On December 15, as buses were getting ready to evacuate people from East Aleppo, which had just fallen to the forces of Bashar al-Assad, IranWire spoke to a local resident of the city, a young woman who was born in Aleppo and has lived there most of her life. She gave us her take on the tumultuous events of the last few days.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Rabia (it’s not my birth name but that’s the name I use) and I was born in East Aleppo to a Sunni family. I have a degree in Arabic literature from Damascus University. I live with my parents and was preparing to be a teacher before the war began. Since then, I’ve tried to take part in efforts to teach the abandoned children of East Aleppo, despite all the difficulties involved.
How would you describe your political outlook?
I consider myself an Arab socialist and I supported the revolution against Bashar al-Assad from early on. I have also always been opposed to political Islam and entry of its forces into the Syrian movement.
What was your experience of the takeover of East Aleppo by Assad’s forces?
The last few weeks have been a horrendous experience and have led many who remained in Aleppo all these years to finally take the sad decision to leave. The indiscriminate bombardment of Assad and Russia (we can’t tell which is which when the airstrikes come) had brought us under a shadow of fear unlike anything we had ever seen.
Ever since Aleppo was taken by the rebels in 2012, we’ve been through a lot of hardships but I think these last few weeks were worse. I know children who I had taught who were killed simply because they were playing outside at the wrong time. It wasn’t the events of the last few days but the indiscriminate bombardment of the last few weeks that really terrified us. For a few days, it really looked like a game: buildings were destroyed and people dying on a random basis. There was nowhere to hide and no stop to the violence.
The takeover by Assad’s forces came at the end of that string of bombardment. Of course, we are horrified by it and I know at least one young man without any connection to the armed groups who has disappeared since. When it comes to those who were actively supporting the rebel forces, some were executed immediately.
Most importantly, it was a real fall in spirit for us. Assad has shown that you can kill half a million of your own people and still be president with the help of sectarian foreign mercenaries. It is an insult to our dignity to call it liberation.
What has been the character of the rebels who ruled over East Aleppo in the past four years?
From the beginning, it was the Islamist groups that prematurely (in my opinion) led the armed separation of East Aleppo. Ever since then, it has been mostly different Islamist groups that control different parts of town. A small district is also held by the Kurdish PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] allies.
As a socialist, I, of course, reject all the Islamist rebels. Some of them are particularly reactionary and are pawns of Qatar, Saudi Arabia or, particularly in the recent year or two, Turkey. Everybody here says that the “fall” of East Aleppo came about because of an agreement between Erdogan and Putin. But I have to add that there were some honest and just people among them, even in groups like Ahrar al-Sham, which split from Al Qaeda. This might be unbelievable, but I guess they had their own reasons not to alienate people from East Aleppo. Having said that, there was also a lot of abuse by these forces and they often took the aid that had come for the people and prioritized it for their own use.
What about the White Helmets, the volunteer organization we’ve been hearing so much about? A western journalist recently claimed that no one had heard of them in East Aleppo.
What? How can it be? Maybe she was confused. The White Helmets were there during many of the rescue operations and were true heroes, if you ask me. I know people who are now alive because they were pulled out of rubble by the White Helmets.
But the journalist said they worked with Islamist groups. What do you know about this?
She should come and live here and tell me: how is it possible not to co-operate and work with rebel groups that are in power? It breaks my heart when I see good people accused of being Al Qaeda or Takfiri pawns simply because they took over tasks of administration (which was obviously headed by armed groups) when no one else would. You know — making sure we had running water, distributing aid, etc.
Will you leave on one of the buses that are evacuating East Aleppo now?
To go to Idlib where I know no one and where it’s ruled by even worse groups? And do I take my old, frail mother with me? No. But we are terrified of the thought of what the goons of Assad will do in the next little while, so we are hoping to get to somewhere else.
Did you have any opportunity to leave over the last four years?
I don’t want to paint a heroic picture of myself, but we decided to stay put because we loved and continue to love Aleppo. Our life, our neighbors, our mosques, our churches, our grand, beautiful citadel. [She cries.] Excuse me, I don’t mean to get emotional, but all my life I’ve loved my homeland, Syria, the Arab nation, and now I have to watch it in these conditions. I used to say that we’d kick out Assad and re-build everything, but where is that hope now? What will be of Aleppo?