‘Are You Silent Because There Are Muslims in Our Country?’
As bombs rain down on Aleppo, one family struggles to survive – and wonders whether help will ever come.
ISTANBUL — Last week was the worst yet for the besieged neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo. Russian and Syrian government warplanes launched a new campaign of indiscriminate bombing Tuesday, terrorizing the city and causing a wave of casualties. On Friday, the warplanes targeted the area’s food supply, destroying a bread distribution facility and attacking a flour mill.
A staggering 174 airstrikes were launched over the course of the week on eastern Aleppo, the rebel-controlled portion of the city, and 159 deaths were reported through mid-afternoon Friday, said James Le Mesurier, the director of Mayday Rescue, which supports the Syria Civil Defense rescue organization. This comes on top of the 406 people reportedly killed from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8, according to U.N. figures. The most horrific attack of the week was on an outdoor market Wednesday, in which at least 45 people were killed.
For one resident of eastern Aleppo, the silence of the United States and its allies — which have not taken any military steps to stop the onslaught — has made an already intolerable situation even worse.
“I want to ask the Western world, which has laws to protect animals: Where are you when it comes to protecting women, children, the elderly, and the disabled?” said Fatima Kaddour, whom Foreign Policy interviewed last week. “Are you silent because there are Muslims in our country and they should be exterminated?”
Her story, gathered during five days of interviews over WhatsApp, represents just one voice in a part of the city where at least 250,000 people are under siege and bombardment. They live like paupers and in constant fear of death by bombing.
Kaddour, a 56-year-old housewife and mother of 11 children, lives in a one-room apartment, along with her son and two daughters, close to the front lines with government forces. It is not her flat. Like so many of their neighbors, her family was internally displaced, forced to move from their old home in the Salahuddin district of eastern Aleppo when their house was destroyed in January. (Kaddour requested that FP not name her new neighborhood, as she fears it could be targeted for increased bombing in retaliation.)
She railed at the ruling regime for attacking Syrians but said she’s ready to leave the rebel-held areas if given a chance. Like many other Syrians, she is perplexed by the U.S. fixation on destroying Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as the Nusra Front, rather than acting to stop the regime’s assault on civilians.
Jabhat Fatah al Sham is a relatively small player in Aleppo and runs the areas under its control in an orderly, nonabusive fashion, she said.
Under the combined Russian and Syrian onslaught last week, many of Aleppo’s schools and businesses closed and residents mostly stayed indoors. Bread was reported to be in short supply for the first time Friday.
The war has completely upended the lives of each member of her family. Her husband, 65, abandoned the family after their home was destroyed, saying he couldn’t do anything for them, though he remained in eastern Aleppo. “He tells everyone, ‘I am finished,’” she said. “He wants to leave the country, but he doesn’t know where to go. He says he wants to go to France or Germany or some Arab country … away from war and destruction.”
Kaddour’s daughter Rawan, 18, couldn’t complete her final high school exams because of the bombing campaign. Her son Amir, 16, is now a volunteer rescue worker, and Fatima grows sick with worry for his safety when the bombing starts.
“It was a beautiful and cozy home with four rooms, a very tidy building, which also housed three other families and a school,” she said of her former apartment. “The bombing destroyed all the furniture, blew in the stone front, and left the place in ruins.”
And although she and her children have tried to fix up their new home, the bombing campaign has broken the windows and damaged the doors. It is full of sunlight, and there is room for the children to study, she said. But when they hear warplanes overhead, usually once or twice a day, “We run to the bathroom or the hall.”
Compared with some other residents of eastern Aleppo, they are lucky. Not long ago, the Russian or Syrian air force bombed a building nearby that had housed five families, reducing it to a heap of rubble. All 20 inhabitants were killed, and most are still under the debris, she said.
The sole survivor from one of the families was a girl of 10, who had not been in the building. For a full week, she slept in the street, waiting for the civil defense volunteers to dig out her relatives, Kaddour said. But the volunteers lacked the equipment to recover the bodies, and the ruins have become their grave. The girl was so traumatized that she would not speak to a family that offered to informally adopt her, and in frustration they took her to an orphanage in the Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo.
“She never laughs. She never cries. She never asks for anything, even food,” Kaddour said. “The other children feed her.”
Even in a lethal siege, there can be a joyous moment, and for Kaddour it was the marriage of her daughter Joud in late August. The peace didn’t last long.
Joud, 19, had been introduced to her fiancé, Mahmoud, 36, a humanitarian aid worker, by an in-law. He proposed to her in early May, but the siege curtailed their wedding plans. On July 10, Syrian government forces, with strong Russian air support, encircled the city and put it under siege, cutting off the last route in. On Aug. 6, a force led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham broke through government lines and briefly opened a different access route, allowing some supplies to reach the city’s beleaguered population.
Joud and Mahmoud were determined to seize on that flash of good news.
“When the first break of the siege occurred, we quickly agreed on a date for the wedding,” Kaddour said. Twenty guests attended the Aug. 28 service in her apartment, and an imam performed the marriage rites, finishing the service with a prayer invoking divine protection of the couple, the Syrian state, and its people.
