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Syria’s largest city embraces the revolution

Amal Hanano

June 3, 2012

It is March 28, 2012. A group of young men are crouching behind parked cars on a wide street lined with stone buildings. The YouTube video on which they appear is as choppy as the filmmaker’s breath. You can hear the adrenaline, the defiance and the fear. You can also hear the sound of gunfire. A bullet hits one of the group and a man’s body is now in the frame, blood pooling on the asphalt behind his head. The sounds are chaotic. A few seconds ago, they were just a group of students chanting behind cars. Now, one of them is dead.

The dead man’s name was Anas Samo. He was, according to his friends, a “polite and kind-hearted” 21-year-old. He was also the first of the many University of Aleppo students who would soon meet their death.

What the viewer can’t see in these powerful frames are the long, ugly residential blocks that form the dormitory complex in what is known as al-Madineh al-Jam’iyeh, or the University City. In a city famed for its ornate buildings clad with limestone, these poorly-designed government structures have always been architectural eyesores.

The dormitories were built in the late 1960s to house students from all over Syria, notably those of modest means who could not afford to rent an apartment. For a few dollars a month, any student from any town or village could have access to the same education as the offspring of the most affluent local families. The concept was a Baathist dream: Syrian universities as classless utopias, cutting across social and economic divisions, where young Syrian citizens were supposed to be equal. Of course, unspoken strings – including unconditional loyalty to the regime – are attached to every tenancy agreement. As the students have watched their hometowns burn as the uprisings in Syria have turned increasingly violent, this unquestionable obedience began to shatter.

In April 2011, during the regime’s siege of Daraa, Aleppo’s students began to stage peaceful protests. They held nightly indoor demonstrations, chanting anti-government messages from the windows of their dormitories. The government responded by expelling 300 students. This year’s students would not be as lucky.


Of all Syria’s cities, Aleppo has the most complex and changing relationship with the revolution.

Lawlessness envelops the city. Kidnappings are common. Car bombs and explosions are everyday occurrences. Refugees crowd its streets, while the local economy creaks towards a standstill. Businesses and factories dependent on easy access routes to Turkey face closed roads, dangerous checkpoints and highway robberies. The business elite, religious leaders and tribes who gambled on the side of loyalty to the regime have come to realise they are neither immune to Assad’s brutality nor the opposition’s wrath.

George, an Aleppian activist, told me that “everyday life in Aleppo is different from other cities … Life is carrying on, but at a very slow pace, because people are afraid.”

He also says that while there are still many regime loyalists – especially within the so-called “silent” minority and elite communities – they claim to be “against the killing and against the destruction of the country”. It’s a familiar sentiment, one that expresses the desire to keep the revolution outside the city’s walls.

Indeed, when Aleppo suffered its first loss on May 29, 2011, the city brushed it off as if nothing had happened.

Dr Sakher Hallak, a well-known physician, was found dead on the side of the road, 20km from Aleppo. His mutilated body was barely recognisable. His head was riddled with holes that his family learnt later were the marks of a power drill. His eyes had been gouged, his bones were broken, and yet his leather shoes were still shining.

Two nights before he was found, he had been taken from his clinic for interrogation by the mukhabarat (secret police). When he was released a few hours later, he paid his bills and wrote his will. They came back for him the next night. Hallak’s family have never discovered the reason for his murder. They were told by security officials to blame “Israel or the opposition” and they were told his case was criminal not political. But in Syria, the boundary between the political and the criminal was slowly dissolving.

Perhaps the most painful epilogue to Hallak’s story is how this once-loved doctor’s reputation was tarnished by the city’s society itself. His death was explained away with fabricated stories of a revenge killing or a crime committed by the “armed gangs”.

Every description was used except the obvious: the one that explained the marks of torture that many Syrians have known to have existed for decades. Clear evidence was now exposed like a map on his mutilated body. His death was an early warning – an example to Aleppo of the price one paid for dissent or even the suggestion of opposition.

Dr Hazem Hallak, Sakher’s older brother, is a softly spoken, eloquent man. He is the picture of “quiet suffering”. Hallak has taken an unpaid sabbatical from his medical practice in the US to fight for justice for his brother. Today he travels from city to city raising money for humanitarian causes in Syria. His life had been far from politics, far even from Syria, but he became a strong voice of the opposition.

As the first anniversary of his brother’s death approached, he attached pictures of a smiling Sakher to his Twitter feed, together with the cutting words “Assad killed him”. He says that every time he speaks publicly against the regime, his brother’s tombstone is vandalised. In Syria, even after death, the brutality does not end for the dead or their families.

