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Kids enjoying their first day of Eid in the city of Aleppo. Aleppo Media Center, 2016.

Aleppians at Eid: Between the Hammer of Displacement and the Anvil of Separation

by Abduhalim Albakkor on June 13, 2018

Of the traditional folklore of Aleppo, there is one song that was heard throughout the Middle East. Sung by Fairouz, a Lebanese legend, and Sabah Fakhri, an icon of Aleppo, Al-Rozana describes the atrocious years of World War I and tells the story of how the merchants of Aleppo helped those in need in Beirut, who were facing dire economic circumstances due to the war.

Today, the people of Aleppo are themselves experiencing even worse circumstances and could definitely use the help of a friend, especially during the month of Ramadan and the approaching Eid. Aleppians, evacuated from the Eastern part of the city have joined deportees from other parts of Syria and together they live in small cities in the countryside of the Aleppo.  They have an immutable resolution to thrive in their country even against all odds.

The city of Aleppo, once the economic capital of Syria, now lies in ruins after more than seven years of uprising.[1] The conflict reached the city in mid-2012 and in a short period of time half of its population was displaced as a result of the war.[2] The situation of the people who were still living in the city further worsened with the rise of the Islamic state until other armed groups pushed the radical group out of the city by the beginning of 2014.[3] Before its capture by regime forces three years later, the eastern part of the city was under siege for more than half a year. All of these incidents and changing patterns of conflict severely affected the lives of the city’s inhabitants who adapted to a precarious and uncertain mode of life, reducing their daily activities to the mere attempt of survival.

During Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims, the city of Aleppo would normally be like a massive beehive. Markets, factories and textile workshops increase their working hours to meet the insatiable demand of consumers, especially with the approach of Eid Al-Fitir, the religious holiday at the end of Ramadan. People use this as a chance to get together and socialize. Family activities and responsibilities soar because of invitations and visits by relatives not only from Aleppo but also from other parts of Syria, as well as Turkish cities across the borders. Aleppo and Turkish cities like Gaziantep, Antioch and Kilis, have long historical ties, interconnecting people on both sides of the border by family and economic partnerships.

I miss Ramadan in the days before the war started, I used to visit all of my sisters and brothers and invite them back. Now, I can’t, it is very difficult to go to Damascus and I would not leave my family that long. I used to go to Damascus in less than three hours but now it might take days and you might never arrive. (Om Dalal, resident of Bistan Al-Qasr, Aleppo)

The number of travellers crossing the borders between the two countries soared after the relationship between Syria and Turkey improved. Agreements were signed to facilitate the movements of people resulting in a removal of the visa requirement between the two countries.[4] The beginning of the Syrian uprising marked the end of the honeymoon period between Turkey and Syria, and it was the beginning of a different movement across the borders. Syrians started to cross the borders to seek refuge in Turkey while the Turkish Government forbade its citizens as well as third-country nationals from crossing to Syria legally or illegally.[5] However, movement of people had been restricted for security purposes with the exception of designated times, like Ramadan Eid. During this period, the Turkish government allows Syrians under temporary protection status to cross to Syria and stay there for a certain period if they want to come back to Turkey.[6]

I went back to Aleppo around the end of 2014, I wanted to see my fiancée and we decided to get married and we came together to Istanbul. We returned few months after that. We crossed from the “Passage of Death’’ as we call it. Three women were killed by snipers. The only thing I could think about, was how we will leave the place, I sold all of what I had and took some things with me. Because in Turkey these items are expensive. On the way back, the borders were heavily monitored, we tried several times till we could reach and it took us more than 12 hours. (Marah and Ibrahim, ex-residents of Aleppo living in Istanbul).

Eid and War

More than seven years of unrest and conflict dramatically changed the celebration of Eid in Aleppo. The city is under the control of the regime while some areas of the countryside are under the control of the Turkish Army assisted by some groups of the Free Syrian Army and there are some regions under the control of the Kurdish armed group (PYD). While territories under the regime’s control experience a relatively stable life assisted with attempts of rebuilding and cleaning the city, territories under the control of the Free Syrian Army are under daily threat of bombardment and shelling. Inhabitants of those regions have grown accustomed to the uncertainty of life in such conditions of fear and scarcity of resources.[7] Territories under the control of the PYD experienced much better stability since the defeat of ISIS. However, this stability was disrupted after the Turkish military invaded the city of Afrin, resulting in the loss of life and displacement of many of the city’s residents. The PYD still occupies the predominately Arab city of Tell Rifaat resulting in further displacement of the city’s residents.

