A WALK THROUGH DESTRUCTION AND HOPE – Aleppo, Syria

Diarmuid Breatnach

On Saturday 8th June, The Starry Plough Historical Society put on a remarkable event: an exhibition of photos from Aleppo with a real-time audio explanation of each by the photographer, community worker Antoine Makdis, speaking from Aleppo itself.  Please note all but one of the images are photos taken by me of those being shown on the screen, hence the poor quality of the image but it is Antoine’s story of each that is of  most importance.

Audience and presenter in Ireland in contact with Antoine Makdis in Aleppo. (Photo: D.Breatnach

          Aleppo is a many-centuries-old city in the north of Syria which for five years was fought over in the war between Jihadists and the Syrian national army. Antoine Makdis is a Syrian community worker who also takes documentary photographs. The city was once the principal one in the region, being on the midway spot on Silk Road for caravans, between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean but the development of the Suez Canal reduced its trade importance hugely. There was also political rivalry between Aleppo-based interests and those in Damascus, as to whether to gravitate towards allegiance with Iraq or with Egypt.

However, the city has nevertheless been famed for its antiquity and its ancient buildings, as well as for its edible produce and cuisine. Sadly, the city was riven by war between 2012 and 20161, suffering huge destruction to its ancient buildings and communal spaces and with high loss of life too.  

This man was looking for where the remains of his shop were in the souq.

Aleppo won  the “Islamic City of Culture” title in 2006.  Its western suburbs contain “the Dead Cities” with remains of many cultures which have Unesco World Heritage status since 2011 under the title “Ancient Villages of Syria”.  The city has the largest covered market-souq in the world and ancient buildings of worship, not only for Moslems but also for Christians and Jews.

This man and his mother took the long way home from their shopping. When Antoine asked them why, they replied that they “are walking their memories” through the souq.
Shopkeepers selling their products at a higher price early in the day and dropping as time goes on, then sometimes giving away free at the end of day.
For the first time, fish being sold again. This fishmonger is famous in Aleppo now.
His shop was destroyed but instead of giving up, he runs a stall in front of the ruins.

Wikepedia: “Aleppo lies about 120 km (75 miles) inland from the Mediterranean Sea on a plateau 280 m (1,250 ft) above sea level, 45 km (28 miles) east of the Syrian-Turkish border checkpoint of Bab al-Hawa. The city is surrounded by farmlands to the north and west, widely cultivated with olive and pistachio trees. To the east, Aleppo approaches the dry areas of the Syrian Desert.”

Before the recent war in Syria the population of the city was 4.6 million, making it the most populous city in Syria but it is probably so no longer. According to some sources it is one of the cities in longest continuous human occupation, possibly since 6th millennium BC.

If I recall correctly, this is what remains of the popular children’s toy shop in the city.
This is what remains of a popular square which had a tree and many couples met here first.
Fans of a British soccer team. “What did you do during the war?” Antoine asked them.
“We played football.”

DOCUMENTING THE EFFECTS OF WAR AND BEGINNINGS OF RECOVERY

          After the fighting in the city ceased, Antoine walked around taking photos, documenting not only terrible damage but the efforts of people to recover and the voluntary work done by some people to help people recover the city.

The Dublin event was organised by the Starry Plough Historical Society. A screen displayed the photographs while a presenter conversed with Antoine Makdis on a link-up and the latter talked about each photo, why he took it and what it meant to him.

I think this is a photo of school being reopened. Many of us, like Antoine, were reluctant attenders at school but these kids really look forward to it after the war.
This one also of kids going to school these days, I think.

“I wanted to show the world my beloved city Aleppo, through my eyes”, the photographer wrote in an introduction published on the event page. “This city that suffered a lot from the war and at the same time is cleaning the dust of battles from it’s magical robe to rise again as the oldest and most beautiful city in the world. That year, Aleppo started to recover after the unification of the parts of the city. And I started to publish these pictures on facebook, writing sometimes stories about the photos and most of the times keeping the picture taken unaccompanied by words.”

The event promotion on FB posted that it would be “… non-political, free to attend and open to all (respectful behavior to others is mandatory however).” At the time I questioned how anything could be non-political, to say nothing of photos taken in what was a war zone fought over definite political objectives. I do think I was correct in doubting that possibility and, at times, it was clear that Antoine was grateful for the Syrian National Army for ridding his city of the jihadists and that is entirely understandable.

Sadly, as the last photo was being discussed, I had to leave to attend another event and so was unable to participate in discussion with the photographer, or to thank and congratulate him for his work and what seemed to me a deep humanity underlying it.

