Aleppo. At the third checkpoint at the entrance of Western Aleppo the government soldiers, in their uniform, welcome us. Some are wearing red bands. They distribute croissants and mango juice to all the “brothers” who enter the part of town that they are defending. While they speak to us from the car window, Brother Bassam, a Syrian Franciscan friar and our guide, tells us: “They are Hezbollah’s soldiers, who have been present in the area for several months now. They are welcoming us... drink! ”
In October 2016, I went to Syria, in the Western part of Aleppo, the one controlled by the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and that can be accessed only through coordination with government forces. I traveled with some colleagues from the Association of the Holy Land, NGO that since 2002 has been operating in the field of international cooperation in support of the Custody of the Holy Land, the Franciscan province that for more than seven centuries has been responsible for the management of holy places.
Our mission’s goal was to visit the Christian communities and the ongoing emergency and assistance projects in Syria. Since the beginning of the bloody civil war in 2011, the friars of the Custody, for centuries in Syria, have never left the country and are still firmly present in various areas, such as Latakia, Damascus, Aleppo, under the Syrian government. They are also in some villages in the Orontes Valley (Knayeh, Yacoubieh, Jisser and Gidaideh), controlled by various rebel fringes instead. In these places, the Franciscan friars, supported by a local staff, help people regardless of their ethnicity, religious affiliation or nationality, with particular attention to children and women.
After the landing in Beirut, crossing the border and making two short stops in Latakia and Damascus, we left on our way to Western Aleppo, accompanied by Brother Bassam. Many are the checkpoints that one encounters on the road. Their number increase as you get closer to the Western part of Aleppo, where they are placed every 200-300 meters. The government army controls passports, visas and the trunk of every single car. The government soldiers that we meet are often in critical conditions: exhausted, some very young, others older. There are mattresses thrown on the ground next to cages and shacks filled with ruins, where the soldiers take turns to rest during night and day. Our driver knows many of them, and, where possible, we give them a bottle of water, some food, some candies.
Upon entering the city, one is struck on one hand by the quantity of water wells present on the streets, one every 50-60 meters. They were recently re-opened and made available both for collection with small tanks and for trucks that pump water into large tanks and then redistribute it in the various areas of the city. On the other, the immense amount of external electrical generators, about one for each building or group of houses. They work tirelessly from eight in the morning until half past eight in the evening.
This is one of the most tragic and direct effects of the war that has been ongoing for the past six years: the lack of electricity and water, essentially due to the division of territory among government forces, rebels and Islamic State.
In Aleppo, the citizens try to start over with what they have left. In fact, despite the fact that the international embargo prevents exportation and the prices of products sold on the black market have increased a lot, and even though many companies have shut down leaving thousands of workers unemployed, and tourism, indispensable economic source in the country before the war, has disappeared, in some areas of Western Aleppo it seems that life has resumed. Streets and markets are filled with people again, several stores have resumed their activities, many schools have opened again, welcoming children who had been at home for months. “People want to live, not to survive,” says Brother Bassam.
At Saint Francis’ convent, father Ibrahim al-Sabagh, from Custody of the Holy Land, is waiting for us, glad that we have arrived. Precisely here, together with the friars of the Custody, albeit with many difficulties, it was possible to realize an emergency center in order to attend to the population’s most immediate needs: buying food, clothing and blankets, medicines and essential medical care.
We spend the first two days visiting the center of Aleppo, tortured and destroyed, following the line of the military boundary that divides the area occupied by the rebels from the governmental one, escorted by some soldiers of the regular army. The ancient and beautiful buildings of the old town have given way to endless ruins. In some areas, the trench line is marked only with single sheets from UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations. “They are there to prevent snipers from seeing who crosses those roads,” says our guide.
In the evening, the electrical generators throughout the city are turned off and the deepest darkness reigns on Aleppo, and everything gives space to a series of noises and thunders that you can hardly forget. In fact, while during the day the fight between government forces and anti-Damascus ones continues, with the launch of missiles or barrel bombs, but somehow seems to be farther away, at night the regime’s bombing becomes more incessant, as well as the responses from the Eastern part of the city, to the point that you can hear explosions every three or four minutes. What reigns is the deafening noise of bombs and mortars and the steady hum of the Russian planes in the sky. And you hear missiles falling and the crackle of firearms. Often in the morning, unexploded missiles are found close to convents or homes.
