In December 2016, in the eastern half of Aleppo, a brutal siege was drawing to a bloody end. The last bombs were falling on its shattered streets, snipers were picking off their last victims. Besieged civilians, if they still had food, prepared their final meagre meals inside a city they had clung to for four painful years.
Its horrors had become notorious; the UN’s humanitarian chief called it “a giant graveyard”, yet when they finally left, many went with broken hearts. They knew they might never see their beloved city again, and left their dreams of a different Syria entombed in the rubble of its bombed-out homes. Aleppo was the last big urban centre held by the opposition, and with its capture, the hope of ousting President Bashar al-Assad effectively died, although the war raged on.
At the height of the siege, when much of the reporting focused on fighting, civilians were still a majority of those trapped, and we wanted to give a sense of their daily life in this modern hell. The roads in and out were cut, but intermittent power and internet meant Skype calls still connected, so we let them speak directly to our readers.
Three years have passed since the anniversary of Aleppo’s fall, and the people we spoke to then are now scattered across Syria and beyond, one of them missing. For all of them, we found, the evacuation marked the end of one trauma, and the beginning of another. They struggled to find work, to adapt to a world without bombs and constant death. Friends and allies were scattered, their dreams for Syria and their city crushed, their sense of purpose destroyed overnight.
Now as bombing intensifies once more in opposition-held areas, they see their own tragedy repeated thousands of times over. Their stories of exile and escape – told below in their own words – are a microcosm of what happened to Aleppo’s revolution, and its dreams.
Now living in Gaziantep, Turkey, with her husband and three children. She still works inside Syria on child protection, and tackling violence against women. Their home is a shrine to Aleppo, the Syrian revolution, and the friends they lost. She appears in the Oscar-shortlisted documentary about Aleppo, For Sama.
When the decision about evacuation came, we put everything in our car, ready to leave, but they bombed our neighbourhood again, and hit the car. Everything burned, my diaries, photos, all my possessions. It was as if the regime was telling me “we will destroy everything, you cannot even take your memories from Aleppo”.
All this period I was just crying, thinking, “how can I leave my city?” I stayed for four years, under shelling, steadfast, to tell all the world we have the right to freedom, democracy, to our dreams.
I collected some soil from my friends’ graves, to take with me in a jar. I asked them to forgive me – we failed to complete their mission.
After we left, we tried to reach Turkey with smugglers. Four times we failed. The rain was heavy and there was snow; the mountains were dangerous for us and the children, but we had no other way.
We finally arrived at my sister’s house one morning at 6am. I knocked on the door and my mother was so shocked when she opened it that she collapsed. We cried and cried.
The worst thing about displacement is you don’t only lose your city, you lose your friends. You can see us all in the film, but each followed his own path, some are in Europe, or different parts of Turkey, or south Idlib or western Aleppo. We are separated, and can’t protect each other. For one year, I was unemployed. All the positions that I had in Syria, all the good work; they didn’t help me find a new job. I sent more than 40 emails, searching for a chance in any position, even a volunteer job. No one answered me.
I didn’t know how to write a CV – my name was my CV inside Aleppo. I didn’t even use email, just WhatsApp. It was like I came from another world.
With my current job, I have the chance to visit Syria regularly. When I went back and met up with old friends, I began to come back to my character, as an ambitious woman, a motivated woman.
I work in child protection and gender-based violence projects, in Afrin and the Aleppo countryside. All my colleagues say “you are a crazy woman, we can’t go to those risky places”. But I am not afraid to die; maybe this will end my suffering.
I feel jealousy when I know someone else is in my home in Aleppo. The regime took it. The feeling when a beloved knows her loved one is sleeping with another woman, that’s the feeling exactly.
The aid worker
Now living in Canada, where she claimed asylum after a work trip to the US. She is getting treatment for trauma from her time in Aleppo and 14 months in Assad’s jails. Currently working at a mail-order fashion company, she is still determined to complete her education and work as a teacher when she is well enough.
I remember the last night in Aleppo, walking the destroyed streets, and crying. It seemed like the city was crying too. I felt I would never be there again; I still feel this way now.
I crossed into Turkey; I was lucky I had permission because of my work, but when I got there, it was very difficult. I had spent a long time living in darkness then suddenly I was walking around a place where there was electricity everywhere, hot water. I went to visit my sister, she made a lot of delicious food for me, and I could only eat one or two spoonfuls. I was thinking of the people who had nothing.
I went to the US to speak at two events. My friends told me to stay; they said “don’t lose this chance, you have to think about your life. There is no Aleppo any more”.
Trump had just been elected president and he had such hard decisions against refugees, I didn’t feel safe there. So I came to Canada.
Sometimes I cannot believe that I have been here more than two years. It is as if I have just woken up, and I wonder what I am doing here.
I learned French, and I work at a fashion company in the distribution centre, processing the orders. For now it’s good, but I am always sad because I feel like I am useless and doing things only for me.
My family are all scattered across different countries and I can’t travel to visit them. My sister is in France, my parents are in Turkey with one brother; another brother is still stuck in Syria with his family. My mother had a heart attack and was hospitalised in a coma a few months ago. I went to my lawyer and said “I just want to go to her, even if I can’t come back”. But she said it was impossible, and that Turkish authorities would not give me a visa because I didn’t have residency in Canada yet.
