Below is a letter out of Aleppo, Syria, that was written in late July by a physician. A lifelong Aleppo resident of Armenian heritage, this man has remained in one of the ancient city’s Christian neighborhoods throughout a 14-month siege by rebel forces. He is a trusted source to WORLD, not named for security reasons, with a long history of medical aid work throughout the Middle East and Asia. This letter is reprinted with permission of Barnabas Aid, which first published it.
Since he wrote, the rebel blockade of Aleppo has now entered its third month. Water, electricity, and communication are cut off, infrastructure has collapsed, and residents cannot leave, nor can aid be brought in. For Aleppo residents, all necessities of life are in short supply and prices have soared. A bag of lentils that only a year ago cost 50 Syrian pounds, or about $1, now may cost anywhere from $5 to $10. Because of shortages and the exorbitant cost, churches—one in Aleppo was providing meals for 35,000 displaced Syrians only a few months ago—have been forced to halt help for the needy.
Aleppo—Syria’s largest city, with more than 2 million people in the country’s industrial and agricultural heartland—has a historically diverse religious and ethnic makeup. The rebels’ success at taking over much of the city suggests they stand a chance at toppling the government of Bashar al-Assad. But the humanitarian crisis they have created will make anyone wonder what kind of government the opposition forces might deliver were they to successfully replace Assad. The blockade, meanwhile, has gone uncontested by the United States and its allies, making many Syrians doubt the U.S. move toward military strikes is designed to relieve their humanitarian crisis, or address the many atrocities of this war. —Mindy Belz
Our situation in these hectic, unpredictable days in Aleppo, with no food or meat or bread at ease, no free movement, no security and no encouraging good news on the horizon, reminds me of the words of Habakkuk:
“Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, YET I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in GOD my Saviour” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
Many sounds heard and continuing to be heard!! Are you still there? How come you don’t move out? What about your family? How they can do without you? Many questions such [as] these and no one can find the proper convincing answers to them.
Is it right to say, “Gone with the wind!” Of course not. My hope and trust is in the Lord who is my light and my salvation, who is the stronghold of my life (Psalm 27:1).
Where are we heading after two and a half years since the beginning of the war in Syria in mid-March 2011? And now it is more than one year since the beginning of the war in Aleppo in late June 2012. Everyone among our friends abroad may be wondering.
At the national level, nothing has changed since then apart from more suffering and more losses of souls and belongings. The two sides of the war continue to confront each other with no clear winner or loser at a cost of: more than 100,000 killed, more than a million and half refugees in the neighbouring countries, and more than 3.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs). Hundreds of thousands have migrated to Europe and the Americas.
The economy is in ruins and no one can predict how long it will remain like this. Sectarianism and extremism are flourishing and there is no glimmer of hope for a settlement to such mounting conflict. Following the retaking of al-Qusayr (a strategic region in the centre of Syria, southwest of Homs and near the border with Lebanon) by the Syrian army and the defeat of the rebels there, the leaders of the Western world declared that the fall of al-Qusayr showed that the balance of power had shifted to the government side and that it was necessary for them to arm the rebels in order to re-establish equilibrium! What a way of thinking!! They simply want to re-establish equilibrium so that both sides will continue to fight … to the last Syrian? Just imagine the satanic way of thinking! “But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Saviour; my God will hear me. Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise (with my nation). Though I (we) sit in darkness (since no electricity), the Lord will be my (our) light” (Micah 7:7-8; italics are mine).
In Aleppo, the military situation is at a status quo: the last [major] battle took place on Good Friday 29 March 2013, “120 days ago,” with the capture of the Sheikh Maksoud quarter (Djabal Al Sayde) by the rebels. There have been no [major] combats since, but bombardments here and there with hundreds of houses, building, shops, offices and homes damaged. On the other hand, the humanitarian situation is getting worse and towards a catastrophic status, considering three important facts:
(1) The blockade of Aleppo (at the moment of writing this letter [July 31], it seems that the blockade is slightly alleviated or has been circumvented a bit) has lasted now for more than 40 days: blocking of people, nobody can leave the city to go elsewhere, even to other nearby Syrian towns or abroad; blocking of merchandise, nothing can get into Aleppo. There are no more vegetables, fruits, milk, cheese, meat, chicken or fish, no fuel, gas (for cooking) and very little bread. There remain only imperishable supplies at the grocers such as rice, lentils, canned goods … but at astronomical prices the majority cannot afford. It must be said that one dollar was worth 50 Syrian pounds (LS) before the war, 180 LS a month ago and 300 LS a couple of weeks back then came down again to be around 200+ LS. With all this and the income of families remaining the same, prices are escalating to ten times more than the original cost.