The couple’s hopes for one happy day, however, were dashed. By Aug. 28, Syrian forces and their allies had reimposed the siege. And the festivities were canceled, because on the day of the wedding an airstrike killed seven people not far from Kaddour’s house. Now, Joud breaks down in tears when she thinks about her wedding day, remembering the people who died so close by.
“Amid sorrows and death, God endows us with some happy times,” Kaddour said. “It is not real happiness. It is … a mix of sweet and sour together.”
Kaddour’s search for a little joy here and there continues. On the morning of Monday, Oct. 10, she set off on foot to visit another one of her married daughters in the Bab al-Hadid neighborhood, not far from her own.
“I was stunned with what I saw,” she said. The destruction was “beyond description.” The building in which her daughter lives was also damaged, with its balconies rendered unusable.
She asked her son-in-law how he could live in such a situation. “Where shall we go?” he replied. “Everywhere is the same. Only God will protect us.”
Meals for those living in besieged Aleppo are spartan, consisting of Syrian flat bread, which humanitarian aid groups distribute every other day, rice, lentils, and bulgur, a local grain that can be cooked or consumed raw when mixed with water. The grains are distributed in food packets every second or third month. Residents obtain water from a water delivery service, which provides 250 gallons to fill a tank for $10 — as long as the purchaser can supply the fuel to power the delivery truck. But fuel is almost impossible to find.
Because of the cost of cooking fuel, residents comb destroyed buildings for scrap wood, which they use for a fire to boil water, Kaddour said.
The situation in Aleppo is at the edge of a still bigger disaster, with the main vulnerabilities in the area being fuel and water, according to the top official in rebel-held parts of the province. The city had built up supplies in anticipation of a siege of up to six months, said the official, Mohammad Fadelah, in a phone call Friday. But it cannot use them all due to a fuel shortage.
“We brought in substantial amounts of wheat, but the problem is we don’t have the fuel to run the mills to make the flour,” said Fadelah, the president of the provincial council.
The fuel shortage also threatens to paralyze water filtration systems, which make the area’s well water fit for human consumption. The enclave also suffers from a growing crisis in health care, as two of the 10 hospitals in the area were recently destroyed, and a shortage of medicine grows worse.
“We had our strategic plan before the siege to keep functioning for six months,” he said. “But with the recent escalation, I don’t think we would be able to serve that long.”
Kaddour said she hasn’t eaten chicken since early August and lamb since 2014, and the last time she had fresh fruit or vegetables was two months ago, when the siege was lifted. No fresh produce is available at the markets. During the 10 days when the siege was lifted in August, “we ate four meals of tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggs,” she said.
But Monday, Oct. 10, was different. Her daughter had retrieved some dried eggplant she’d stashed away the previous summer, stuffed it with rice, and added olive oil to make a favorite Syrian dish. “I felt so good that evening because we ate something other than rice and lentils,” Kaddour said.
On the way home that night, she stopped at a spice trader’s shop and bought packets of the only items available — curry, sumac, and yeast.
But the simplest foods are unavailable. After a short walk outdoors with her granddaughter, the child said to her: “The walk wasn’t very nice, grandma.” Asked why, she answered: “It’s been so long since you offered me a cookie. I love cookies.”
Kaddour replied: “God is generous. When we get rid of the warplanes, I will buy a big box for you and your brothers.” When she left the room, she broke down in tears, she said. “What have these children done wrong to be denied the simplest of pleasures?”
The children of eastern Aleppo, however, are forced to take on tasks that would terrify even the bravest adults. Kaddour is both proud of and worried for her teenage son, Amir, who volunteers at a local hospital, helping rescue people pinned down when buildings collapse. He got involved in the job after enrolling in a first-aid course without telling her, using his pocket money to buy a first-aid kit.
“I don’t want him to leave the house when there is bombing,” she said. “Sometimes he listens to me. Other times he sneaks out and leaves without telling me.”
On one occasion, when Amir was working, two missiles struck the building next door to her and set it on fire. Neighbors told her that they’d seen her son and he was safe. But when she began searching for him, she came upon the bodies of two young men who’d died in the attack.
“I lost consciousness. I didn’t feel anything for six hours. Even when I was awake, I couldn’t remember anything for a week,” she said.
Now she and her family live in fear for their future. Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russia appear determined to reconquer all of Aleppo, which was once the country’s largest city. Kaddour believes they want to expel the people of eastern Aleppo, as they have the population of Darayya and other towns near Damascus.
“They have destroyed us, expelled us, and killed us only because a group of youths protested and asked for freedom, the freedom of opinion, of education, and to live as you like,” she said. “They took away everything from us, even the air, which they polluted with chlorine gas, with phosphorus and the smell of ruin.”
“Now after all the suffering, we are worried they will take us out in the green buses,” she said — referring to the state-owned fleet used to deport Darayya residents from their hometown to rebel-held areas. She said she’d go willingly to Gaziantep, Turkey, where she has a married daughter, and others would go to rebel-held Idlib or even to the regime-held areas.
“The international community has ignored us,” she said. “We are unarmed. And we are fed up.”
AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images