By Afraa Hashem
Where do I start with my story? It begins with sadness and painful endings of a city worn off by betrayals and assassinated by frustration.
Aleppo, my city, is full of contradictions. Criminals shelled it with barrels filled with hatred, just as much as we filled it with our love, attachment, desire for life, and a dream of a future of justice, dignity and freedom.
In the fall of 2016, the city was bleeding and bidding farewell to its children, who experienced all manifestations of death, from all kinds of weapons. People were exhausted, tired of dying and of being unable to save those who were being buried under the rubble of the ruthless Russian bombardment, or even to dig out the bodies of their children so they could have a proper burial. Pale faces tired from lack of sleep, and young children crying hungry, a hunger caused by the suffocating siege that the city had been under for three months. The siege deprived people of the most basic necessities of life. On the outskirts of the city there is a war full of secrets being waged, souls of no value in the custom of tyrants.
I felt tortured by those faces that were seeking to leave. I felt tortured by the gaze of a woman who stopped me with a question: “Why don’t you give up and admit defeat?” A question that left me helpless and saddened. I wanted to scream that we were going to stay and the sun would rise again.
Before 2011, our lives were far from normal in a bureaucratic state ravaged by corruption, bribery and demise of social values, a country gripped by fear and governed by the emergency law since the Assad family claimed power through military force. We were a hard-working family struggling to make an honest living and to provide education that would guarantee all of us a good life, but what a silly dream!
250 elder people, women and children gathered in the basement of less than 300 square meters in size, taking shelter from the targeted shelling that destroyed all streets. It was a horror. Doomsday hadn’t come yet, but the regime had taken over more areas of the city and crammed the population into a few neighbourhoods in the centre of eastern Aleppo. It hurt me, the feeling of loneliness and cold when I would be awoken at 3am by the street noise. The first thought was that the regime forces had arrived at our doorstep, but then I’d realize that it was the noise of more families, women and children packing to escape being bombed or slaughtered. I would embrace my family harder and try to sleep to a tomorrow that might not come.
What a misery for people! Our minds and souls were being exhausted with suffocating questions: Will we survive? When does this nightmare of suffering end? Are we going to be trapped and slaughtered? Would they start by killing me first or by killing my children? Whom are they going to start slaughtering first? My little girl, who was almost four years old, or my eldest son, who was 10 years old? And I would think to myself: Please show us your mercy, my God.
The only field hospital was full of wounded people and martyrs. I was trying to provide some psychological support. There I saw children screaming in pain in a terrible, heart-breaking hysteria. Here a shoe for a child and there a blood-stained tied hair of a child whose mother may have tried to convince her that they were going to visit grandpa and grandma, so she went and left her alone on her altar. And here a child whose eye got swollen as she was trying to look at the light. Here is a pregnant woman who miscarried her baby as a result of what she witnessed. It’s like doomsday. No one feels anybody. No one can endure more pain, feelings fade away, and there is no energy for survival anymore.
Then I went back to the shelter looking for calm. You heard voices in your head. What’s yours and this stubborn pride!! We’re all going to die. Then you got another internal voice telling you that someone would survive to tell the world the story of our last pain. Here an elder woman stands in front of me and looks me in the eyes as if she wants to hand me over to her grandchildren who gathered around her as she tried to entertain them so that they don’t feel time and hunger. I pick up my not-working phone, and pretend to be talking to someone outside the country and start speaking in a foreign language to make her feel that I’m in touch with the outside world and that there are a lot of people who are trying to help us. All the training I attended in psychological support didn’t work. I had to lie to her and give her false promises to make her able to take care of her orphan grandchildren.
We went home and started collecting our food to cook something for people, as it might be our last meal, so we had to prepare it with all our love. We started entertaining the kids, singing, playing and clapping. We are trying to inspire hope in them and us. The painful question I could see in my children’s eyes was: are we going to survive, Mom? Actually I was trying to avoid looking at them deeply so as not to get weaker. Suddenly, a stupid rocket interrupts us, cuts through our children’s laughter and burns the buildings around us. The children are back to screaming and panic while horror spreads all over the place. Even the water has run out and we can no longer put out the fires. Oh, God, have mercy on us. And bless our helplessness and our weakness.
“The decision was made to displace us and separate us from our homes.” Shall we feel happy to have survived or grieve the separation from our city, our history, our memories and our dreams? How can we be happy? How can we grieve?
We took to the streets trying to heal our wounds and take some things that would serve as a souvenir of what is left of our dreams. We shouted our last chants in our streets, we screamed until our voices were hoarse. We wanted to make the walls of the neighborhood hear that we were still there.
