Sister Annie brings news from Aleppo

21 October 2016

MADELEINE DAVIES

Hearing the story: left to right: Lord Alton; the RC Archbishop of Lahore, the Most Revd Sebastian Shaw; Sister Annie Demerjian; and the Speaker’s Chaplain, the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin

Hearing the story: left to right: Lord Alton; the RC Archbishop of Lahore, the Most Revd Sebastian Shaw; Sister Annie Demerjian; and the Speaker&rsquo...

A TESTIMONY from Aleppo, termed “the city of death”, was delivered at a meeting in the House of Lords this week by a Syrian nun.

Sister Annie Demerjian, of the Order of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, described a desperate situation in which people battled amid severe shortages of food, medical resources, social services, water, and fuel. Factories have been destroyed and machinery stolen, and many people are without work. They are expecting another winter without heating. “They spend their lives in the dark and in intense need,” she said.

A partner of the Roman Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Sister Annie, who was born in Damascus, works in western Aleppo, which is controlled by the Syrian government, and in Hassake, another city in northern Syria. Her team of volunteers has assisted more than 500 households with practical aid, including clothing and gifts at Easter and Christmas.

“Aleppo has become the city of death and desolation, destruction and violence,” she said. “We live at the mercy of God, between the fear of the unknown and hope for peace.”

She described finding one woman who was exhausted after making multiple trips to fill a bucket with water for her household. Other people were suffering the pain of amputations, shrapnel, and the associated psychological trauma. Many had fled; so “the concept of family has become disjointed.” Those who remained were thinking about travelling, “even illegally”.

“There is overwhelming despair,” she said. “Death is everywhere”.

Before the war, people did not consider one another’s religion, she said: “We were brought up as brothers and sisters.” Today, people felt sympathy for one another.

She showed to the gathering pictures by Syrian schoolchildren, which depicted violence and death, but also a wish for peace.

In 2011, Aleppo had a population of 2.5 million people. Today, about a million live in the western part of the city. The UN estimates that there are 275,000 civilians and 8000 rebel fighters in eastern Aleppo, which has endured aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian air-power, and a siege. Aid to the Church in Need has provided £11.4 million in emergency aid for Syria since 2011. It has no project partners in rebel-held areas of Syria.

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Sister Annie questioned why the world, instead of creating peace, had opted to “make monsters who devour each other for some unknown or cruel reason. . . Our world is a gift from God to human beings. Part of it is hurt and sick. The fear is that this sickness will spread to the entire earth.”

Baroness Cox, who visited Aleppo last month, accused the media of “incredible bias”. “We have seen so much about eastern Aleppo; we hear nothing about western Aleppo,” she said. “So my cri de coeur to everyone here is: we have freedom, and we have an obligation to use it to speak out.”

The claim that the media had presented a biased picture of the Syrian conflict was made a year ago by the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Jean-Clément Jeanbart, at another event hosted by Aid to the Church of Need. He said that Britain was siding with “fundamentalist jihadists who want to kill everyone who is not similar to them” (News, 16 October 2015).

On Thursday, a call for the Syrian and Russian governments to stop their bombardment of Aleppo was issued by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland, Quakers in Britain, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church.

"We are appalled by the attacks on civilians by the Syrian Government, Russian and other forces," the churches' representatives wrote. "Aerial strikes on homes, hospitals and aid convoys are never acceptable, under any circumstances." 

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