IDLIB, Syria – It’s been nearly six years since the 2011 uprising that took over my country and derailed my seemingly normal life. Six years since the days of attending university as a normal student ended. And everyday I watch the world’s reactions to the demise of Syria, the demise of my nation.
I have no idea where I am going to live. After the evacuations, I came to Idlib, Syria, not far from Aleppo. But the memories of the city I had come to call home, now known well to the rest of the world, extend far beyond the tragedy I watched in its fall a little over a month ago.
I was born in Idlib and grew up there, so this should feel normal. Aleppo was my mother’s hometown, and I used to spend the summers in my grandpa’s house in the old city, a very charming and historical part that had made me fall in love with Aleppo in ways I never thought I would. So when I graduated high school, I immediately began to pack my bags to move to the big city and study. I never thought I would end up back here, driven out in a convoy from my new home to the old.
Aleppo, June 2010: It’s 9:30 at night, and with the cool sweet breeze around us, a group of Syrian and Japanese students are running through this beautiful city we all call home ― at least for now. We make so much noise, laughing loudly as we pass through the narrow streets in the old city of Aleppo, the same place I had spent my summers as a child.
The stores begin to close in the main souk of the old city while we step on the stones that have been planted in the ancient streets for hundreds of years.
The moon is smiling above our heads, the buildings mumble and whisper to us. This place tells a story, every odor. And every time we walk away from this place, from these summer nights, from the memories that used to be our reality, our hearts tear just a little bit more.
June 2011: I am running faster than I ever have before. I cannot feel my legs. All I want is to hide from those monsters; regime gangs who are known as “Shabiha.”
They had rounded up those of us who had been singing the national anthem in protest during a demonstration against the regime near the university. And the song still plays in my head as I run. My heart is beating so hard and loud, and I know that once I stop running I will no longer be able to continue. They are chasing me by car and all that I can do is keep running. With every foot on the pavement, the national anthem grows louder.
But I only grow more exhausted. I don’t know how long I have been running, but I know I can’t go any further. I find a doorway. I think I am safe, no one will notice me here. I knock and beg the old man to let me in, but instead the door is slammed in my face. I start screaming, hitting the door as hard as I can and begging for him to let me back in. There is nothing left to do. And then a door slams behind me. I freeze as Shabiha gangs envelop me, and the next thing I know I am in the prisons of President Bashar Assad’s security branches. I spend the night in their custody, unsure of my future.
September 2011: I am back at the university. I sit at a desk doing my last exam of the semester. A young, strange woman outside the exam hall is waiting for me. She is smiling as I walk out of the classroom. She stops me and asks to talk to me for a couple of minutes. I oblige, and think, “This should be okay, she is just another classmate.”
She takes me to the office of the Ba’ath political party on campus. This party was the only actual political party in Syria; the party of the regime. She opens the door. There is a man waiting behind his desk.
“Have a seat please,” she says, as she sits down in the chair across from me and shuts the door.
The man sitting next to her asks me, “Do you know who I am?”
“Excuse me … What do you want?”
“Look my dear, let me be very clear and direct: if it came to my attention that you’re participating in or planning a demonstration against the regime, or dirty things that can affect our [national] security, and I can expel you with one move of my pen, you will no longer exist in this university, you’ll no longer exist in the future.”
As a student, I can’t say much, so I sit and let the conversation pass. It is all I can do to ensure my safety and remain in class until graduation. I don’t want to end up like some of my other classmates ― back in the hands of the regime’s security forces. Many students are subjected to threats at the university. Many are arrested on campus, some by professors who are supporting the regime. We don’t have the freedom to say what we want. There is no respect for life, no human value.
Jan. 15, 2013: It is two years later and the city has been split in two. I live in the western half, which is controlled by the regime.
There are aircrafts in the sky bombing the eastern part of the city (held by the Free Syrian Army, the armed resistance against the Assad regime in Syria). In 2012, we began to demonstrate at Aleppo university, located in regime-held territory. That May, the school saw one of the largest protests in the city.
I am at the university doing my first exam of the semester. It is a sunny day and, like any student, I am so worried about finishing my exams on time. Suddenly, my exam is buried under dust, the glass of the window I’m sitting next to turns into sand in front of me. I raise my head, and frantically look around the room for my friend, checking if she is still alive.
An airstrike hits around 10 meters away from our building. It is a bold message from the regime to us: If you kept protesting in our regions, calling for freedom, this will be your destiny. This black day in Syria is one I won’t soon forget.
September 2014: East Aleppo is now known as the most dangerous city in the world. The strikes are becoming more frequent and my roommate is very sick. I have been tending to her all night, using wet towels on her body to take down her temperature. But it isn’t working ― she is only getting worse. We are alone, just me and her. My cell phone doesn’t work. The regime cut the electricity long ago.
Assad helicopters cloud the skies, bombing everywhere. I have no choice but to help her get dressed as the sounds of the bombs come closer and closer. We run to the street and I try to stop any car to take us to the nearest hospital. We make it just on time to save her life.
August 2015: I have been married for two months now. It is early in the morning, and I am lying in the living room with my husband. The aircraft and bombing sounds are horrible, spreading terror around us. Suddenly, the sounds of aircrafts begin to roar above us. People down in the street scream, “watch out, the barrel bomb is coming.” It feels like our last moments. I hug my husband Yusuf as close as I can, and then it hits. The building shakes, the pressure is unbelievable. It is an explosive barrel bomb only 30 meters away from us. We sit together in shock and both smile when we realize we have yet again escaped death.
