By Ayoub Almadani
1 May 2013:
“Did you decide to join us on our trip to Aleppo? If so, I have to warn . . .[restrict]you that what I mentioned earlier about us getting out of Syria healthy and alive is not valid anymore…”
Kurt Pelda is a Swiss frontline journalist whom I met back in 2011 during the Libyan revolution. With these words, Kurt tried to make me realize how serious the situation is. Aleppo is not liberated, It is nothing like Azaz – where we are right now. For me, the decision was already made, days ago.
“One last cup of tea, after we should get some rest” said Abu Ali. He is a frontline fighter belonging to an Islamic brigade known as ‘Ahrar Alsham’, his severe leg injury is banning him from joining his friends and fighters since a couple of weeks.
I took my cup of tea and went out in front of Anwar’s house to enjoy a last cigarette and free my mind before we leave to Aleppo the next day. It is pitch black, I could only hear the sound of electric generators disturbing the perfect and scary silence.
Next to the house, there is a little shop of on old man who sells candy and some other basic items, nothing one really needs to survive. I know that the old man is the father of our host Anwar.
When I entered the shop I see Abu Anwar with his proud moustache talking to his guests, he salutes me and asks me to join. “Assalamu Alaikum..” I said. The old man picked a small half-broken plastic chair and asked me again to have a seat. “Abu Khalid, this is the Libyan boy, he is here for Jihad!” I looked at him and said “well.. Jihad has many facets” in a desperate move trying to correct him.
Abu Khalid holds my hand and starts quoting Koran and Hadeeth, After a dozen of questions about who I am and why I am here, he tells me that he is a leader in the famous ‘Jabhat Al Nussra‘. I felt overwhelmed and sober for a moment.
Without thinking I found myself saying “ I am very happy to be in Syria, I feel very comfortable here!” he replied “this is Bilad Al Sham son, there is no Syria” he stands up and continues “God bless you, I wish to hear soon that you martyred in our holy war, I have known many brave brotherly Libyans who reached paradise fighting on this holy soil”, he smiles and leaves.
For a second, I felt that I am in the wrong place and definitely at the wrong time. I excused myself from Anwar’s father and went back to the house. On the thin mattress, I fought to get some sleep but the dense bombing in the near military base of Minnakh airport made it impossible.
After a refreshing coffee at dawn and equipped with a plateless Audi, plenty of medicine and surgery tools which we brought from Switzerland, some AK-47s and cameras; we were on the way to Aleppo. The highway was not safe, hence, Anwar decided to take the country roads. We passed the village of “Tall Rif’at” which was hit by a Scud missile last night leaving many victims and massive destruction.
One hour Later we arrive at Aleppo’s suburbs. A densely populated area characterized by the communist style of architecture. Long endless rows of 5-6 floor homogenous building surrounding the entrance of the city. The garbage is everywhere, we could see inside many apartments of half-demolished buildings. The view makes one imagine the terror of getting hit by a missile while spending some regular time inside your apartment. The atmosphere is choking.
Surprisingly, the streets are more and more crowded as we get closer to the city center. One gets the feeling of a massive evacuation taking place, people are everywhere, with their heads bent down, looking depressed and clueless. The constant bombing raid by Assad’s air force became a part of their daily routine. People are frustrated and fed up. They seemed to be ready to take any step in order to get back a sense of normality in their lifestyle.
Spontaneously, we parked next to a group of people gathered at a car wash station. They welcomed us warmly and invited us for Turkish coffee. While my companions were busy chatting with the men, I spent some time with the children of the neighborhood, aged between 7 and 13, most of them carrying a mop in their hands.
They were working in the station for a miserable daily salary of 100 Lira (1.50 $). I tried to absorb their frustration and asked them about their future plans after the fall of Assad. They all answered: “Mujahid”. Except of Amr, he wanted to become an officer in the military. I rephrased my question: “Imagine, Assad is gone, you no longer need Mujahideen, what would you like to become?”
The looked at each other. Clueless. I continued: “Pilot? Doctor?” Their reaction of was impressive, one of them starts shouting “Pilot? They bomb us! They kill us! No!” In the background, Amr says: “Doctor”, he smiles and runs away to join a little group playing football at the other side of the street.
After quickly finishing our coffee, we moved on and passed Al Sukkari district, where we wanted to speak to the locals living alongside the so-called ‘river of death’. It was an eery and disturbing place, where people wait for the mutilated bodies of relatives kidnapped, executed and thrown into the river by the regime forces to show up. They fish them out with nets.
We visited Al-Yarmouq, a former girl’s primary school now held by rebels where unidentified bodies from the river are kept. It was a horrible sight apt to make the strongest man’s blood run cold.
We then drove on through a devastated scenery to fulfill the main goal of our mission to Aleppo – the deliverance of humanitarian supplies to the ‘Free Syrian Army‘ members who had been awaiting our arrival at a cigarette factory they were holding. It took us about half an hour to reach our destination.
While Anwar and the other rebels were unloading the goods, I noticed a stark difference between the view to the left and to the right of the factory. To the right, one could see lights flickering in the distance as would be expected under normal circumstances – to the left everything was completely dark, accentuated only by the sound of occasional explosions.
Upon asking, I was told that the area to the left was rebel-hold territory under attack by Assad’s troops, while the lights that could be seen to the right belonged to a part of the city inhabited by Kurds. They, I learned, have remained neutral, giving them the benefit of a relatively undamaged infrastructure.
On the way back, everyone remained silent, probably dealing with the impressions of the day. I was glad to be able to pack my luggage and get back home, realising however that the people I met in Syria did not have that option. A few hours later, I found myself dragging my bags for about 2km across the no man’s land between Syria and Turkey.
Half-way through, I suddenly heard the SMS alert of my phone that had found a connection to the Turkish mobile network. That sound seemed to mark my emergence from that troubled country in a way that nothing else could. Nevertheless, I could never forget Syria and the people I met there.
The author is a Libyan student abroad and went on a humanitarian mission to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
The views in this opinion article do not necessarily reflect those of the Libya Herald. [/restrict]