“It is a noise that we are beginning to no longer bear, because it digs inside of you... and profoundly shakes you,” says Father Ibrahim. As we can see for ourselves in the following days, the cases of people and children with not only physical but also psychological traumas is ever more increasing: this constant atmosphere of tension is starting to generate more and more instability. “We are in contact with some hospitals and psychologists to realize a major rehabilitation project, both physical and psychological, for these people; we made a big space of ours here in Aleppo available for it”, says Father Firas, a Franciscan friar in Aleppo.
The stay in the city continues with intense days, made of meetings and visits. There are families and elderly people who travel weekly to the center to benefit from the assistance offered, in particular the bag of food and the water delivered through the active well right next to the Franciscan structure.
The foodstuffs that lack the most are the basic ones: eggs, bread, oil, sugar, salt, meat. Not to mention the lack of water, which “goes back to before the war,” says one of the boys in line at the center, referring to the drought that hit Syria in the years before the conflict: many people “have been thirsty for so long.” At the center, we also meet government soldiers lining up to get something to eat. The look of many people there is striking: they are scared and tired, but their faces also reveal a certain joy in seeing the friars and the community again, in trying to go back to living, and in meeting new people. As some of them explained to us, “we prefer to risk a little; to go out and come here rather than to stay all day at home, perhaps safer, but dominated by fear and loneliness.”
A woman tells us: “I realized that I was going back to the parish even when it was not distribution day. Here, I not only look for the concrete help, but also for the people who are here and for how the friars treat us... we come here to find this.” The atmosphere that one touches in this place is much more than simple gratitude for the assistance received. Here, people somehow feel called to participate, and this is also witnessed by the presence of many young volunteers who help us in the distribution. Many of them may be called by the government army soon, as conscripts. Many of their peers have fled to avoid being drafted, therefore in Aleppo today there is an average of one young man every ten girls. Those who have remained “participate in these moments to build something together, in joy,” says young George.
All emergency activities are in large part coordinated also with the Greek-Orthodox and Maronite Christian communities, with a spirit of cooperation and brotherhood previously unknown. It is what bishop Abou Khazen, whom we met during our trip, called “blood ecumenism,” but which becomes every day more a profound unity, “at the root. The war is making us rediscover what unites us.”
We spent the last days in Western Aleppo visiting schools and hospitals. In classes of primary and secondary school, teachers shared with us that “children cannot wait to get to school in the morning, some have told us that for so long they were longing to go back to learn.” Together with Father Ibrahim, we visit some hospitals in Western Aleppo that are trying to keep functioning despite the tragic situation that saw a reduction of doctors and nurses up to 60 per cent in recent years. The physicians we meet are worried because of the lack of skilled personnel in the city, not just medical or nursing: electricians, technicians of large machines... “Nearly all of them have fled, and when you call someone to repair a medical equipment, or the electricity or oxygen generator, even several months can go by. We are often stuck, but we go ahead.” In the hospital, there are patients injured by missiles. Some have lost a hand or both legs, and won’t be able to walk again, but they are unexpectedly full of joy in receiving a visit and knowing that “somebody remembers us.”
There are numerous structures supported by the Custody: from the Terra Sancta College, which welcomes groups of children and displaced persons, and that has recently built a swimming pool for the many children who for several years haven’t had the chance to go on vacation, to the school for deaf-mute children, mostly Muslims, where the encounter with Muslim families and women has become an “unexpected fruit” of the conflict. This is precisely what happens when you plant a seed in the ground.
How you can help the Franciscans’ work in Syria
Despite the many supports received so far, there continues to be a great need of food, milk for children, clothes, glasses, medicines, medical equipment. There is also need to help those who have to rebuild their homes destroyed by the missiles, and who no longer have the means to pay for their children’s school fees. Through the Association pro Terra Sancta, you too can be next to the friars in Syria.
To make a donation, which will be quickly transferred to the friars in Syria:
ONLINE – credit card and PayPal (www.proterrasancta.org)
WIRE TRANSFER – IBAN: IT67 W050 18121010 0000 0122691; BIC/Swift Code: CCRTIT2T84A