In Aleppo, friends offer glimmer of hope amid Syria tragedy

A group of young men maintain their bonds of friendship despite differing political views on the Syrian war.

al-monitor Men sit inside a room as they chat near Aleppo's historic citadel, which is controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Feb. 10, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah.
Edward Dark

Edward Dark


Topics covered

yarmouk refugee camp, syria, reconciliation, opposition, homs, civil war, bashar al-assad, aleppo

Feb 11, 2014

ALEPPO, Syria — As the second round of the Geneva II talks gets under way, slow yet perceptible changes are taking place on the ground in Syria. Although nothing concrete was achieved at the first round of talks, that they took place at all, continued without collapsing and then reconvened later is a substantial achievement in itself, at least by this conflict’s standards.

The two sides do not yet see eye to eye on the most divisive matters, and the gulf between their respective expectations still seems insurmountable, but vital discussions about pressing humanitarian issues and confidence-building measures have made progress. The fruit of this progress has been translated on the ground in Homs. The all-important deal to evacuate civilians from its besieged, rebel-held old city was finally put into motion despite the violent attacks Feb. 8-9 on the UN relief convoy by extremists who want to undermine any hint of cooperation, even to assist beleaguered civilians, and who desire to discredit the opposition National Coalition or the government or both, depending on who is responsible for these shameless attacks. Despite encountering some difficulties, it will hopefully be a precedent for more such cooperation.

Meanwhile in Damascus, earlier cease-fires continue to hold, with new ones in early, tentative phases of delicate negotiations, but showing promise nevertheless. The Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp is one of the more complex areas, but vital deliveries of humanitarian aid have managed to get through quite frequently, and it seems the hard-line Islamists are slowly being expelled and sidelined.

In the north of Syria, war rages unabated, and the momentum seems to be a continuation of the status quo, with little sign of any imminent cease-fire deals despite regime media earlier hinting at the possibility. The violent and bloody interfactional fighting between jihadist rebel groups continues, just as regime forces are making slow but steady progress in their campaign to cut off rebel strongholds and wrest back control of the strategic city of Aleppo. The campaign, pushing toward the Marjeh area with unrelenting barrel bombing, is forcing defenseless civilians to flee their homes and evacuate to the relative safety of nearby rural towns or the regime-held western areas, while others make a beeline for Turkey and the refugee camps on that side of the border.

Many previously bustling neighborhoods in east Aleppo now lie empty and deserted, ghost towns emptied of their population as swarms of displaced families cross once again into regime-controlled west Aleppo, in a repeat of summer 2012, when rebels first entered the city and fighting erupted. Desperate people fleeing for their lives found themselves sleeping on the sidewalks and streets, while the more fortunate sought sanctuary with relatives in overcrowded apartments. Local charities are struggling with the influx, providing whatever assistance they can, their resources stretched almost to the breaking point.

In the midst of such immeasurable suffering and misery, one might be hard-pressed to find signs of hope, but hope there is. Just as the bombing of Aleppo intensified, I met a group of young men from diverse backgrounds, all struggling to make a living and survive in Aleppo's very tough landscape. One was a civil servant, one a bank manager and the rest self-employed or small business owners. What struck me most about this colorful group of individuals was that they were the best of friends even though they held opposing political opinions, and the polarization that has so viciously split Syrian society, including families, since the beginning of the uprising was vividly on display within their small group.

Each had lost something valuable in the conflict, whether relatives or material possessions. Nevertheless, they have astonishingly stuck together, and their friendship has managed to weather the turmoil of the tempestuous civil war. They consciously avoid political discussions, which tend to get heated and loud rather quickly.

A few days ago, one young member of this group, Adnan, stared into his mobile phone, visibly distraught and teary-eyed. As the others anxiously interrogated him and asked if his parents were OK, it emerged that a barrel bomb had landed in front of his family home in Marjeh, but had not exploded. Adnan was desperate to move his parents to the safety of west Aleppo, but could not afford to rent a place there. His brother, who lives in Turkey, had refused to send money. Then I witnessed something unexpected and extraordinary happen.

The guys who had gathered had a whip-round, to collect money to give to Adnan, and made calls to find anyone else who could help. Even the most hardened regime supporter, Mohanad, who had once been a volunteer in the Syrian security forces, raised money and helped. Needless to say, Adnan and his family were staunch supporters of the opposition, but that seemed to matter little when push came to shove. Deep-rooted friendship and social bonds triumphed over the hatred and bitterness that has divided Syrians over the politics of this nefarious conflict.

On a darker note, however, while sitting with some of the group last week, in walked a young man in his late teens. He had boyish looks, but an intense expression far beyond his years and an air of malice about him. I noticed that he had a gun holstered to his belt. His name, I later learned, is Abo Sibhi. Someone asked, “How are our men doing?” Abo Sibhi responded, “We’re destroying them.” Curious, I inquired about him after he had left and learned that he had volunteered to join the pro-regime militias after his father was murdered and sent home in pieces by a rebel group for being a government loyalist.

Abo Sibhi, I was told, had sworn not to lay down his weapons until every last rebel was dead. Such a tall order for such a young lad, but sadly I had no illusion that he was willing to carry through on his vendetta. Unfortunately, after more than 130,000 dead, there are many Abo Sibhis across the conflict's divide, driven by a burning fury and a wanton desire for vengeance and retribution that can only be quenched by the blood of their enemies.

Maybe a parallel of sorts can be drawn between this group of friends and the Syrian community as a whole. This might be overly simplistic or perhaps too idealistic and naive, but it does offer a glimmer of hope that Syrians can bury the hatchet, that the deep-running wounds will someday be healed. If social bonds can triumph over anger, fear and hatred, then Syria may yet have a better future. Reconciliation is possible if the compassion of Adnan’s friends is able to outweigh the wrath of all the Abo Sibhis out there.

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