We went back to the hospital waiting for the wounded people and trying to make them feel safe, being near them will give them hope and some safety. I saw a pregnant woman screaming and saying I don’t want to give birth now. She was in a lot of pain. There was no Obstetrician around, but it’s the remaining team’s responsibility to rescue her and save the foetus. They started extracting the foetus with surgery. This is where I started praying. I began to compare the situation with the reality of our revolution. This is our abandoned revolution that we will try to save by saving the foetus, but we are few and under-experienced. Oh, my God, are you going to make it and survive? I looked at the nurses and saw the hope in their dedication and in their looks. I felt a load of power and suddenly optimism found its way into my heart. Yes, we will win and our revolution will be born again. Blood flowed through my veins in joy with the birth, but it was a bad birth. A deformed child was born and died in an instance. I ran into the hospital basement and started screaming, ‘’The people want to overthrow the regime! The people want to overthrow the regime’’. My friend Mahmoud interrupted me, saying we couldn’t wait any longer and we had to clean up and equip the hospital, because the buses were burnt, and at that same moment a wounded person in ICU lost his life.
We went back to the streets and wrote on the walls our stories and letters. We wrote our will and our apologies to the streets of our city, because we can no longer resist and stay. We wrote on the destroyed buildings the stories of families who died and were buried with their dreams, without even being able to dig them out and give them a proper burial.
‘’Here are two lovers taking photos. Here is a soldier who lost his leg in battle, saying goodbye to his buried leg, which he wishes to take with him to help him continue. Who said that the feeling powerless lies in amputation??!! And here’s a mother saying goodbye to her son’s grave. Here is a brother crying over his brother’s grave, trying to hug him and get to him through the dirt to kiss his forehead, apologize and ask him for permission. I carried with me a handful of dust from every grave to always reminding me with my legal right to return’’.
I kept wandering all the streets, tried to say goodbye to all of them and save their last photos. I entered my empty, cold school, kissed its walls, door’s handle and seats, talked to my students and imagined them with me in the same classes. I apologized to them because I always told them to hold on to the land and value it, but I failed this time. I didn’t burn the school, I left it as it is to keep the smell of the students filling the place for the new owners to inspire them and make them feel the sacrifice of their generation here for four years. I wrote on the blackboard stories of children who left this life while on the study benches or on the way back. They left with no fault of their own, they left, they never knew despair, they were like a beacon of hope for us.
Negotiations and displacement returned to announce the end of the stage. We gathered in an abandoned house at the exit point. It’s cold and the snow is falling. All my life I have been waiting for snow to fall and see it as fun, pure and happy. This time it was dismal, abhorrent, and since then I don’t feel the coldness of winter and the sweetness of the snow.
We left with the last group at 5:00 a.m. on December 23rd after we were all exhausted. Even our tears were drained. We left behind us long years of suffering and pain. What is more difficult than to have to leave your city where you were born and spent a lifetime at the hands of a Russian occupier, and you become the stranger while he becomes the new owner of your land. Yes, we got out of Aleppo. After suffering more than six years of detention, torture, shelling and siege.
We were forced to leave and we did not leave by choice. As soon as we reached the first liberated point our papers fell and we withered, and then I knew why the flowers die so early.
We left for Idlib and began the journey of displacement, dispersion and separation. It wasn’t only parting the land that was killing us, but the separation of our journey companions, all in its way looking for the starting point. We were in a state of complete collapse. PTSD and depression have continued with us to this day. A radical change in our lives. A new culture, and people we were not familiar with before. We were broken while watching the regime celebrating with joy occupying our homes, streets and graves of our martyrs.
To this day I ask myself whether we will ever return, celebrate our freedom and our land, or were we separated for eternity as long as this ruler sits in his chair of power.
We will return so that the rights of those who sacrificed and displaced are not lost, we will return to it because we have a house, a tree, a tape of memories, dreams, a past, a future, and “roots that are hard to take away”.
We’ll be back. Because we have the right to return, because this land is our legacy and the heritage of our ancestors, not a farm for Al Assad’s family, or we will be abandoned for life.
To my children, my grandchildren I wrote our story so you could read it after a year, or a hundred years.
But.. Don’t forget, don’t forgive and don’t let us down.
And if time turned back, I would be the same and I would do what I’ve done.
Your mother, Afraa Hashem
- Cover photo: The people of Aleppo gathered at the Ramoussa crossing before leaving via the displacement buses. Moataz Khatab – Journalist.