October 2016: I started making coffee using wood after we ran out of gas. I’m sitting here in this chair sipping this golden treasure like a queen. Coffee can rarely be found in this city after a few months under siege.
The smell of death is all around me. I keep hearing the roaring of the regime and Russian aircrafts in the sky and thinking, “who’s next?”
But there’s another smell. The smell of resistance. The smell of burning tires, which are used to block the movement of the planes that fly over the city. The smoke from the fires will distract them and keep the city safe.
November 2016: All the hospitals are bombed now. Streets I walked in the day before are no longer recognizable. The only hospital that remains is barely active. You can’t see the floor ― just dust and blood.
At home, I pack a bag for an emergency. The army may advance at any moment, and I need to be ready to leave. Air raids are happening everywhere around me, shells dropping like rain on my district near one of the front lines. I can hear the clashes from my house.
Days and nights vanish. Everything starts to mix up. We only sleep a few hours, and only when we feel exhausted. It doesn’t matter where you sleep. Bed, couch or nearest chair.
I am terrified that a lot of people have already passed away. Terrified that I may face the same fate at any moment. I spend some nights hoping to wake up and find that this nightmare is miraculously over. Sometimes I question that I am even living. But each time the sound of a nearby bomb snaps me back to reality.
December 2016: I am lying on the couch at home.The only sound you can hear is the bombs landing outside and the silence of death.
I get up and put some wood in the fireplace as I wait for my husband to come home. There is no internet, no way to call anyone, no news I could get from the world which seems to be collapsing around me. I fall asleep as I wait. I didn’t know it, but this is the last night I will spend in my home in Aleppo.
I wake up to a man’s voice outside. He yells to his friend, “Assad forces have advanced in Bustan Al-Qasr [a neighborhood less than 500 meters from us]. Bustan Al-Qasr is in the hands of the enemy.”
My husband and I leave right away. The next day we find ourselves in a room in a basement of a building with a lot of other women and children who had fled their homes, too. Everyone has brought something to eat from their own remaining supplies before leaving. I haven’t. I wasn’t thinking of food when I escaped. I was only thinking of the possible massacre that awaited me.
The Final Demise
Dec. 18: After days of chaos and uncertainty, a truce had been announced between the rebels and Assad’s forces. The agreement calls for the evacuation of civilians. We are on day three of evacuations. People have no choice. They never thought twice about leaving their homes. In the presence of all this death, it did not matter what they wanted.
A lot of houses are empty now. People packed their things, burned their memories, said a quick goodbye to a city they had spent their lives in. They didn’t have time to realize that this was going to be the last time they would get to smell their homes. They gathered, awaiting evacuation.
A few days ago, about 3,000 people had been evacuated. Then, Assad forces halted evacuations. People waited in frigid temperatures.
I go that night to see what the situation is, recording videos when I can. The street is destroyed. Completely empty except for the desperate people who have set fire to empty shops to keep them warm while they sleep. I want to cry as I pass them. Some have been there for three days, sleeping anywhere, eating anything. And why? To be forcefully evacuated from their homes, from their city, by the hands of their killer and under the supervision of the whole world?
Dec. 22: We wake up to snow covering the whole city. I used to love the snow, but this time it scares me. What if evacuations are halted? We wait all day for an answer, and finally, around sunset we are set to evacuate.
It’s my last day in Aleppo, about 10 days since I first left home. We have been told that we have the choice today to drive our cars out of the city alongside the final convoys evacuating the people. We have been waiting to leave for more than 36 hours.
After learning the night before that we would be spending that night in the city, a friend of my husband’s (a member of the rebel forces) finds us a place to sleep for the night. There is no mobile coverage, no internet. People are burning anything to stay warm.
The walls of the room we stay in are covered in writing, and a small wood fire keeps us warm. There is no clean water and no food, so a small group of rebels risk their lives to go back to the empty city not knowing if Assad forces are there yet or not. We are so lucky to find this shelter on this dark, cold night. After the years of turmoil, and days sleeping in our car and on the move, this place feels like a palace.
I don’t look back as we finally leave. I don’t look at the torn and dismantled shell of a city that I used to know. I don’t say goodbye. I don’t want to. As we move farther away from Aleppo, time feels like it keeps slowing down. Eventually, once we leave the city, it stops entirely. I have never known time without my city, and don’t know that it will ever be the same.
February 2017: I used to see the people in Aleppo like trees, planted in their land. Some trees were burnt, some had been cut off, and many of those who remained alive were forcefully displaced from their ground. That just breaks my hearts. We dreamed of a better future for Syria and Syrians when we revolted against the Assad regime, and all we have now is death and destruction.
But I know that Aleppo will always live on in the lives of those of us that were forcibly displaced, and while that gives me comfort, I am heartbroken that the loss of our city does not mean the end of the oppression. Many of Aleppo’s former and current residents still live under the oppression of the Assad regime, under the continuous threat of the brutality of Assad and Russian forces.
We could not achieve our dreams in the liberated areas. We committed many mistakes. We, as revolutionists, have to apologize to our people, for the chance we missed to have a better future for all of us. But as long as we are still alive, there is still a chance, and we’ll continue in our struggle, in this great revolution, to get our rights to live in freedom, dignity and justice.
My city is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. If that says something, it says that its people have an eternal love for this city and its life. Aleppo is the beating musical heart of Syria: a city full of joy and happiness can never be defeated by oppression. I believe in my people, I believe that they will find their way to achieve freedom. And with every close encounter with death, my conviction in this cause and my faith in my people has only grown.