Untold Stories of the Syrian War
Meet the unknown heroes of the Syrian conflict — civil society.
The teacher, who raises money to plant trees in the bombed-out city, hoping that he will return back there after the war. An English teacher who joined the civil defence and is now risking their life.
A volunteer, who after six years of conflict, has to make a break and find the strength to help the others. The conflict in Syria started 6 years ago on the 15th March 2011 and has led to the deaths of half a million of people. For a while this war in the Middle East, what with the news about jihadists and the apocalyptic pictures of the bombed towns, seemed very distant and didn’t resonate with audiences in Eastern Europe, even though Moscow has supported the Syrian regime since the very beginning of the conflict, and, openly started the military campaign operation in late 2015.
Today, if you take a closer look at the fates of these people, the Ukrainians are living through their own war may find it easy to empathise with regular Syrians, understand the logic of the volunteers who sacrifice their lives to help the others, and also see the untold story of the Syrian civil society surviving amid devastating war.
In the Turkish town of Kilis at the Syrian-Turkish border there are many cheap hotels. This is where many jihadists settle. A bit to the east lies Şanlıurfa (or simply Urfa). The city lies on the main road to Raqqa — the current capital of the “Islamic State” and the main transit point for foreign fighters.
The city lies on the main road to Raqqa — the current capital of the “Islamic State” and the main transit point for foreign fighters.
“But if you want to talk about the protagonists of this tragedy, the Syrian civilians — they are in Gaziantep,” explains war correspondent Francesca Borri, who, for more than a year, was the only Western reporter permanently living in Aleppo.
The plane lands on the frozen strip of the Gaziantep Airport, which is 120km away from Aleppo. It is surprisingly easy to reach Syria nowadays. Especially for Europeans who still come, influenced by recruiters and ready to fight.
However, journalists are only able to work in Syria if they are illegally transferred there by Islamists or by the military. One can also get official accreditation, which in practice means cooperating with Assad’s regime.
Stories of Europeans seeking adventure in the “Islamic State” and of the atrocities committed by jihadists in the last years are the most popular with the press. The lesser-known battle of the Syrian war is the daily struggle for survival of every Syrian, the effort to feed and save his or her family. And that of Syrian volunteers, who make a huge effort to help their own society.
Gaziantep has been the sister city of Aleppo for a long time. On a hill in the centre is a similar but slightly smaller fortress, the same narrow streets and stone houses. Khaled, a 27-year-old Syrian touches the wall, explaining that in Aleppo, the oldest inhabited place in the world, it was a tradition to build houses from large boulders. Pictures of the ruins appear before my eyes.
Watch Khaled’s story, about a man who coached the Syrian robot programming team at the world championships and now works with orphans and talks about what it’s like for Syrians living in Turkey.
Ammar and his younger brother Osama don’t just play with and program robots; they teach them to sort garbage. Looking at Ammar, I see something unusual, the boy’s face is that of an adult man. I then understand that he is too small for a 15-year-old. There are many Syrian children like him as they didn’t have enough to eat as a result of the war.
While this family is lucky because they got out of Aleppo in time. Their father was able to find work as a driver. Earning money without knowing Turkish is very difficult.
For Khaled, his robots are his work. His passion as a volunteer is planting trees in war-torn Syria. Together with friends, he collects funds for plants, which subsequently are passed on to the farmers. They grow olive trees, so that the farmers don’t dare to use them as firewood.
“Many countries and governments fell and resurfaced again. If I’m not optimistic, how can I think about the future? You just say: ‘My city fell, I cannot go back, I can’t do anything’. But I can’t think like this, so I plant these trees. If it’s not me who will sit under them, maybe my grandson will, and he’ll say that this tree was planted by his grandfather”, Khaled explains.
Talking about the difficulties experienced by Syrians in Turkey, we quickly learn to distinguish between Syrians and locals. Women wear different scarves and clothes. A smiling 13-year-old boy approaches us and asks in excellent English where we are from. He wants to show us his work and introduce us to his father, whom he is very proud of. His father is a computer scientist but now works in a shop. Their family had lived for 600 years in Aleppo.
Watch the story of the little multilingual vendor who wants to study, but has to work.
Zakariya is very happy to talk to us and tries to give us gifts all the time: nuts, olive soap. He categorically rejects money for coffee. To him, we are already friends. Later, when Hromadske published his story on Facebook, Zakariya commented, that he will continue fighting for his rights.
We get to the city of Adana, where Talal is expecting us. He is in a hurry and is nervous, so he can’t devote much time to us. This is also the last day for Shazad, a British volunteer who is in Europe collecting funds for Syrians. The more people they visit today, the more families get a chance to receive support.
Talal is a Syrian Chechen. The story of his family is the continuation of the story of deprivation and displacement of people from the Caucasus through wars, which have been fought on their continent for centuries.
