Photograph — International Business Times

Warning: Some of the images below are disturbing

The skies are painted black as smoke rises in the distance, minarets dot the skyline as the only surviving mosque calls for (Subhi) early morning prayers–the congregation file out in small numbers from hiding. There is unease, as they go about the routine of prayer and afterwards, there are hushed conversations on the current state of affairs. “Will today be our last?”

As the battle for Aleppo, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site and the largest city in Syria, once regarded as the financial and industrial nerve centre, entered its final stages following intensified bombings by the Syrian government, stories of hope fading and goodbyes to loved ones and the world flooded social media.

There are farewells from people who have stopped believing in the world, in the international community, in humanity.

The descriptions paint ‘hell’ for many as it is clear that Aleppo is facing its worst bombing yet and citizens feel trapped, afraid and wary of impending genocide.

Technology, and indeed social media, has helped to shape discussions and provide insight into the casualties of the war in Syria, but it is not enough of a force to stop the onslaught.

Headlines, pictures, and updates continue to come out of Aleppo, with the body count increasing, atrocities being committed and worse, those trying to seek refuge in other countries are discriminated against.

Just how did we get here?

The Battle of Aleppo followed the unrest of the Arab Spring in 2011 when Assad refused calls to step down from power as a result of not living up to expectations. As Assad’s forces began its crackdown on activists, an array of disorganised factions against him arose – involving the Free Syrian Army, the Levant Front, with support from groups like Hezbollah and Shiite militias.

The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations, and many Western governments have condemned Assad’s response to the protests and expressed support for the protesters’ right to freedom of speech. Middle Eastern governments that initially supported the Syrian government have taken a more balanced approach with calls to address the increasing death toll of civilians.

Syria’s civil war has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 11 million people have been forced to flee their homes. According to the UN, an estimated 6.1 million people are internally displaced and over 470,000 have been killed.

Families are struggling to survive inside Syria or make a new home in neighbouring countries. Others are risking their lives on the way to Europe, hoping to find acceptance and opportunity.

For the past four years or so, Aleppo has been split roughly into two divides – the Western bloc controlled by the government and the Eastern bloc controlled by rebels.

The evacuation of eastern Aleppo is yet to begin, despite a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey that was to allow civilians and opposition fighters from the besieged eastern districts of the city to leave.

A deal to allow the safe passage of opposition fighters, their families, and any civilians who wanted to leave was brokered on Tuesday by Russia and Turkey, however, the United States was not part of the deal.

The deepening tension between the US and Russia over Aleppo was reflected in an exchange at the Security Council when US Ambassador Samantha Power rebuked Assad, Russia, and Iran. “Your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes,” she said.

It is unclear when residents would be allowed to leave east Aleppo, which the United Nations said has endured a brutal “meltdown of humanity”. Forces loyal to the President Bashar al-Assad have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Much of Aleppo, the famed largest city in Syria, has already been destroyed, with the devastation having been compared to that at Stalingrad and in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Aleppo’s fall is a major win for Assad in his quest to assume superiority in the war-torn state of Syria which has left more than half of Syria’s population – originally twenty-two million – dependent on international aid for daily survival.

Not an easy tale

Omar Daqneesh
Omar Daqneesh

It is not an easy story to tell, a story of hope and then lost hope, a story of orphans and parents, of children and governments; it’s a story that begs the question – Why?

Regardless of all the calls for peace, for talks and ceasefires, the continuous nature of conflict and cycle of death and displacement in Syria, we have to ask, is it really worth it?

Children have been out of school, hospitals shelled, death is in the air and the masses have become citizen journalists, sending out stories on the events that have shaped their lives. As Syrians continue to express their lack of faith in humanity, many of us read from comfort zones and think that as long as it’s not happening to us personally, then it’s not our business.

I picture a city that has its buildings filled with craters created by bombs; empty homes left behind carry memories and losses created by their absence, makes me wonder how the people who lived there passed away, how did they react to the sound of planes overhead or gunshots, was it a young student or a family – did the father huddle his children assuring them that everything would be alright, up to the very end?