Workers are hired to clear the rubble but funds to pay them only stretch to half a day. This worker does a full day, half for free, to help bring the city back to life.
This man voluntarily cleans houses left filthy by the jihadists so that people can move back in, Antoine told us.  Behind him, a building has collapsed spectacularly resembling geological strata pushed up at one end by tectonic plates movement.

 

This kid called his donkey by his brother’s name. He goes around collecting and delivering items and gives a lift to anyone who wants it.

ALEPPO WAR BACKGROUND

          The uprising against Assad may have had genuine democratic or socialist component and it would not be surprising, given the history of the Syrian State, if they were suppressed with unreasonable force.

This woman, Antoine told us, lost her husband and had 12 children to care for. The street she had to go on to get food for the children was overlooked by snipers in combat each end of the street but she went each day. A hero.

In Aleppo, there had been a demonstration against Assad in August 2011, some months after they had occurred elsewhere in Syria. Syrian State forces had suppressed that demonstration with the loss of two lives. Two months later, there was a large pro-regime demonstration.

The jihadists began to attack Government forces and others with bombs the following year. In February two suicide car bombs hit security compounds, killing four civilians, 13 Army, 11 Police and injuring 235. Another bomb in March 2012 killed two police and one civilian and injured 30 residents of the area. In July the “Free Syrian Army” besieged the city and penetrated into a section so that the war was then fought house to house until it stabilised into war between the section held by the FSA and the other, held by the Syrian National Army, separated by a no-man’s land.

The FSA were by this time undoubtedly mostly jihadists, i.e followers of the call of “jihad” or religious war. Jihadists are operating in various parts of the world and have undoubtedly been funded by Western Powers, chiefly the USA, along with in many cases sections of the Saudi Arabian royal ruling class.

I am unsure whether this is the old dangerous or the new safer Aleppo road. The old one was often ambushed by the FSA and severed heads were sometimes left along it. Antoine lost two former school mates on that road.
One of the many such sights on the old road.

The strategists of the USA have felt for years that it was necessary to have the rulers of a number of Middle Eastern states overthrown and replaced with regimes friendly to them.

The USA began seriously funding jihadists in Afghanistan to counter the Russian military and political presence there from the end of 1979 to early 1989 (they even sent them Rambo2!). Al Qaeda was created then by the USA, the organisation’s leadership drawing also on support from ruling circles in Saudi Arabia.

The CIA strategists developed a theory that religious zealots could be used to counter the influence of socialists and anti-imperialist democrats. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Al Qaeda later turned against it creator, the USA, of which the most spectacular incident was the hijacked airplane attacks on the Twin Towers and on the Pentagon in September 11, 2001.

“This is not a happy picture,” Antoine said. These children imagined themselves soldiers and had formed a platoon, with different ranks among them.

The monster has found a life of its own and has bred many offspring (the organisation variously known as ISIS/ ISIL/ Islamic State/ DAESH being the most notorious) and continues to be an ongoing danger to the people of the world. The various groups often fight among themselves for dominance and this was the case between ISIS in Syria and the imperialist-backed FSA.

Dr. Frankenstein has not entirely given up on his creation, believing it can be used in a controlled way from time to time wherever in the Middle East the political situation threatens the foreign interests of the USA.

End.

She wants to study to become an architect, to reconstruct her ruined home, the ancient building behind her.
The lingerie shop is back in business
Contrasting styles of women
With the water supply damaged, people had to go to water tanks supplied. Here an Armenian Christian and an Arab chat while collecting water.
With electricity supply reconnected, he can have light in his shop again.
Each day these two take walks through once-familiar districts. The one on the right is developing Alzheimer’s and his friend talks to him about what they see.
Antoine heard this child singing “Old Mac Donald” with some of the words in Arabic but he was too shy to be photographed. Cycling is the best way to get through most the rubble.
A couple, perhaps newly-returned, walk through Aleppo carrying their baby between them.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION

Aleppo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleppo

Hosting organisation of Starry Plough Historical Society: https://www.facebook.com/AIAIreland2/?eid=ARCsOcnqMgynuedzFgI4HifYpeJQu8cLd7JbEn9W4z3FFaWcVisIQg2vPOEaFUNNYDWMYKHs88Y0kKTs

FOOTNOTES

1Known as The Battle for Aleppo

2In the film Rambo III, the actor Sylvester Stallone plays a USA special forces fighter aiding the humble Afghanis in overthrowing the Russian occupation.

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