For more than a century, since the days of Tsarist Russia, they moved from the Caucasus to Turkey, Palestine, Syria, and now back to Turkey and Europe.
Watch the story of how a boy from a wealthy family from the Caucasus, who at eighteen had his own car and house, became a volunteer, and listen to his account of his journey through the bombed city of Homs and “IS”-controlled Rakka.
At 24, Talal stopped dreaming. He would like to see his parents, who had to return from Turkey back to Damascus due to a lack of money, and his brothers who paid a lot of money to human traffickers and eventually reached Germany. It would be much more important to know that the family is safe. Talal finds it difficult to understand how he is able to help others, but can’t do anything for his relatives.
A volunteer finds it difficult to understand how he is able to help others, but can’t do anything for his relatives.
Talal is worried and asks us not to take pictures on the street. According to him, the place where we’re heading is an unsafe area of Adana, where there is practically no police presence. It is controlled by Kurdish rebels. It was there that a friend of Talal saw a large family, who had been living in a tent for months.
It is very cold in southern Turkey and in northern Syria. During the winter, the temperature drops below zero. Many people left their homes dressed in sweaters. Those are the people Talal helps.
This is another family Talal helped to pay rent on a proper house. For a year the whole family lived in one room with leaking roof.
6-year-old Heba has survived 9 operations. Her parents rescued her from the flames when her room in Aleppo was hit by a rocket, 2 and half years ago. After nine operations, Heba was very happy to go to school. But the other children started to make fun of her because of her scars.
As her father Mohammed Sajeer says, there were no military objects in their neighbourhood in Aleppo.
“Maybe we need another planet” — says Ola Batta smiling. She is a Syrian volunteer, who three years ago was forced to move from Aleppo to Gaziantep in Turkey. She still continues to help her compatriots who work in Syria and abroad.
Sometimes Ola is full of despair. The siege and capture of eastern Aleppo, which was controlled by the Free Syrian Army, is for her a loss of hope. Yet, she says that she is not one of those people who gives up and loses faith. It’s only now that she realizes that, after three years of volunteering, she feels exhausted.
Watch the story of a Syrian volunteer, who learned that to in order to help others, we must pause and gather strength.
Ola complains that the population of her native city could have been saved, ‘Since 2015, Aleppo has been under the risk of a siege. People on both sides of the conflict have repeatedly phoned in with requests to develop plans in case of an emergency. The international organization said that they were not able to do it. They could neither deliver food, nor prepare shelters for they would get killed as well.’
Ola says she can’t go back. Those who worked with humanitarian organizations would be branded by the regime as supporters of terrorism.
Ola gives the impression of being an extremely strong woman who is always ready for action. She speaks carefully about her own life — some of her family is still in Syria.
The conflict in Syria began in March 2011 with demonstrations in the southern city of Dara. In the wake of protests in Egypt and Tunisia, someone wrote anti-government slogans on the walls of the local school. For this, local authorities locked away a dozen pupils aged 12 to 15. It later came out that the children were tortured. Residents took to the streets demanding punishment for the perpetrators, but instead, they opened fire on the demonstrators. Throughout most of 2011 there were protests against repression and corruption all over Syria. President Bashar Assad insisted that the demonstrations were the work of Islamic terrorists and Western saboteurs. Six months after the start of the protests, information surfaced that the Syrian protesters had armed themselves. It was the army deserters who started the armed resistance. At the end of 2011, they began to form the Free Syrian Army. Two years after it started, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia began to fund the insurgents, while Russia and Iran supported the Syrian regime. Without their help, Assad would not last.
In the third year of the war, the key topic became the radicalization of armed groups, the participation of al-Qaeda in battles against the regime, and the involvement of foreign fighters, who turned out to be much better soldiers than the Syrian farmers.
In autumn 2013, despite the use of chemical weapons by the regime — what Obama previously had called his “red line” — the US did not deploy troops to Syria.
In 2014, the so-called “Islamic State” seized a part of neighboring Iraq. Separate divisions took control of Syrian territories as well. The “IS” was fighting against the regime and against the Syrian opposition.
In 2015, Russia officially announced the involvement of its military in Syria on the side of the regime. Officially, they were fighting against the “IS”. According to international organizations, the Russian Air Force was bombing rebel-held territories. Little by little, the regime was regaining control of the land it had lost.
In 2016, the key battle was the freeing of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, by Assad’s troops.
In the sixth year of the war, the government controls 34% of the country, home to 65% of Syria’s population, another third is controlled by “IS” (10% of the population), 20% is controlled by Kurdish troops, the remaining 13% by the rebels.
According to Syrian human rights groups, 437,363 Syrians have died during this time. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that 95% of the victims were civilians.