For Aleppian activists, the regime is not the only force they resist: the city’s short bursts of protests are usually followed by weeks of silence. There is a sense of humiliation for merely being from the “silent city.”

This pattern has become the subject of revolutionary ridicule, its residents described as out of touch and cowardly, greedy, too attached to their food and their money to care about the rest of the country.

In a way, the struggle in Aleppo is also a revolution within the revolution, a largely organic and uncoordinated one. A fight to be heard in the greater national chorus of dissent.

In the spectrum of revolutionary imagery, Aleppo’s activist videos stand out, and not in a good way. They are dark, shaky, unfocused and taken from an unclear vantage point. They are either too short or too long. There are no static overhead views of masses in perfect rows, arm-in-arm, like in other cities. They are an expression of the city’s conflicted relationship with the revolution.

Last month, I sat and watched almost every video coming out of the countryside that surrounds Aleppo. Each one told a story of suffering that mirrored the tragedies that continue to occur nationally: charred bodies, burnt homes, tanks shelling residential neighbourhoods and extraordinary protests being held in spite of the staggering losses.

These videos are filmed with the same difficulty and risk as in the rest of the country, but they receive significantly fewer views online. Why? Because most Syrians think Aleppo must pay for its initial and treacherous silence or, as a prominent activist from Damascus tells me, “there was always going to be a city that rises last. That city would face the harshest judgement from the people and the regime.”

Both loyalists and opposition groups often use the example of the University City protests as evidence that the revolution is still not widely supported in Aleppo, but this is simply not true. Several areas outside the university, such as Bustan Al Qasr, Seif Al Dawleh, and Salah Al Din, have become “hot spots” for nightly peaceful protests.

Last month, Abd Al Wahed Hindawi was shot in the shoulder at one of these demonstrations. He bled to death. His funeral sparked a violent protest in the Iza’a neighbourhood that turned violent. When security forces opened fire on the unarmed protesters they left 11 dead – Aleppo’s highest number of casualties in a single day. The video of a wounded child who was shot that day moved the country as the young boy uttered “Forgive me, father.” as he bled in his father’s arms.

This clip and others like it expose a side of the revolution where admission of guilt runs parallel to courageous defiance. Even their chants are forceful, as if they know they need to convince the street, the people, and even themselves that they exist, “This is Halab [Aleppo], here we are.”

The early hours of May 3 had begun like any other, although the sound of gunfire would fill the courtyards between the University City’s long blocks just before daybreak.

At midnight, the leading students in a few specific buildings (units 10, 11, 13 and 17, known as the “revolutionary units”) had whistled to commence the collective chants from the windows. Usually, the security forces fired rounds into the air and threw stones at the buildings to discourage the protesters. Unusually that night, there was a conflict between security forces, some were turning a blind eye to the noise, while others were pressing for more aggression. Encouraged by this discord the students began to shout louder. Some young men even ventured outside the dorms and gathered in the courtyards below. The security forces left the grounds and took their places at the gates.

At 4am, reinforcements arrived in the shape of trucks and buses carrying dozens of armed forces from both security and military intelligence agencies. As Basel, an eyewitness described, “There were enough to occupy an entire village.”

They began shooting at the windows to force the students back inside their rooms. The students retreated and barricaded the main doors to the dorms with furniture. Soon after, two of their number were killed.

Security forces broke into the buildings, beating any students they could find before dragging them back to the buses. Many were barefoot and in their pyjamas. What few clothes they had on were torn off. Basel watched the thugs beat the students “on their heads, on their stomachs, anywhere they could reach on their bodies”. Three guards forced a student onto his knees: one was riding him, another held him from the neck and the third was kicking him and shouting, “Run, run.”

The officers entered the room of Majed Abul Hadi, from Al Raqqa, who was regarded as a ringleader of the protests. He was chanting when they broke down his door and still was when they picked him up and threw him out of his fifth-floor window.

When the sun rose over Aleppo that day, Majed Abul Hadi, Ahmad Khalaf, Yezen Abboud, Mohammed al-Hawi, Samer Qawwas were dead. Hundreds had been detained, eight of whom were girls. The rest of the students were given two hours to evacuate the dormitories.

By mid-morning, thousands of students were on the streets of Aleppo, their suitcases and plastic bags scattered around them on the pavement. Those who could returned home, but many had nowhere to go. The local activists mobilised to help house those who were stranded. Basel placed dozens of students even though it is a crime to shelter them.