This is the hardest time of year for me, because November is the month I was detained, December is the month I had to leave my city. The flashbacks, the memories, now they are even affecting my work.I started [mental health] treatment in Canada, but I am still on the first step. I have depression and PTSD. I have so many traumas.
When I first came here we had demonstrations, and I participated in and organised many of them. It was strange at first, having police there to protect us, when in Syria they were there to shoot us. But I feel everything we did is in vain. People show they are sad for you, and sad for our country and would like to help, but they cannot.
The rescue worker
Now living in a rural area of opposition-held western Aleppo. He got married after escaping the siege and has two young daughters. After a short break in Turkey, he returned to working with the White Helmets. Because his area is quieter than Aleppo he helps track planes and helicopters and clear unexploded ordnance.
Aleppo was hell. I didn’t think I’d survive. Not just me, everyone was pessimistic. I left on 22 December, and when our convoy arrived in [opposition-held] countryside, we were destroyed people; we fell apart. I went to Turkey for two or three months. I needed some time to relax, to breathe again, without losing friends, without anything that we suffered. I had pain in my back and legs, it took a long time to recover physically too.
But then I went back to the White Helmets. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I felt I was addicted to rescue work. Maybe that sounds crazy but it’s what happened. Normal life is very different from what we experienced in East Aleppo. There was nothing for me [in Turkey]. I was used to being on alert every day, saving people, tracking choppers, tracking bombers. It runs in our blood, this need to help, to do something for our country.
After having a family, life has become more complicated, though. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t leave the country, this chaos, for them to be safe, have a good life.
Like other girls and boys born here in Syria, they do not even have IDs and for later we have no education, schools, universities, medical care. We were forced to leave our homes, and for what? The world disappointed us. I’m expecting Idlib is going to face the same fate as Aleppo; the question now is where will people go?
The bakery coordinator
Now living in northern Syria, near the Turkish border and relatively far from the fighting. His five children have started to recover from the trauma of Aleppo. He manages four camps housing 2,600 displaced widows and orphans.
I married my second wife in the last 20 days of the siege of Aleppo. She is a nurse. We were living in pitiful circumstances, but we found happiness falling in love. When we left, we went to northern Idlib because it is far from the bombing, near the Turkish border. My children and I had psychological problems, and our treatment was to stay away from the war.
My son Hassan, who was six, woke me up one night shouting “there’s a Russian war plane in the sky, it’s going to bomb us”. I went to him and realised he was sleeping, and this was a dream.
They are back in school now, but the ones who are 11 and nine are only in second grade, because the schools in Aleppo were suspended.
It was hard to find work for the first year. Many people I knew ended up going either to Turkey or returning to regime areas, because they couldn’t find jobs. I wish I could return to my beloved Aleppo. I never regretted that I stayed, and I believe that I’m going to return by God’s will. I often look at the picture of our destroyed house where my brother was killed by the barrel bomb. When I see the pictures, I feel I am reliving it all, how we used to move from one basement to another, how I got so used to hearing people screaming from fear or injuries.
The orphanage director
Now living in Izmir, Turkey, with his wife, mother and niece who was orphaned in the war. He got nearly 50 children safely out of Aleppo.He has just welcomed his own first child, a daughter. He has a scholarship to study business management, which could offer a path to Turkish citizenship.
A video went viral of the orphanage near the end of the siege; it caused a lot of problems. We suspected they were looking for the kids when they searched the evacuation buses, because they wanted to take them to regime areas for a media victory, so they could say they were the ones caring about civilians.
We put the kids in several buses with adults so they would not be travelling as “the orphanage”, just look like families. The last bus was me and eight kids. It took 24 hours, and no one was allowed out of the bus, so the kids had to pee in plastic bags, but we all made it out.
We moved to Jarabulus [near the Turkish border], and they started to recover from the war. Their biggest concern there was “we want to go for a picnic and swim in the river, but you won’t let us”.
After about two years, many of the children went to stay with grandparents, uncles, aunts. They are getting stipends from the organisation to support them, and I’m still in touch with almost all of them. My brother and sister had been in Turkey since 2014, and my mother wanted me to join them, so last year I moved here. We lost so many in our family [his father, three sisters and a brother-in-law], this was the least thing I could do for my mother. I have been unemployed, but now I have a scholarship and work permit for Istanbul. It means I have a future, and something to aim for.
And in December I had my daughter. If I was in Syria, the responsibility would be frightening. I’d fear something bad might happen, a rocket, barrel bomb, shelling. Now I am in Turkey I am so happy that she is here. Her name is Layana, which means good life and future. That is what we want for her. We had so much sadness before, now we want to look forward.
Taxi driver – missing
Despite months of efforts to find Abo Awad, we cannot confirm whether he made it out of Aleppo alive or, if he was successful in escaping, where he is now.
One of the traumas of all wars is people left uncertain of their loved one’s fates. The United Nations says that in Syria more than 100,000 people have so far “been detained, abducted or gone missing — largely, but not only, at the hands of the Syrian government”.