In Multipolarity

By Peter Oborne, The Daily Mail, Feb 8, 2016

PETER OBORNE sends a devastating dispatch from the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo as a human tide flees in terror for Europe. Aleppo was one of Middle East’s most beautiful cities only four years ago. Now, almost everything has been destroyed by the never-ending civil war.

City of Aleppo (Peter Oborne, Middle East Eye)

City of Aleppo (Peter Oborne, Middle East Eye)

Opened just before World War I, Baron’s Hotel in downtown Aleppo has long been synonymous with comfort and high civilisation. It was here that Agatha Christie wrote her famous crime novel, Murder On The Orient Express. Lawrence of Arabia stayed at Baron’s as he plotted the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.

When I knocked on the door last week, I found that the hotel had been struck regularly by mortars. But it was still standing and, unbelievably, it was still open.

The tourists who used to flock to Baron’s in their thousands no longer visit. Instead, the hotel has opened its doors to refugees from Syria’s unspeakably barbaric civil war. Lawrence of Arabia’s room — number 202 — was until recently occupied by a displaced couple with three small children.

Downstairs, in what had been the Grand Salon, another of the hotel’s new guests told me her harrowing story. Fighters from the Free Syrian Army — the rebel faction hailed by the British government as ‘moderate’ — took over her village three years ago. They forced her to wear black, veil her face and stay at home.

Thanks to the fighting, her husband lost his job as a house-builder. Eventually they made the decision to flee, leaving behind everything they owned. Now her husband makes a miserable living by selling vegetables in the street, while her 12-year-old son works unpaid at a nearby tailor.

There was a hole made by the blast of a sniper’s bullet on the wall above her. But otherwise the Grand Salon retained its original European furniture and pictures, with a pianola in the corner. Yet if Agatha Christie were alive and tried to ply her writing trade as she once did on the terrace here, she would risk being blown up by mortar or hit by gunfire. And when she looked up from her writing, she would be greeted by a view of empty streets, damaged buildings and road blocks.

It is only four years ago that the northern Syrian city of Aleppo was one of the most prosperous and beautiful in the Middle East. Tourists from around the world visited its ancient mosques and churches, fabulous citadel, and the largest covered market in the world.

Aleppo was also the industrial powerhouse of Syria, with buoyant textile and pharmaceutical companies sustaining a booming population of well over two million. Now, almost everything has been destroyed by war. President Assad’s army has managed to hang on to the west of the city, while the east is dominated by rebel groups which include Al-Nusra (the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda) and Islamic State.

The fighting has spurred countless refugees to head north to Turkey, and thence to Europe. As the Mail‘s front page on Saturday showed, an escalation in recent days has led to a human tide of tens of thousands pouring out of the city, many ending up at a refugee camp on the border with Turkey. Other families have fled into the government-controlled area of the city where I stayed.

I discovered that the famed Aleppo University has been turned into a giant camp, with 17 out of its 20 dormitory blocks used by displaced families, some of whom sleep a dozen or more to a room designed for two students.

One man, who looked 75 though he assured me he was only 50, told how his family home and olive oil business in the old city of Aleppo had been destroyed by the Islamists of Al-Nusra.

The terror group beheaded one member of his family, and ripped another apart by tying him between an electricity pylon and a moving car. Another family member has been kidnapped, and no one knows where he is.

One man, who had been a tailor in peacetime, told me he came into western Aleppo to flee Free Syrian Army fighters — who promptly came after him and made an unsuccessful attempt to abduct his daughter from their university shelter.

Such are the horrors that pass for everyday life in this benighted city. The inhabitants are now so accustomed to the sounds of shell and mortar fire that they no longer look up when they hear an explosion.

I met one schoolmistress who had just made a terrifying journey from her home in an Islamic State-controlled area just east of Aleppo to collect her monthly salary of 30,000 Syrian pounds (about £50) from the education directorate in the city centre.

Before the war, this journey had taken barely 40 minutes. Hers had taken five days as she made her away across Al-Nusra and Islamic State road blocks.