7.6 million left their homes in the middle of the country; 4 million (according to the UN) left the country and went mainly to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
White Helmets. Ismail and Ammar
Ismail Alabdullah (@ishmael12345611) | Twitter
The latest Tweets from Ismail Alabdullah (@ishmael12345611). I am an activist from Aleppo city. syria
‘We are getting ready to leave Aleppo. A lot has happened in the last 5 years… But I am happy that I am able to help people. I am lost for words.I am leaving my heart and soul here’.
This video was published on Twitter by Ismail Al Abdullah on 20th December 2016. A skinny boy stood in front of the flames. He is part of the ‘White Helmets’, a Syrian civil self-defence organisation. They find out about the bombings and then they send their volunteers to retrieve people from the ruins. There are 2700 volunteers in the organisation. Since 2013 they have saved tens of thousands of people. We talked to Ismail via video link. He phoned his colleague. A former English teacher Ismail, except for us, now comments on the events for all major global channels. At the time of this conversation, he is in the West province of Aleppo. (I later found out that his was one of the photos of the evacuees given to the doctors who work there). Ismail is completely justified in his explanation for leaving Aleppo.
“To the Russian soldiers and government troops we, the ‘White Helmets’, were the enemy and the target. During one of the bombings, when we rushed in to pull out the victims from the rubble, we were struck by a second attack. We lost a lot of our volunteers. (Ismail’s colleagues gives us the figure of 160 people). When Russia announced that they were going to take such action in Aleppo, they started bombing us from dusk till dawn. We didn’t have time to go to all the places that were destroyed. We left the bodies on the floor because we couldn’t bear to bury them.’
“But did you know who carried out the attacks?”, I asked.
“Who? What I can say is that is was those who have the combat aircrafts, helicopters, missiles, cluster bombs. Everyone knows who has those kinds of weapons. The Russians did not deny this, they told their media that they were launching a major attack on Aleppo.”
The Islamists do not have aircrafts. The Turkish soldiers also got into civilian facilities, but they were one-off attacks. For them, apart from the territory controlled by ISIL, they were regions inhabited by Turks. The US planes had nothing to do with the last siege of the city.
“The Russian aircrafts, the Russians dropped bombs on Syrian civilians, they bombed the opposition to the Assad regime. They weren’t killing terrorists, but annihilating the population. All civilians who were against the ‘Islamic state’. Aleppo didn’t have any. It is possible that people in Russia do not understand what happened in Syria. They shot at hospitals, they dropped bombs on the civil defence, shops and bakeries,” according to the words of another volunteer from the ‘White Helmets’
Ammar Al Salamo. He started to talk about the fact that his organisation remains neutral and offers help to all victims.
A quiet middle-aged man, who was also an English teacher before the war, shows us a video from a rescue operation. It is a well known case from 24th September 2016, when a bomb fell on a humanitarian aid storage facility.
“The Russians are not our enemies. All we want is for Syria to become a democracy and that our rights and dignities are not infringed upon.”
The Syrian volunteers and medics are now the ones who document all the information. For every phone-call there are dozens of videos and photos to back-up what is said.
“I saw fear in the eyes of every man, woman and child”, concludes Ammar.
“A world which failed to protect the city of Aleppo, will not be able to save people in the evacuation zones if they start to attack them. The real opposition is basically concentrated in one place. We expect the worst. It was basically deportation. For us, this is a new era of barbarism. It is survival of the fittest. Civilians are weak.”
Watch the story of Ismail and Ammar White Helmets volunteers who witnessed the fall of Aleppo.
While we were working on these stories and talking with these Syrians, their narrative became very clear. It was about revolution, first blood, people who had taken up arms, ruined building and displaced people.
In any case, it is impossible to underestimate the scale of the Syrian conflict: 7.8 million displaced people,4 million refugees, 470,000 deaths, most of them are civilians.
The Assad regime calls it’s opponents terrorists, denying the civilian deaths which have been confirmed by international organisations such as Amnesty International, and reports of ten thousand people being tortured in Syrian prisons.
For 6 years, opposition to the government has also been committing crimes, like during the war started by ISIL and the radicalisation of the population. But unlike the constant discussion about who started it all, there has been little mention of the stories of the Syrian families who are struggling to survive every day, and of the Syrian society which is trying to save itself.
We are heading to the Turkish town of Reyhanli along a misty, narrow mountain road. Here lies the only checkpoint where civilians (those who have permits) can pass into Turkey.
We go past the fortified base of the Turkish border control. We stop to photograph a short stretch of the wall which was erected by the Turkish government when it grew concerned that ISIL were strengthening their position in northern Syria. We hardly meet any other cars.
Our geolocation shows us that we are 500 metres away from the Syrian border. All we can hear is the wind. Looking at the map and the majestic mountains, it is hard to believe that the war is so close, but thanks to the people we have met here, it has just become a lot clearer for us.