Those flee­ing Aleppo tell of their pain

‘This revo­lu­tion is one of the big­gest fail­ures in the world’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Death in Aleppo was per­sonal for Mo­dar Sheko. He lost his sis­ter to govern­ment bomb­ing early in the re­volt. His brother was killed last month. And as they looked for a place to bury him, another airstrike killed his fa­ther. Still, Shekho held out in the be­sieged city as long as he could.

When he fi­nally was forced to evac­u­ate Fri­day, he made a video bid­ding farewell to the city. “We were ask­ing for our free­dom. This is what we get,” he said against a back­drop of bombed-out build­ings and thou­sands of peo­ple wait­ing for buses to take them away from Aleppo. But even in his first hours of ex­ile, the 28-year-old nurse longed to re­turn.

“My soul is torn out more with each step away from Aleppo,” he whis­pered in an au­dio mes­sage to The As­so­ci­ated Press, not want­ing to wake other evac­uees in their tem­po­rary home in a vil­lage west of the an­cient city. He and thou­sands of oth­ers held tight to their crum­bling en­clave de­spite a gru­el­ing four years of war. Bit by bit over three weeks, the govern­ment of­fen­sive chipped away at their last refuge. Their realm of de­stroyed build­ings and crater-filled roads in east­ern Aleppo shrank from 17 square miles to just one over a few weeks as forces loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad swept through, neigh­bor­hood by neigh­bor­hood.

‘De­ceiv­ing rebels’

The prom­ise of board­ing buses to safety was a re­lief. But for many like Shekho, los­ing Aleppo was in­con­ceiv­able. Of the more than half-dozen res­i­dents and ac­tivists that AP has main­tained reg­u­lar con­tact with in re­cent months, only one said he felt dis­il­lu­sioned with the re­bel­lion. “This revo­lu­tion is one of the big­gest fail­ures in the world,” said 21-year-old Ahmed, who has not left the en­clave yet and re­fused to give his fam­ily name out of fear of reprisal. “If God saves me from this, I will go to Turkey and start a new life, away from the crim­i­nal regime and the de­ceiv­ing rebels.”

Most seemed haunted by the city’s strug­gle, say­ing they can’t let go of their dream to cre­ate a Syria with­out As­sad. They said they will con­tinue their anti-govern­ment ac­tiv­i­ties some­how from wher­ever they end up. One gy­ne­col­o­gist who had re­fused to leave her pa­tients said her hus­band forced her to flee to a govern­ment-con­trolled area for safety.

The wo­man, who iden­ti­fied her­self only as Farida to pro­tect her fam­ily, ear­lier had sent her daugh­ter out with thou­sands of other evac­uees. Farida said she could not stand liv­ing for even two days in the govern­ment-con­trolled sec­tor and fled to the coun­try­side, where the rebels are in con­trol. “De­spite how hard it was un­der siege and bom­bard­ment, I was at peace with my­self,” she said. Farida’s hus­band, also a doc­tor, fol­lowed. But she is still an­gry at him for forc­ing her to leave, adding: “I can’t con­tinue my life with him.”

‘Get­ting slaugh­tered’

“I can’t feel any joy when my col­leagues are get­ting slaugh­tered,” she said in text mes­sages. She hopes to be re­united one day with her daugh­ter. Shekho left on the first day of the evac­u­a­tion, which was mon­i­tored by the Red Cross. He and thou­sands of other hold­outs boarded green govern­ment buses with por­traits of As­sad in the wind­shield and were taken to re­bel­con­trolled ar­eas.

“It is very painful that I separate from my city of 28 years,” Shekho said. “I hope it is quickly lib­er­ated so I can re­turn to it.” Be­sides see­ing his city crum­ble, Shekho watched his fam­ily shat­tered by more than five years of civil war. On the first day of the govern­ment’s big ground of­fen­sive three weeks ago, Shekho and his fam­ily sought a new home to avoid in­tense bomb­ing.

Like many oth­ers, his fam­ily was caught on the road by the bom­bard­ment, and his brother was killed on the spot. He and his fa­ther had to search for a ceme­tery be­cause Aleppo was run­ning out of burial space. In the process, his fa­ther - a prom­i­nent pro­fes­sor of Ara­bic - also was killed. Four years ear­lier, an airstrike killed his sis­ter out­side the hos­pi­tal where she worked as a nurse.

Af­ter mourn­ing his fa­ther and brother, Shekho had told the AP: “We are all on the road to death. May God ac­cept them as mar­tyrs.” Be­fore he boarded the bus, he roamed the few streets of Aleppo still open to him for one last time - but he couldn’t visit the graves of his rel­a­tives be­cause the govern­ment had seized the neigh­bor­hood where they are buried.

“I hope they for­give us” for los­ing Aleppo, Shekho said. He said he plans to be re­united with his wife, who left as the fight­ing in­ten­si­fied, and also wants to see his English teach­ers again. Most likely, he will set­tle in a town on the Orontes River in Idlib prov­ince where rebels are in con­trol. Many pre­dict that Idlib may be the next front in a govern­ment of­fen­sive. Asked what he ex­pected in his new life, he said: “It is the un­known fu­ture filled with painful mem­o­ries.”

ALEPPO: In this im­age re­leased on Thurs­day, Dec 15, 2016 by Aleppo 24, shows res­i­dents gath­ered near a green govern­ment bus as they hold their be­long­ings for evac­u­a­tion from east­ern Aleppo. —AP

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