The teacher told me that in her home town she was made to dress entirely in black. She said simply: ‘They will kill me if I show any flesh.’ She was forced to live indoors, except when being ordered into the public square to witness the frequent beheadings and crucifixions.

Intriguingly, she told me the foreigner fighters who controlled her area included French, British, Egyptians, Afghans and Americans — ‘very blond Americans and black ones’.

Islamic State does not allow her to teach — but she is still paid by the Syrian government. This brave and stoical woman would shortly make the journey back to rejoin her husband and young children. She told me she had no doubt that the advancing Syrian government army would soon retake her home town. ‘Then the Islamic State will booby-trap the houses and use us as human shields,’ she said.

Aleppo today is a city of darkness and cold. Electricity has been cut for more than three months, and there had been no water for 12 days by the time I reached the city. In both cases, Islamic State is to blame. Its fighters hold the power station which supplies electricity. They are now besieged by the Syrian Army.

Aleppo’s water comes from the Euphrates river to the east via a giant water processing plant, which is also under ISIS’s control.

The people make do with private generators — but they are expensive and most families can only afford a dull electric light. For water, they dig wells, but many cannot wash regularly. Doctors told me there was an epidemic of fleas in the city, and that they fear cholera when summer comes.

Doctors also told me of a deadly shortage of medical supplies. When they try to go to Islamic State-controlled areas to deliver vaccinations, they are often insulted and turned away.

As a result, long-forgotten diseases are being seen again. Even polio, eradicated ten years ago, is making a return.

Aleppans have a phrase for the kind of life they are living: they call it ‘dead alive’.

No wonder so many are fleeing. Large parts of the city feel empty. Of the more than two million who lived in Aleppo before the conflict, there are probably fewer than 800,000 today. One man, a lawyer, told me that three-quarters of his friends fled Aleppo last summer.

He guessed that of the estimated 200,000 Christian population before the conflict, there are only 25,000 today. They know all too well what Islamic State likes to do to Christians.

The churches do everything they can to encourage their congregation to stay. They provide food, electricity and sometimes even accommodation for their desperate congregations.

At the Arabic Presbyterian Church, I witnessed the elders handing out food vouchers after the service, and distributing water from a well. ‘One of our principles is that we shouldn’t leave the country when it is passing through difficult times,’ I was told by the Rev Selimian, pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church.

‘When your mother gets sick do you get another mother? We as church leaders are staying here, we say there is no reason for you to go.’

He added, however, that church-goers must make their own decisions, and many have done so, knowing that they face death if the jihadi groups in the east of Aleppo win victory. If this trend persists, the Christian community in Aleppo, which dates back to the very earliest years after Christ’s death, will very soon cease to exist.

Frequently during the conflict, Aleppo has been completely surrounded by rebels and cut off from the outside world. It was isolated for much of this winter. For the past few weeks, though, a relatively safe road has been reopened from the south into the city, thanks to recent military victories by the Syrian army. I entered the city with a government minder along this heavily protected road — and during my time in Aleppo I was eyewitness to a rapid and perhaps decisive turn in the Syrian civil war.

It is a change that opens up the prospect of relief for Aleppans in the west of the city — and makes it much more likely that the ancient Christian community can survive. But it also means fresh hazard for hundreds of thousands of Syrians caught up in the conflict between the Syrian army — backed by merciless Russian airpower — and the Islamist militias.

Now, the unlucky ones are held as human shields or trapped between the two warring and brutal armies, while the ‘lucky’ ones flee with no more than the clothes they stand up in towards the Turkish border.

If they can gain access to Turkey, presumably many will seek a passage to Europe, to join the throngs of migrants who have already fled the conflict and are now in the European Union.

And, back in Syria, one of the most ancient civilisations in the world continues to be pitilessly destroyed.

Read also:
Turkey has launched 100+ artillery strikes on Syrian towns in Aleppo – Russian military,, Feb 16, 2016


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