Stories from Aleppo during ceasefire
‘The whole population of West-Aleppo is happy to be able to breathe for a while, without thinking of shells and rockets the whole time’
For almost six years, our news feeds have been steadily filled with updates about the civil war in Syria. Footage and soundbites have often focused upon the city of Aleppo and the devastation caused to its residents, as Syrian forces in the city’s west have clashed with rebels in the east. Last week’s announcement of a ceasefire in Aleppo, between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and the various rebel factions, has allowed evacuations to occur in virtual safety. However, with snow falling and reports of an explosion at a Christmas celebration, Aleppo remains a volatile and embattled place for respite or healing.
Eternity contacted representatives of the Bible Society of Syria about how life has changed in Aleppo since the ceasefire. Christians have been one of the most threatened minorities in Syria, with Islamist groups such as ISIS specifically targeting them. For security reasons, Eternity cannot reveal the identity of the worker who shared with us what it is like to be in Aleppo, and the impact Christian faith has had upon those who remain in the war-torn city.
The whole population of West-Aleppo is happy to be able to breathe for a while, without thinking of shells and rockets the whole time.
What does the ceasefire mean for Aleppo, and Syria?
It means that many people from East-Aleppo will be in need of shelter, medicine and food and getting used to being in new surroundings. These displaced people will be living in an area that has been under shelling since the summer of 2012 from the other side, which the new displaced people have escaped from. At the same time, the ‘local people’ in West-Aleppo will have a time of rest from the shelling and the lifting of a siege, which they have been suffering from for more than four years.
How has the ceasefire impacted upon Christians who still live in Aleppo?
Most Christians in Aleppo live in the so-called West-Aleppo. The ceasefire has meant that the Christians and Muslims can move freely in most of Aleppo as the demarcation lines have already been taken away and the roads, which have been closed, have been reopened. The Christians who have been displaced can now go back to their own homes and decide whether to repair them or not. The whole population of West-Aleppo is happy to be able to breathe for a while, without thinking of shells and rockets the whole time.
Living without water and especially during the hot summers has been the worst experience.
What life has been like for Christians in Aleppo, during the civil war?
When you read about people’s fears in East-Aleppo, you will realise what the Christians in West-Aleppo have been experiencing: A tremendous fear and a feeling that death can come at any moment. A fear from the rockets and the shells and also from the ‘enemy’ a few hundred yards away. Everybody was sure that a take-over by the enemy would mean incredible massacres. The Christians as well as the Muslims have been exhausted from the many sieges that have meant no electricity, no water, very little food to buy and no fruit or vegetables.
It’s relatively easy to live without electricity, but living without water and especially during the hot summers has been the worst experience. Many people have got sick from drinking water from the tiny river going through Aleppo.
What activities and programs has the Bible Society done in Aleppo, during the civil war?
We have continued our ‘normal’ work as a Bible Society. We have also organised special ecumenical Prayer-Services in various churches. During the last six months large gatherings have been discouraged and for the first time in four-and-a-half years the schools have twice been shut down for a week. We have also held special Bible-days in the Churches when we have given coupons for people to receive free Scriptures at our shop. Those have been wonderful days!
Keeping our Bible House open has also served as a place for people to gather and talk things through. During one of the many sieges we also decided to send a lot of our stored Scriptures to a safer part of Syria. One reason was that we found it very difficult to ship to other parts of Syria from an Aleppo under siege; our warehouse was a few hundred metres from the demarcation-line.
Christians are still there and they will continue their worship and their service to others.
What do you think will happen during the next few months in Aleppo?
I’ve read articles where people speculate about the future. I know that many people are still scared that Aleppo might suffer the fate of Palmyra. There are no guarantees as long as there are armed people almost all around Aleppo that are still being equipped with the best weapons money can buy.
For the time being we can live a more relaxed life. There are still many challenges. The other day the water was cut off once more. The future is not in our hands, but the Christians are still there and they will continue their worship and their service to others.
After a long struggle with God, I have experienced that He is my only hope.
How has the faith of Christians in Aleppo been affected by years of civil war?
Personally, after a long struggle with God, I have experienced that He is my only hope. He is all I can rely on and He is Good. It’s been a joy to follow the Bible verses that one of my colleague has been clinging to during these terribly hard years and some of them have been from the Psalms, where the Psalmist is crying out to God for Him to act against the enemy, and other Psalms where God is a refuge and a fortress.
But it’s exhausting to pray and pray and not get any answer. Personally, I’ve come to admire the Christians who have just kept going without being side-tracked, as if Jesus was walking by their side right through it all – and He probably was.
What difference has it made for people in Aleppo, if they follow Jesus and trust God?
The main difference has been that some people who follow Jesus very early during the troubles made up their minds to stay in Aleppo. They did have some doubts about their decision, but on the whole they’ve been able to continue living in communion with Jesus in a tremendous way.
It’s been encouraging to see some people whose faith has made them forget about themselves and only live for others. I’m especially thinking of a whole group of people, quite a large number, who have kept on serving people who are not from the Church. When I see them and their disciplined approach to Christianity it’s really made an impact on me. Following Jesus does give a believer in Him a tremendous opportunity of helping others, as people are so much in need.