“THANK God, thank God. At last the killing will end.” So spoke a taxi driver in Aleppo as he broke down in tears last week, as thousands celebrated reports that the city had finally been liberated. The previous night, I had watched the terrifying bombardment of Sheikh Saeed, one of the last pockets of the city occupied by the rebels.
I travelled to Syria independently, to witness for myself what has been happening in Aleppo, and to listen to the voices of the people. It was my third visit this year.
We visited areas of east Aleppo which had been liberated just a few days before, and met civilians who had recently fled those areas, and who are now being provided with food, accommodation, and medical care by the Syrian Red Crescent and the Syrian Arab Army. Some are already returning to what remains of their homes.
Most remarkable of all, we visited the registration centre at Jibrin, where all refugees from east Aleppo are processed, given free food, medical attention, and access to any services they need, before being free to join family members in other parts of the country, or proceed to reception centres where food and accommodation are provided.
Ambulances are on hand to transport the seriously ill to hospital, and, on site, there is a Russian field hospital in constant use. They told us that, in the past two weeks, about 95,000 people had been registered there. I was pleased to learn that about 13,000 residents of Sheikh Saeed had been able to leave the district the day before the bombing that I had witnessed.
Hundreds of new arrivals were mingling as we arrived. The refugees were traumatised, hungry, exhausted, and ill, and eager to tell their stories. They were, without exception, delighted to be free. One woman said: “This is heaven compared with what we have been through.” They told stories of murder and rape at the hands of the rebels of anyone who opposed them, or showed sympathy to the government. Many spoke of relatives killed by rebels as they tried to escape. Medical aid was denied them. One old man in a wheelchair had not received medical assistance for three years, despite asking. “Thank God we are here. We have food. We can live again,” he said.
All spoke of the withholding of food, or of food being sold at exorbitant prices, by the rebels. They had been told that the government would kill them if they fled, and that anyone who did not follow their ideology was an infidel. In fact, soldiers are assisting directly with the distribution of food and aid. They are showing genuine care, and the refugees show no fear of them.
As we walked through the Old City to the great Citadel, we were the first foreigners to visit the renowned Umayyad Mosque, whose historic minaret had been blown up by the terrorists, and among the first to visit the remains of the ancient souk. The wanton destruction by the terrorists of sites of historical significance is shocking.
And yet there are signs of hope. Just 24 hours after this area was cleared of snipers, a bulldozer was starting to remove rubble from the streets. The independent MP for Aleppo, Fares Shehabi, told us that the city would be rebuilt, and every effort would be made to ensure that the correct craftsmanship was used in the restoration of the historic sites.
I have spoken with Christian leaders in both Aleppo and Damascus. Churches there continue to serve those in need, whether Christian or Muslim, and, generally speaking, the communities continue to have a good relationship. Many church leaders feel that both church and political leaders in the West are not listening to their voices, or to the voices of people in Syria as a whole.