How did they exist, living every day with the feeling of “today may be one’s last”? Places were cut off from aid, there were reports that the Syrian government used Sarin gas on civilians, people were hungry and children dying, the situation exacerbated by the masses’ having no one to turn to in this fight of ideals.

dead baby in Aleppo

Chaos in Aleppo

In Aleppo lies the unknown stories of Ibrahim Ma’ayouf, who died at four months due to exposure to cold, Jehad and Ghiath, twins who died from mortar explosions, Joud, who died with his parents and so many others.

Free and not free

Humanitarian Crisis in Syria
Credit: Mercy Corps (October 2016)

For those who have made it out of Aleppo and Syria, seeking refuge in neighbouring and other countries, the situation is not rosy. Many leave behind friends and family, loved ones who they are unsure are still alive and well as each headline that discusses the military and international interventions bring with it a cold shiver and an urge to return home.

There are internment camps, hunger, trafficking rings and a sense of abandonment; with migrants being termed as terrorists.

The children are a different story. Memories of my childhood contain blue skies and green fields, playgrounds and bruises on the knees; the only pain point being the constant nag of mothers over how unruly we were. For the children of Aleppo, no such happy tales exist.

I vividly remember being in the middle of a gun fight some years back on a Nigerian expressway – the banging and crackling sounds of “kalashin” and “pump action”, as the police and some hoodlums exchanged fire. Adults were running haphazardly for their lives; you could hear many calling on different deities to protect them from stray bullets. I was one of this many. To this day, loud sounds still make me jerk.

Imagine what life must be like for a child born in Aleppo – it’s almost like a cursed fate. For a child’s first sounds to comprise of bomb blasts and rifle showers, in the midst of the terrified parents wondering, if the child would live to call Syria, home.

Imagine being a child in Aleppo, speaking of a future you’re unsure of. Your number of friends drops with each passing day and the shock of the situation just scars you as your experience of growing up is filled with pages of isolation and hiding.

These same children would grow up in this system, distrustful of the world, their governments and create ideals of “ifs” as a means to get back at the system.

But it’s not just in Aleppo where we have these children – the security situation in Northeastern Nigeria has placed children at a precarious disadvantage. Malnutrition, molestation, trafficking and the systematic use of children have become tools in a war between insurgent groups and the Federal Government of Nigeria.

How dire situations like these affect the mental health of all involved especially the children is definitely a concern.

Dear Assad, to what end?

When women in Aleppo decide to commit suicide rather than be raped and children are burnt alive, there’s a nauseating feeling one gets from how bad things are – simply put – this is the end. Life expectancy has dropped from 70 to 56 years of age.

It’s already forgotten history that Syria was once a safe haven for Europeans when in 1944, the Middle East Relief and Refugee administration set up refugee camps. Today – in contrast – fleeing Syrians are subject to ridicule and abuse from most quarters.

It is saddening.

The situation in Syria was significantly worsened following the launch of airstrikes in the fall of 2015.

Despite Assad regaining Aleppo, the civil war in Syria is far from over and in essence, so are the casualties. A variety of rebel groups still holds Idlib Province, in the North West.

In the North East along the Iraqi border, which has been occupied by the Islamic State since 2013, much of the fighting is between ISIS and other Syrian rebels.

The conflict shows no signs of ending, and other countries have joined in proxy positions to further their ideologies. The balance of power in the Middle East—notably between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is also believed to be at play – Riyadh has backed several Sunni rebels, while Tehran has supported the government, led by Alawites, a minority linked to Shiites.

Battle in Syria
Current situation in Syria: Red (Syrian Government), Green (Syrian Opposition), Yellow (Federation of North Syria), Grey (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) and White (Al-Nusra Front)

For all the international community has done, one has to wonder for whatever is being fought for, is it all worth it? The lives and children lost, handicaps created, the sense of homesickness that those who survived the tumultuous journey have to live with, could it be worth all of this?

The shock and horror only serve to show there’s an innate sense of loss.

We look back at highlights in the wars of the world and draw parallels between the internment of Jews during Hitler’s reign, its characteristic genocide and what is happening in Syria today. As the map is being drawn up by men who seek to push forward their ideals, it is sick to see that the simple freedom of will for the regular Syrian has been so repressed that we have to go back to our earlier question – Why?

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