snipers would use the opportunity to claim more victims. Moving around the city was incredibly difficult due to checkpoints, manned by thugs and security forces who didn't hesitate to insult and beat citizens, especially young people. If you were from a rebellious city like Homs, Daraa, or Idlib, like myself, their barbarism and extortion would increase exponentially. Many young people couldn't leave their neighborhoods due to fear of passing through checkpoints, especially those eligible for compulsory military service or conscription. With the thugs in control of the streets, kidnapping became rampant. Hearing stories of abductions in Aleppo became unsurprising. Many families had to sell their belongings or go into debt to free their loved ones from kidnappers.

Watching your friends leave one after the other is another tale of pain that I narrate with great sorrow. As the situation became unbearable, and security and economic conditions worsened, leaving became the only option. I do not believe there's a form of suffering that Aleppo's residents haven't experienced. Losing friends and relatives was one of the hardest. I still remember the moment my friend told me he was planning to leave Aleppo. Dozens of friends followed suit, and our circle became smaller and smaller.

Losing a friend meant losing so much, especially as you were losing everything else every day. You lose your humanity to a killing machine that doesn't stop, you lose your dignity at checkpoints manned by inhumane thugs, and you lose your future as you watch the city you lived in your whole life crumble before your eyes. And after all that, you find yourself all alone.

My friend was lucky not to witness the so-called presidential elections of 2015. The scenes were a surreal and sick joke. For the first time in Syria's history under the Assad regime, “elections”, and not referendums, were held. Two unknown figures ran against Bashar al-Assad in what was clearly a comedic farce. Their campaign posters featured their pictures with a comically posed Bashar al-Assad in the background. On election day, Aleppo University decided to hold a mandatory exam for all students. A student with a blue ink-marked finger had voted by fingerprint, and those who hadn't voted were coerced, sometimes threatened, into voting. Democracy was enforced upon us, a democracy that only recognized Assad as the winner of an election whose results were known to everyone before it had even began. Assad's message was clear: "Do as you wish, I'm here to stay."

An agreement was reached in late 2018 between Russia, Iran, and Turkey to disarm factions in the weapon-free zone within Syrian opposition territory in the northwest. By late April 2019, Syrian and Russian air forces launched an intense aerial campaign against opposition factions. This campaign was supported by artillery and rocket fire from the Syrian and Russian armies, along with Iranian forces and their allied militias. The Russian government justified the escalation by claiming the agreement had not been upheld by opposition factions. After months of fierce battles, the Syrian government managed to regain control of northwest Syria, causing the displacement of around 900,000 people, mostly women and children. Many were forced to sleep without a roof over their heads, enduring freezing conditions as refugee camps became too cramped, resulting in the deaths of infants.

Since then, Aleppo has been under the control of the Syrian regime. I left about three years ago, and the memories I carry are mostly harsh. Even now, years after the tragedy, you can still see a lot of destruction in the eastern parts of the city. It's like the war just happened yesterday.

People in Aleppo believe that the regime is deliberately ignoring these neighborhoods as a punishment for taking part in the revolution. Life in Aleppo is pretty clear-cut: either you live by the measures of this barbaric killing machine, or you don't really live at all. The regime's approach is all about punishment, blockades, hunger, displacement, and ultimately, death.

No one, neither from the nearby region nor the international community, has been able to put an end to the bloodshed and the millions being forced out of their homes. Some may choose to move on, even while the crimes of this regime go on, but we will never forget and we will never forgive.


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