ALEPPO, Syria: Amidst this battle of life and death, I could taste the best olives ever in this ancient business metropolis.
Like Lahore’ites, the inhabitants are proud of their cuisine and lifestyle. Hospitality knows no bounds when it comes to hosting a foreigner Muslim at iftar. Many a time, I was politely forced to eat more. I had to, because the hosts either had lovely smiles or guns!
Whatever remains of the city tells tales of a post-modern struggle being waged in multicultural hub of the Arab world. Carcasses of charred main battle tanks litter the city’s commercial neighborhood and country side alike. With its semi-arid climate and not-so-difficult landscape, tanks should have routed out an invading military.
Before leaving this beautiful but struggling country, I got a quick opportunity to be driven through the city, at least the district where Bashar’s bravehearts only rely on gunships for attack.
The city was in rage, even those who did not support an armed struggle against Bashar Al-Assad or those who favored the Russia-Iran-backed Baathist dictator. “This is madness to use such firepower. Would the government going to win over this mass offensive with fighter jets, gunship and all what he (Bashar) has got,” said Ramzi, an Alawite with soft corners for regime.
He believed that weakness on the borders is inviting everyone to play with Syrian blood and wealth. “This should finish and we should give up arrogance,” he told me, after a thoughtful pause. Ramazi hastened to add that there was no alternate to the Assad family.
Aleppo is to Syrians what Lahore or Karachi are to Pakistanis. The city symbolizes religious, ethnic and cultural diversity Syria is home to.If the current invasion does not finish soon, newer ruins would dominate over the centuries’ old. Little did I know about the key landmarks of this city, post-sehri peep revealed damaged mosques, trampled parks and bombarded Roman and Greek archeological sites.
“Mostly the fighter jets attack at night indiscriminately, so we cannot film as to who is dropping this deadly cargo,” said Ghazi, a senior citizen requesting anonymity.“The luxury of burying our dead with full respect and honor has vanished,” he explained.
“We gather half a dozen people indoors to offer janaza and quietly take the martyrs to their eternal resting places,” Ghazi said in somber voice as he went through a similar experience for his daughter, son-in-law and grand children.
The city was facing shortage of food and water but not as desperately as Damascus or other more central and stressed cities. The situation is though changing fast and UN estimates believe over 2.5 million need emergency food assistance.
Aleppo residents are united for an end to war. Influential Christian community here has not stopped bidding for ceasefire, a term which the Assads won’t understand. Damascus may be the capital and cradle of civilizations for centuries, Aleppo is the promise of prosperity for future, I am repeatedly told.
Ramadan offered a special chance for the residents of this otherwise business city. Christians are keeping up their tradition of not eating publically or cooking during the day in respect of fasting Muslims next doors. Their neighbors still share their iftar meals to return the gesture.
We, the international journalists, hardly see this part of reality. I felt extremely constrained owing to security situations but some facts were just there waiting to be noticed. The humanistic dimension of this struggle gets lost in more spectacular roar of fighter jets and roar of tanks delivering indiscriminate death.
Ironically, at least twice I found three statues of Assad or Bashar hit by either tank fire or air raids. It was not safe to take pictures. I was already a Pakistani roaming in Syria’s heated conflict. Often, I was laughingly told by my friends here, “Assad loves al-Qaeda more than his wife Asma.”
The deserting officers believed that the global terrorist outfit is his best ally and credible weapon for the ‘insecure’ West. The anti-Assad fighters repeatedly quote WikiLeaks emails which reveal the regime’s false flag terror operations in the name of al-Qaeda. Well, given the ground realities, the Assad has lost more than he can recover politically and militarily.
Finally, I could see the remains of Baath party office. Deserted and charred building had the tri-star Syrian flag. It reminded me of a similar sight in Cairo where protestors ravaged Mubarak’s party office.
The press center or press club which always stood for the ruling family was also not spared. Journalists had defied as did the people and their haven attacked and damaged badly.
I can understand the constraint diplomats face in supporting just causes or any sort of proxies but not those pretending to be guardians and mentors of journalism and social media. I know it for sure as to how journalism training organizations headquartered in New York, London, Brussels and Paris have won funding to ship in quality cameras and satellite phone for bloggers and activists. Their bureaucrats set up camp offices in Lebanon and Turkey but hardly knew who to hand over the devices and provide a window to the conflict.
Social media activism survived purely on self-help basis. I met dozens of social media activists but not one of them received any assistance from the outside world. One activist said most cameras and satellite phones are distributed amongst friends by the western organizations, which eventually end up for sale in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
A senior Syrian journalist, who recently defected the state television, said, “The media training bodies are only aiming at a free Syria which they would use to mint million for training journalists.” “Wa-Allahi, we have the best reporters ever. They are blessed with good news sense, and courage,” he said, pointing to three females and a male activist editing visual shot from cellular phone cameras the previous night.