After the fall of Eastern Aleppo one and a half years ago, the regime deported its inhabitants to other regions in Aleppo and its countryside. With the start of reconstruction and renovation of the historical central market in the old city of Aleppo, inhabitants of neighbourhoods in the old city were allowed to move in to their houses and start renovating their shops after obtaining certain permissions. The regime claimed that more than 1000 shops that used to work in the old city are now back in business and providing goods to the people in territories under its control.[8] It is difficult to ascertain this claim because of the enormous proportion of residents who fled the city under the regime’s indiscriminate bombardment of the city, and the severe conditions it stipulated to allow people to move back to their houses. Nevertheless, restoring economic life in Aleppo will definitely resuscitate the crumbling economy and ameliorate the economic burden on people remaining in Aleppo who lost their jobs as a result of the conflict.

As the end of Ramadan approaches, people in the city of Aleppo might be eager to visit their loved ones out of the city. Those territories are not under the regime control and crossing may not be an easy task. It requires connection to other armed groups controlling the region they want to visit and to secure their return to the territories under the control of the regime. Nonetheless, residents of Aleppo have mastered the art of crossing in between different territories and neighbourhoods under the control of different armed groups. Such an activity was forced upon them as a necessity of life in a conflict zone. Those who are wanted by the regime, prefer to live in areas that might be under heavy shelling rather than to be within reach of the regime’s secret services. Elderly people who used to work for the civil service before the conflict might be able to cross easily in between the different regions. However, young people are seen as a possible threat or a prospective conscript for the regime’s army.[9] That’s why many families in Aleppo were separated and resort to reunite with their loved ones in a neutral place for few days in the year.

It is getting difficult day by day, I don’t want my son to be tortured to death, so I told him to leave the city and he has been living alone for more than a year. He will come to visit us, but it is going to be a short visit of few days. We can’t go to Turkey and I don’t want him to come back, we will try to go to al-Bab or another town where we can stay with our relatives without the fear of regime militia raiding our house in the middle of the night to arrest my son. (Abo Ahmad, Aleppo resident)

Regions under the control of Free Syrian Army have shrunk significantly, since the Russian intervention in Syria started in 2015. These interventions were followed by an increase of the siege and deportation method implemented by the regime against rebel held territories. Starting by besieging a region and starving its people till they yield to the heavy shelling and scarcity of resources, they are then deported to the northern cities in Syria.[10] The dwindling territories under the control of the Free Syrian Army are shrinking in size but keep receiving deportees from Homs and Damascus.[11] Cities like al-Bab in the countryside of Aleppo have become commercial centres after the Turkish Army invaded. Other villages and small cities increased in its significance due to location between the regions controlled during Euphrates Shield operation and the recent Operation Olive Branch.[12]

Goods imported from Turkey proved to be crucial to the survival of Northern Syrian cities. The transportation of those goods from across borders and then to other regions in Syria, especially the ones controlled after the two military operations resulted in revitalizing the shrunken economy.[13] The countryside of Aleppo is enjoying a fragile stability, which may collapse at any time. Nevertheless, residents of those regions have simply gotten accustomed to such a life of instability and uncertainty to the extent that some people return from Turkey to visit their families periodically.

My brother orders whatever items we need and his friends send them from Turkey, the borders are closed for people’s movement, but the Syrian markets are fully open for Turkish goods starting from chicken, to clothes to machines. Even the Turkish Lira become a common currency just like the Dollar and Euro (Mostafa, merchant in Aleppo countryside).

Crossing the borders used to be much easier in the first few years. But several factors pushed the Turkish government to limit the movement of people and even build a wall to stop any kind of crossing. The increase in the numbers of Syrians living in Turkey who are interested in returning to Syria for a short term encouraged Turkish authorities to organize their movement and issue special permits to cross the borders for a certain period of time. The process of crossing the borders is managed through the cooperation with the Free Syrian Army on the Syrian side. These groups work on keeping security in the region after several suicide attacks by radical groups.[14] Needless to say, Syrians who fled Syria and became refugees in Turkey and received Temporary Protection status, will face dire consequences if case they cross to regions under the regime’s control. Therefore, the regions under the control of the Free Syrian Army represent a place where families may overcome the obstacles and threats preventing their gathering.[15] However, these regions are the least safe and have endured severe bombardments by multiple players in the Syrian conflict.

