Aleppo exiles describe how life continued through years of bombing

The Guardian reports: The Aleppo Thaer al-Halabi left behind was a ghost town filled with the shadows of friends lost to war and the shattered dreams of a different Syria.

Still, the parting resembled physical pain. He was born in Aleppo, in a house in the old town with a courtyard shaded by vines, where his family had lived for over a century. He raised a family and built a career there, and then, for four years, gambled everything he had on the possibility of taking down Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

“When we were forced to leave Aleppo it had already been destroyed completely. You didn’t see a city, only ghosts, in a ghost city,” said the 57-year-old engineer turned opposition politician.

“I am very sad I have left our city, it’s at the centre of our hearts, part of our bodies. But because we need freedom we cannot live there.”

Halabi said he was jailed three times by the government before the war, so when the uprising against Assad first turned into armed rebellion and rebels took half of Aleppo, he didn’t think twice about joining them. “We had freedom for four years,” he said.

Aleppo, which was Syria’s cultural and economic hub before the conflict, became a byword for devastation far beyond the country’s borders, after years of brutal air raids to try to oust rebels.

In the early years of the fighting, life in rebel-held areas was not all horror and violence. There was a local council set up to govern, schools still operated. People went to work when they were not severed from their offices by the frontline, or set up new businesses and tried to ignore the war.

“Life went on amid the bombing,” said Sara, a 47-year-old teacher who also stayed in Aleppo until the enclave’s final days. “There were schools, businesses, shops, there were goods and people, entertainment, everything.”

For the young in particular, rebel-held Aleppo offered the wild liberties of an unfiltered web. “On the other side of the city was regular Syrian government that block everything they don’t want,” said Halabi’s son, the activist and journalist Rami Zein.

“On our side of the city it felt like you are in a place open to the world. Before the siege it was a great city, you had everything you need, could bring everything you need from the border [with Turkey], all kinds of trade, everything was there.”

As the war intensified though, death and destruction touched growing numbers of families. Aleppo became notorious for the horror of barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters on civilian areas to spread death and fear. [Continue reading…]

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