Just to give a couple of simple, painful examples: one of the kitchens for the Christian charitable association “Al-Ihsan,” which used to provide daily meals for 35,000 IDPs (almost all of them are from non-Christian backgrounds), has been closed down for lack of gas, fuel, staff and ingredients; and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which used to provide 15,000 daily meals, will be closing down as well soon. So, 50,000 IDPs who are staying in different schools since early 2012 will be without food.
Another aspect, and as a funny result, of the lack of fuel, vehicles cannot be used and the forced march imposed upon all of us has become the sport of the people in Aleppo—just walk wherever you like, and keep on walking; we’re spending more time on the roads at high risk. It is supposed to be good for the health of course, if only the average temperature was not 40 degrees! Almost every person has lost weight, about 8-18kg.
The inhabitants have waited in vain for protests by the Western public (so prompt at protesting over the slightest offence) and the pressure of its leaders on the rebels to lift the blockade. It is no longer a military or political problem but a humanitarian issue. Starving a population of 2.5 million people is logically a crime against humanity for those who believe in peace and justice. To be silent is to accept the rule of Western politicians: two weights, two measures.
(2) Mortar fire (last night, 30 July 2013, more than 36 mortars and shells hit our heavily populated Christian residential areas): Every day, mortar shells fall on the quarters inhabited especially by Christians and Armenians. Those mortars are fired by the rebels; they are homemade but are still causing some deaths and seriously wounding dozens. The smell of death is everywhere nowadays. Just in the last couple of weeks in our Christian society, a boy of 14 years, a scout, died from a piece of shrapnel in his head while he was at home; a girl of 8 years received a splinter in the brain; a young woman of 30, a hairdresser, had to have her left arm amputated below the elbow as a result of an injury; a man of 70 was wounded in the spine when he was coming out of church service. Above all those shocking stories, the most tragic event happened last week: A traveling Pullman bus with more than 35 Armenian passengers from Aleppo to Beirut was attacked by the rebels on the safe military road, resulting in five deaths and more than 30 wounded and badly injured. Four families were planning to migrate to Armenia; two of them (they were my patients at my clinic earlier) were wounded and one lost the mother, who had two children. These are a few examples among many other tragedies.
(3) Capturing and kidnapping Christians (mainly the Armenian lay people): What a nightmare to every single Armenian and Christian who plans to leave Aleppo for a safe haven. As you may remember, hundreds have already been kidnapped and no news so far about them, including the two senior archbishops, two elderly fathers and hundreds of young men. Just four days ago, four young Armenian chaps were kidnapped while leaving for Armenia and sadly, last night, 29 July, two very young brothers, aged 12 and 14, were kidnapped while planning to join their father in Istanbul, leaving their mother alone. How you can imagine the heart of this mother and the soul and spirit of these two youngsters? So far no news or any information. If a ransom is requested, it will be unaffordable and unfeasible.
In this context of violence, privation, desolation, suffering and despair, we continue, as Christian humanitarian committees in Aleppo and all over Syria, through our presence, our resistance, our support, our aid and our solidarity to be there for the people, a glimmer of hope in the darkness that surrounds us. …
That is where we are. We are trying to resist despite of all that has been said; resist after exactly one year, 365 days of war. We resist pessimism, resist fatigue, resist discouragement and extremism. As Jean Debruynnesaid, “To resist, is to never give up looking out for the sun through the opening of a sewer outlet”; and, “To resist, is to be stubborn enough to see the day arise behind barbed wire.”
We do serve the One who deserves to be served.