The vacant University City was locked up that morning and the University of Aleppo was completely shut down.

This was not the Syrian youth that Hafez Al Assad had dreamed of inspiring. This was not the loyal youth he had once imagined leading in his Syria. Instead, this youth had led the country’s most stubborn city into the revolution. An activist in Hama told me that night: “The students are the fuel of the revolution.” They had come to Aleppo to fulfil their dreams and they were kicked out because they dreamt of freedom.

By dawn, five protests had erupted across Aleppo in solidarity with the students. More protests spread during the day. Local students marched in the main university circle. Still more were detained, dragged away between honking taxis and cars.

In Salah Al Din, protesters were also trying to reach the neighbourhood circle, which they had dubbed “Freedom Square”. They had tried to occupy it for weeks, but each time they were met with intimidating armed officials.

Abd Al Ghani Kaakeh, 17, was determined to reach the circle and kept marching forward. Ten metres away from his intended destination, an officer told him: “Turn around or I’m going to shoot.” He carried on and replied simply: “The Syrian army is a traitor.” Six metres from his goal, he was shot dead.

Last year, while Abd Al Ghani prepared for his baccalaureate exams, he was detained by military intelligence for protesting a week before his finals. He studied again this year for his high school diploma. But like the “Freedom Square” of Salah Al Din, he was stopped short of reaching his goal.

On Thursday, May 17, several UN monitors finally arrived on campus. They were greeted by thousands of chanting students who swarmed the cars and covered them with colourful slogans. Government thugs waited on the sidelines for the officials to leave.

A video taken later showed a few students in a UN vehicle transporting a wounded student as clouds of tear gas filled the square to disburse the crowds. A girl asks the monitors, her voice full of panic, “Look, look, don’t you see? Don’t you see?” as she points out of the window at groups of uniformed security forces attacking students with batons.

Mercifully, the protest ended with only minor injuries. That evening, while I chatted with several Aleppian students, their words seemed to jump with excitement and pride.

Each one separately expressed the same sentiment, “Today was the best day of my life!” Anas Urfali had attended the university protest and returned home, overjoyed. Drenched with sweat, he took a shower, changed his clothes, kissed his mother goodbye and left for the evening protest in Salah Al Din. He was shot and died.

The next day, after Urfali’s funeral, his friends swarmed around his house, chanting, “Mother of the martyr, we are all your children.” But his mother was still dialling her son’s mobile phone number in vain, hoping there had been a mistake, hoping he would answer.

Posthumously, Urfali’s Facebook timeline is a record of the struggle students of the University of Aleppo. His final days are a mix jubilation and sorrow. On May 12, five days before his death, he wrote, “How beautiful it is to protest as you observe the moment of betrayal, and you flutter your wings; for you have become a martyr.”

The word shahadeh in Arabic means “to bear witness”. It also means “martyrdom”. And it means “diploma”. The university events inspired a new set of slogans for banners, Facebook statuses and tweets. “Only in Syria, you receive al shahadeh before graduating,” and, “We will get our shahadeh whether in the university or in the freedom squares.”


To the rest of Syria, the majestic city of the north is no longer viewed as a detached annexe. Despite the despair, the city of quiet suffering is growing louder as each day passes. Almost while no one was watching, Aleppo joined the revolution.

AnonymousSyria, a prominent Aleppian activist, believes the city has become even more divided as the business community and religious leaders continue to support the regime while the impoverished neighbourhoods face the same fate as the hardest-hit areas of Homs and Hama.

He says: “The Aleppian is a tradesmen by nature, even if he is poor. He calculates carefully, if there is a loss, he will not take to the streets.” George has another view: “Aleppo is the most important heavyweight that can open the way to the final destination of the revolution – the heart of Damascus.”

After months of being pressured into silence, threatened by security forces, facing mass arrests and kidnappings, living in fear of the daily explosions, and ridiculed by the rest of the country, the people of Aleppo have emerged. They shelter refugees, send aid to victims in other cities, and they chant. After months of shouting their support for the rest of Syria, they now chant for their own city as well.

The city chants for itself, for its fallen sons and its vanished citizens, as pride takes its rightful place in Aleppo’s distinct chant: “This is Halab. Here we are!”

Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer. She is a graduate of University of Aleppo. Follow her on Twitter: @amalhanano. Activist names have been changed in this story to protect their identity.


:: Article nr. 88583 sent on 04-jun-2012 07:08 ECT


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