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       Nujeen, p.5

           Nujeen Mustafa
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  Assad simply stepped up the military action. Much of his firepower in those early days was trained on Homs, where my tortoise came from and which was one of the first places to rise up. Homs is our third largest city, and Sunnis, Shias, Alawites and Christians had lived side by side there, just as in Aleppo. The people didn’t give up, particularly in the old neighbourhood of Babr al-Amr, even though Assad’s forces were pulverizing the place. Soon it was known as the capital of the revolution. We thought that, when they saw all the killing, the Western powers would intervene as they had in Libya. There they had created a no-fly zone to stop Colonel Gaddafi from using his air force against protesters, and since April they had been launching airstrikes against regime targets like Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli and otherwise helping the rebels. By August the rebels had seized Tripoli and taken over. By October Gaddafi was dead, caught like a rat in a hole, and his body displayed in a freezer just like he had done to his opponents. But our opposition was divided, and it seemed the West did not know how to respond. Foreigners left the country and embassies started to close. By the end of 2011 much of the country was an open battleground between the resistance and military. Mustafa said it was causing chaos, which was good for his business as he didn’t have to pay customs duties, but then the FSA started setting up checkpoints in their areas just as the regime did. Yaba was worried about him, so he didn’t tell us that much.

  The funny thing was for us it all seemed far off, not just for me on the fifth floor at 19 George al-Aswad Road, but even for Bland and my sisters. Even though we were the biggest city, Aleppo had not really joined the revolution. Maybe because we were the commercial and industrial centre of Syria and had lots of wealthy people, there were many loyal to the regime, worried about the effect of instability on their businesses. Also we had many minorities, Christians, Turkomans, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, Circassians, Greeks and of course Kurds, and they were unsure about joining the opposition who were mostly Sunni Arabs and, people said, were getting help from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It was kind of weird, like there were two parallel worlds. There was this revolution, people being killed every day and Homs being destroyed, yet here in Aleppo people were going to the cinema, or for picnics, and constructing big buildings as if nothing had changed. It didn’t make sense.

  One good thing anyway. Around that time I stopped having asthma attacks.


  A City Divided

  Aleppo, 2012

  People say that history is written by the victors, but here is something I don’t understand. Why is it we always glorify the bad guys? Even though they have done terrible things we talk about them being charismatic or brilliant military leaders. When I was learning to read and write, Third Sister Nahra made me write out sentences in Arabic over and over again and one of them was ‘Alexander is a great hero.’ Later I found out he was a selfish, spoilt boy and I felt deceived.

  I hate the fact that I didn’t know anything about the good people but everything about the bad people. I don’t really know anything about the lives of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. I hadn’t heard of Mandela till the World Cup was in South Africa – so why do I know so much about Stalin and Hitler?

  I can tell you for example that Hitler was born on 20 April 1889, his father was Alois and his mother Klara, and she died of breast cancer and he was terribly affected. Then he wanted to be an artist but was rejected twice by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and he thought the majority of the selection committee were Jews – so the Holocaust began like that. And he was in love with his niece Geli who killed herself when he left her, and then with Eva Braun who committed suicide with him in a bunker in Berlin.

  Stalin killed 6 million people in his gulags and in the Great Terror. Hitler’s regime was even more murderous – 11 million people were killed and 17 million became refugees. But it’s Stalin and Hitler I can tell you about, not any of their victims. In fifty years is it going to be the same with Assad? People will remember all about him and not the good people of Syria. We will just be numbers, me and Nasrine and Bland and all the rest, while the tyrant will be engraved in history. That is a scary thought.

  When the revolution finally came to Aleppo in spring 2012, it was as if everyone had been asleep and had woken up. Like that moment in the morning when the light streams through the apartment and highlights all the dust and cobwebs.

  Nasrine was happy that the first people who protested were the students at the university. On 3 May she had gone to her physics class and found a big demonstration under way demanding that Assad go. She and her friends joined in, and it was exciting protesting for the first time in their lives, saying things they had never been able to say before. Then suddenly they heard a bang and the next thing Nasrine knew her eyes were full of tears and burning, so she ran. There was a lot of fear because we knew what kind of regime we had – if anyone got arrested they were certainly dead and maybe their whole family too.

  That night Nasrine got a message from a friend who lived in college to say security forces had stormed the dormitories. They shouted through megaphones that everyone should leave, then fired teargas and bullets to disperse them. When some of the students protested and refused to come out, they fired on them and four were killed. Later that night images appeared on Facebook of a dead student, his shirt drenched in blood, and of a dormitory on fire.

  The students were of course outraged, and when a delegation of United Nations observers arrived from Damascus to see what had happened, they came out in even bigger demonstrations, maybe 10,000 students, and streamed the rally live on the internet so that everyone could watch. The next day, after Friday prayers, they took to the streets again, holding up pictures of the dead under the words ‘Heroes of Aleppo University’. Over and over came the chant ‘Assad out!’ and ‘The people want to topple the regime,’ the slogan used in Egypt.

