Tuesday, 13 September 2016

At hajj, Syrian pilgrims talk of exile and war

 'Fatima, 38, managed to leave Syria after government troops assaulted her home neighbourhood of Baba Amr in the central city of Homs, one of the cradles of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. Of that time, she doesn't want to say much, out of fear of being recognised. She simply says she left "because of the killings and the terror." Fatima only agreed to talk on condition that she not give her family name and not show her face.

 "We are here at the hajj as free Syrians, to say that the regime of the tyrant lies when it says Syrians were deprived of the hajj by Saudi Arabia," said former business student Abdullah Abu Zeid. He comes from Anadan, a rebel-held town just north of Syria's battleground second city Aleppo. He said he would return to his hometown straight after the hajj despite the long bombardment by government forces that has reduced much of it to rubble.

 Mohammed Limam, 26, was a first-year student of Arab literature in Aleppo until the war forced him, too, to drop out. He said that now he is a fighter for the rebels who "resisted in the face of bombardments and destruction". He said he had never left Syria before and the first two days away were hard. "I left for the hajj but right after I will go back and if God wills it, we will liberate all of our country," he said. In Aleppo now, "no one lives normally in a house. You take shelter, you hide, you only go out after properly checking the surroundings, to protect ourselves and our loved ones" especially from air strikes.

 Abdel Rahman al-Nahlawi of the Syrian Hajj Committee, has lived in Turkey for several years, but has lost none of the protective reflexes of those in the war zone. When Saudi helicopters fly overhead monitoring the hajj crowds, he unconsciously frowns and looks around, as do the other pilgrims. "Only a Syrian could have such a reaction each time he hears a helicopter," he quips.'

"I spend time with my friends and brothers in revolution, who are my hope and source of strength"

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'Shamel Al-Ahmad passed away along other victims of recent Assad/Russian bombing of the Aleppo city. His 9th month pregnant wife who was with him durning barrel bomb attack passed away a few days earlier. The baby and her 2 and 5 years old siblings survived. At the beginning of September, the Facebook page Humans of Aleppo shared a message from Ahmad.

 “It is not possible to risk my two children’s lives at this deadly point, they are all I have in this world,” Shamel once said.

 My name is Shamel Al-Ahmad. I am 35 years old married and have two children. My life changed when I saw a video of the Syrian regime’s security forces while they were humiliating my people and treading on their heads in Bayda, Banias.

 In July 2012, the freedom fighters entered my city, Aleppo. I became obsessed by the idea of being arrested and detained by regime forces. We were out of the regime control, and I didn't have to hide my identity anymore.

 The risk of being detained is over, but my city turned into an open space for the regime to target all its opponents. Artillery, fighter jets, barrel bombs and even scud missiles. We experienced all those lethal weapons that I documented with my lens. I thought these pictures would tell the story and push the international community to act or at least help the civilians, but lately I've realized that was hopeless.

 ISIS took over parts of my country. I immediately knew that our battle for freedom would be endless and that Assad is not our only problem. I joined the “life makers” team, working on social development and acclimating them with the new reality, the war-time reality.

 I sometimes get depressed and disappointed, and sometimes lose hope. I spend time with my friends and brothers in revolution, who are my hope and source of strength, to overcome my depression. Months ago, somebody offered me to join on a boat trip to Europe. We talked about it many times and I was about to accept it, but eventually I said no…Syria is my country and my cause. However, it is not possible to risk my two children’s lives at this deadly point, they are all I have in this world.

 My friend made it to Germany in late 2015. He seemed happy. We Skype every week and he keeps encouraging me to follow his steps. I just keep refusing. Despite all the reasons, which increase every day and push me to leave, I am the kind of person who can’t survive away from their streets. Aleppo is part of me, I can’t leave it alone. I feel sorry that Aleppo is facing all this horror, but I can still breathe its freedom.

 I was saddened by friends who I lost and who I'm still losing, especially those who are close and brothers in revolution. Many of them lost hope and are not able to carry on. I don’t blame them, but I just feel sorry for not having them around me. I am not against those who decide to leave and seek asylum, because many were forced to do that. I am just against the idea of being there to enjoy life without work or purpose, or without an aim to serve their homeland. I don’t want them to be a burden on the host communities.

 Finally, it’s not easy to stay in Syria anymore, since nobody knows how their complicated story is going to end, but there is still hope to continue the fight.'

Shamel al-Ahmad was a 35-year-old Syrian photographer and activist. He was based in Aleppo.