Against the Currents

The city of Aleppo has been ruined by the civil war
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The city of Aleppo has been ruined by the civil war

Bleak, at best, is how one could describe the situation in Aleppo. The city has been under siege for months. And whilst the cameras turned their attention to Kobane, the regime was successful in restricting the access route to the centre of Aleppo, which is being held by rebels, to a narrow passageway. What happens when this route is also shut down?  “If the regime regains control over the centre of the city, civilians will have no chance,” activist Marcell Shehwaro announced during an event in Berlin in November 2014. Shehwaro is co-founder of the Kesh Malek (checkmate) organisation which has launched a campaign to dissuade the world public from exclusively concentrating on the terror militia ISIS. The West perceives ISIS as the greatest threat; however, many Syrians suffer at least just as much under the violent, yet less visible, hand of the regime. Thus activists have taken on the task of sticking sarcastic pictograms of Assad on the walls of toilet cubicles wherever they go - the image of two Assads, one bearded, one with sun glasses. “Same shit.” In their eyes, Assad and ISIS are ultimately one and the same thing.

At the same time, Marcell Shehwaro and her fellow campaigners work on improving the living conditions in Aleppo. By now they support ten of the city’s schools. Schools and hospitals alike are among the public institutions most targeted by the Syrian regime and teachers are no longer paid. This opens the floodgates to affluent conservative and Islamic organisations. They offer their support in return for changes to the curricula. Kesh Malek is working on countering this creeping trend of increasing religious-ideological influence.

The arrest of Marcell by Islamic militias in 2012 for refusing to wear a headscarf caused an outcry and a wave of protest. Shortly after, Marcell was not only released, but also received a written apology from the militia. The incident raised her public profile as her reasoning did not rest on her being a Christian, but rather on the right of all Syrian people to dress at their own discretion.

The metropolitan area of Aleppo was once deemed the largest city in Syria. Today we look on a largely destroyed industry and hundreds of thousands have fled the city. Almost two years ago, between January and March 2013, the Queiq river on a daily basis witnessed the arrival of a ghastly freight in the district held by the Free Syrian Army. More than 200 bodies of boys and men were recovered from the river by residents. Most of them had their hands tied together behind their backs and had been killed by shots to the head. Many of them had not considered themselves members of the opposition. To secure their livelihood, they had crossed territories controlled by the regime. They later disappeared at checkpoints and were murdered in the regime prison upstream.

In memory of these murdered Syrians, activists have now organised a run in Aleppo – not a marathon, a race. Over 60 of those remaining in the centre of Aleppo draped themselves in the colours of the revolution and were honoured in a wonderfully simplistic award ceremony. They stand against the currents, against the waters of forgetfulness that threaten to obscure the many violent deaths. Amongst opposition members, the Queiq river has assumed the name “river of martyrs”.


First published on December 11, 2014 at Heinrich von Arabien

Translated from the German by Christine F. G. Kollmar