  Yaba had told Nasrine not to go. ‘What, do you think that a few students will make this regime roll over?’ he asked. ‘They will roll over you instead.’ But I knew she would go. She came back very quiet and she didn’t go again. I know my family were selective in what they told me as they thought I wouldn’t be able to cope, but I found out later that many people had been beaten and forced to kiss posters of Assad. Nasrine herself had seen one of the students dragged away, a second-year architecture student called Ibrahim who was grabbed by security forces and tortured to death with electric sticks. The boy was from Hama. Many of the demonstrating students were from Hama and had lost parents in the massacre of 1982.

  Also, in her department was a boy so smart everyone called him Pythagoras. He disappeared and when he came back he was all in bandages, even his face a different shape, and the authorities wiped out his grades so he had to repeat a year.

  But the protests didn’t stop. Girls and boys who had only cared about music, clothes, studies and their friends now found themselves trying to bring down a dictator. The university was split with half the professors supporting the revolution and half with the regime. The head of the university protected the student protesters, so a week later he was removed and replaced by a regime supporter. In the end all opposition professors were kicked out. The students were split too. Girls and boys who had been friends were now reporting on one another. In Nasrine’s physics class of sixteen, they were divided into two sides, while the Kurds had their own side as they couldn’t trust anyone.

  Apart from demonstrating, some students were volunteering, taking supplies to protesters and sending out reports on social media. Makeshift field clinics were set up to treat demonstrators, because if they went to government hospitals they might be arrested and killed. It was very risky. In June a burnt-out car appeared in an eastern suburb of Aleppo called Neirab inside which were found three charred and mutilated bodies. One had a gunshot wound and his hands tied behind his back, and his arms and legs had been broken. The corpses turned out to be students – Basel, Mus’ab and Hazem – two medical students and an English student who had been giving first aid to
injured protesters and been picked up by Air Force Intelligence a week earlier.

  Even though my family didn’t tell me things, once I saw pictures of a boy whose head had been cut off lying on a street with a bloody stump where his head should be. When the wind blew in the right direction I fancied I could hear the sound of protests chanting over and over like a drumbeat. Ayee and Yaba were always like tightly strung instruments until Bland and Nasrine came back through the door.

  The main protests were in the east of the city. The west was under the tight control of the regime. In Sheikh Maqsoud scary new figures appeared on the streets. These were what we called shabiha which means ghosts, criminals paid as paramilitary by the regime to stop people going to protests and make us feel there were eyes everywhere.

  We admired the revolutionaries and like them wanted change, not wanting to be ruled by the same family for more than forty years, but mostly we wanted to stay alive. Mustafa said the revolution was interesting for people aged seventeen to twenty-one but not for people like him who were older and working to earn a living for their families. He also told us that some people in Kobane had been given money to go to the demonstrations. Nasrine had a pro-revolution song on her phone and, remembering what she had said to Yaba about who would look after me if they died, I worried that maybe my brothers and sisters would have done more if they hadn’t had to think about me. Sometimes when I look back on those days, I wish I had been older at the time and able to make a difference. All I could do was listen to the protest songs. I didn’t even get to tear down an Assad poster!

  As we had seen elsewhere in Syria, where there was revolution there soon followed war. Assad had stepped up military action and at the beginning of the year had really concentrated force on the central town of Homs, like he was making an example of it, his forces raining mortars and artillery fire on rebel strongholds and bombing centuries-old buildings to dust with people inside. Children were killed, foreign journalists were killed, and the town kept under siege, trapping without food, water or medicines those families who hadn’t fled.

  Though the regime eventually pushed the rebels out, many other Syrians were revolted by the way they had done it. Like the Aleppo students, people felt they couldn’t stay quiet any more. Instead of being cowed, more cities joined the fight.

  Mustafa said that Assad was losing swathes of Syria as he concentrated on holding Damascus, Homs and the two coastal provinces on the Mediterranean, and that the rebels were taking much of the countryside. They had also captured border crossings with Turkey and Iraq. But it was at a high cost. Maybe 10,000 people had been killed. He told us people were buying gold sovereigns because they worried that the Syrian pound would become worthless.

  Yaba clacked his worry beads and said it was only going to get worse. As front lines hardened into stalemate, the rebels got hold of more effective weapons, some seized from Syrian army bases and others smuggled from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, while Assad was backed by Russia, China and Iran. It was clear that the rest of the world wasn’t going to stop him.

  Our war started during Ramadan – the fasting month when everyone becomes tetchy – in the heat and dust of July 2012. It happened quite suddenly. Almost overnight the rebels poured into Aleppo from the countryside. Initially they made quick gains, seizing control of districts in the north-east, south and west within days. Our neighbourhood, Sheikh Maqsoud, was under the control of Kurdish militia, the YPG. But the offensive was not decisive and it left the city divided. The rebels controlled the east and the regime forces the west, some parts changing hands daily. Soon fighting even reached the gates of the Old City.

  We were scared. With the FSA inside the city, the regime would send in its tanks. Also people were a bit unsure of the FSA as all sorts of groups had joined, including criminal gangs. My eldest brothers Shiar and Farhad, who were watching what was going on from Europe on YouTube and Facebook, kept calling and telling my parents, ‘Just go, leave this miserable place Aleppo, it’s dangerous!’