Seven years of war and armed conflict drastically changed the life in Aleppo. Not only had the urban scenery of the city and its vicinity been destroyed, but also its demographic components have been altered through a systemic use of siege, starve and deport policies of the Syrian regime forces against rebel controlled regions. While people from the countryside of Aleppo took refuge mainly in neighbouring Turkey, internally displaced people from Homs and Damascus are being deported by the regime to the countryside of Aleppo, which repopulated some of the regions that lost a significant number of its population. There is no doubt that the city of Aleppo was significantly damaged because of the armed conflict in the country. However, the movement of population, combined with the collapse of ISIS and stable flow of goods through Turkish army and FSA controlled roads, has resulted in a fragile revitalization of the economy. The re-emergence of entrepreneur activities have contributed to gradually increase the financial activities in those regions and ameliorate the burden of war on Aleppians in the countryside.

Throughout the conflict, the atmosphere of Ramadan maintained its spirit in towns and villages across the countryside of the city. And this has occurred despite the scarcity of resources, despite the mere ceremonial spectacle of a joy-free Eid, despite diminished social activities, all of which are more likely to be targeted by the exploding barrels of the regime. History has shown us that the ballad of life of the city that survived the Mongol invasion and the most notorious earthquakes one day will definitely reverberate in the city again with the sounds of kids filling the streets of Aleppo on the first day of Eid, after the return of those forced out of their houses and the rebuilding of their homes and communities with the removal of the barriers that are now keeping families apart.

[1] McKenzie, Sheena. How seven years of war turned Syria’s cities into ‘hell on Earth’, March the 15 2018 edition.cnn, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/03/15/middleeast/syria-then-now-satellite-intl/index.html

[2] Ibid

[3] Okbi, Yasser and Hashavua, Maariv. ISIS Reportedly Forced Out of Mosul and Aleppo, July 1 2017, the Jerusalem post, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/ISIS-evacuates-Mosul-and-Aleppo-battles-rage-on-in-Homs-498470

[4] Phillips, Chris. Turkey, Syria’s new best friend, October 1 2009, the guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/oct/01/turkey-syria-friendship

[5] Simsek, Dogus. Situation of Syrian Refugees in Turkey, July 6 2016, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung http://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/migration/laenderprofile/229982/syrian-refugees-in-turkey

[6] DailySabah, May 28 2018, 15,000 Syrian refugees return home for Eid al-Fitr, https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/2018/05/29/15000-syrian-refugees-return-home-for-eid-al-fitr

[7] Nanji, Noor. UN allowing Assad regime to lead Aleppo reconstruction, November 28 2017, the National, https://www.thenational.ae/world/un-allowing-assad-regime-to-lead-aleppo-reconstruction-1.676601

[8] Alazzo, Ammar. More than 1000 shop in Aleppo to work again, May 27, 2018, SANA, https://www.sana.sy/?p=759934

[9] Mohammad, Nimr. Residents of Eastern Aleppor are Stuck by the ‘Death Passagae’ Assad is the Ruler of Empty Neighbourhoods. December 21 2016, https://www.annahar.com/article/512589-أبناء-حلب-الشرقية-عالقون-عند-معبر-الموت-الأسد-رئيس-أحياء-فارغة

[10] Ibid

[11] Chlov, Martin. Iran repopulates Syria with Shia Muslims to help tighten regime’s control , January 14 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/13/irans-syria-project-pushing-population-shifts-to-increase-influence

[12] France24, Turkey helps rebuild the liberated Syrian border town of Jarabulus . December 12 2017. http://www.france24.com/en/20171215-turkey-rebuild-aid-syria-jarabulus-liberation-islamic-state-group

[13] AITA, Samir, Trade without Religion between Turkey and Syria Editoriaux de l’Ifri, March 2017 , March 24 2017. https://www.ifri.org/en/publications/editoriaux-de-lifri/trade-without-religion-between-turkey-and-syria

[14] Yesiltas, Murat. Neighbouring a Civil War, Turkey’s Border Security With Syria. SETA Istanbul , October 27, 2015.

[15] DailySabah, May 28 2018, 15,000 Syrian refugees return home for Eid al-Fitr, https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/2018/05/29/15000-syrian-refugees-return-home-for-eid-al-fitr

Abduhalim AlbakkorAleppians at Eid: Between the Hammer of Displacement and the Anvil of Separation