  On streets where rebels had not taken over, the shabiha appeared and at once spread terror. Often people fled when the shabiha came, which was the idea. Some of our neighbours told stories in hushed voices about them raping women which I wasn’t supposed to hear. I worried about Nasrine. The university was in a government-controlled area but had become a centre for anti-government protests and many people took refuge there. It became impossible for Nasrine to go to her classes because to get there she had to cross the front line, so she stayed at home.

  As the fighting went on we worried that Bland would be conscripted. Of all my brothers only Mustafa had done his military service. Shiar and Farhad had sought asylum overseas, while Bland had been able to put his off because of university. With the war, Assad’s troops were finding themselves thin on the ground, unable to fight on so many fronts. As a result they were bringing in fighters from their old ally Hezbollah and stepping up conscription. Only those with connections and lots of money could avoid it. On Syrian TV the soldiers were shown as heroic beings, but we all knew that joining Assad’s army would mean killing women and children. We prayed we wouldn’t become their victims.

  The noise wouldn’t go away. I tried covering my ears and turning up the volume on the TV but nothing could block out the buzz of the helicopter gunships as they flew to bombard rebel areas followed by the tuk-tuk-tuk of the firing.

  Sometimes I was alone when it started, my family out at work or studying or shopping. On the fifth floor of 19 George al-Aswad Road, I watched Days of Our Lives and tried not to think what would happen if a bomb struck and the floor crumbled away beneath me. What use would all my information be then? I had so much to do, so many more things to know, I didn’t want to die. Even though I’m a Muslim and we believe in destiny, I didn’t want to go before doing all that.

  Assad could not afford to lose Aleppo, so he had resorted to deploying helicopter gunships and jets, which we could hear flying overhead like angry bees to drop their deadly cargo. As they had done in Homs, his idea seemed to be to devastate a rebel district with artillery fire or bombs, seal off the ruins and force the rebels to surrender. To start with, the bombs were quite far away but then they started zoning in on a neighbourhood near us called Bustan al-Basha which the FSA controlled. Our YPG hadn’t let in the FSA, but everyone was saying they would soon get in to Sheikh Maqsoud, and then the regime would start bombing us too.

  Can birds sense bombing coming? It felt like it. Birds would stop singing and the air go taut and still as if time had stopped, then came the buzzing as the planes flew over, again and again. Once I saw a documentary that said honeybees can be trained to sniff out explosives – how weird is that?

  When the raids started people would rush to basement shelters, but of course I couldn’t. My family wouldn’t leave me, so we all sat there on the fifth floor as sometimes the building shook and the windows rattled, everyone trying not to look scared. Often I cried, but I was allowed to because I was the youngest and disabled.

  Once the bombers had gone, my siblings would go to the balcony where we could see columns of grey smoke rising from the shelling. I went once but not again. It was an awful feeling, to know that in those places people were almost certainly dead, families like ours buried under concrete. It was a feeling mixed with relief that it wasn’t us. Is that wrong? I hoped that whoever had taken Sriaa the tortoise was protecting her.

  Soon there was another sound too – that of hammering. Other people in our block had started leaving, and before they went they hammered metal sheets over their doors as they were worried about looters. Those with money and passports were flying, others travelling by road to Damascus or the countryside or out of the country to Lebanon where many had relatives and where there were camps for those who didn’t.

  Every day we heard of more and more acquaintances who had left. Shiar and Farhad kept calling, urging my parents to flee, but Yaba feared that the roads out would be blocked. Of all of us m
y father was most affected by the bombing. Yet he said his worst fear wasn’t the aerial bombing but the army tanks he expected would come into the city.

  Eventually my parents agreed that we would leave. The plan was to go back to the Hill of Foreigners in horrid Manbij, which had been liberated by the FSA on 20 July – the first major town to come under rebel control. I remember that day, my mum saying we would spend the Eid feast there in our old house in Manbij because it was Ramadan and then we would return, but I had the feeling she said that just because I needed to be told and that actually we would never come back to Aleppo. What was the choice though? The bombing became so intense that for the last three nights before our departure we were sleepless, and I thought we might actually die.

  I didn’t like the bombing but I didn’t want to go back to Manbij with the cats and dogs. Our last meal in Aleppo was pizza. Because it was Ramadan we could only eat after sunset – what we call iftar, our fastbreaker. I didn’t fast – those disability benefits again – but the rest of my family did. I had mushroom pizza which is my favourite. While we were eating my sister Jamila called and said, ‘Do you know what, a helicopter just bombed Manbij. Maybe this is not the best place to come.’ I was happy to hear that as I thought my parents would change their mind and save me from going to that terrible place, but they didn’t.

  We left on Friday 27 July 2012, the eighth day of Ramadan, with the regime bombing the next-door neighbourhood, and I didn’t know then that I would never see my home again. The last thing I did was watch the sports news on TV, then brush my hair. We didn’t put metal over our entrance. Ayee simply watered the plants, left the windows open and locked the door. I didn’t look back.

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