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Humans in liberated Aleppo

December 11-12, 2016

Story by Jan Oberg December 29th, 2016

In Aleppo in mid-December 2016

Most Western media, commentators and politicians were not in doubt: Aleppo fell (back) to "the regime", to "the dictator". Their focus was on civilians and moderate rebels, as they are called, being killed in the last hours of the battle about Eastern Aleppo that had been occupied since mid-2012.

I was there - both in the East and the West of Aleppo - when it happened. I was in Aleppo's Hanano district, its Old Town and in the Shaykh Najjar Industrial City.

I walked the streets and could talk to and photograph anybody I wanted to, no one guiding me to particular persons.

These pictures here are real. They are genuine.

What I saw and heard

My photos convey what I saw at the places I mentioned. No more and no less:

Overwhelming human happiness after four years of what many called "hell under the terrorists." I saw smiles and pride and victory signs like with the boy above.

I listened to people expressing gratitude to both Bashar al-Assad and the government and to Putin and the Russians - the latter both bombing and sending field hospitals. And telling me that life was good in Aleppo before the occupiers swept in and began the looting and the destruction.

I joined people in restaurants in the West who were celebrating, toasting to freedom and talking with relief about how fantastic it was to finally not have to live in fear every day; they had been hit now and then too by rebel mortars and other ammunition in that side of town, something I experienced myself during my visit.

And I saw victims of this occupation in the East get bread, vegetables, bananas and water. Sitting in chairs at the pavement and enjoying tea and a cigarette. And talk without fear.

I saw people leaving in green buses from the East to the West in order to get health care or reunite with family members and friends - and those who came over from the West to see what may or may not be left of their homes in the East.

And I talked with young soldiers and older officers who were proud of having liberated their citizens and city.

Finally, I heard people express their disagreement with al-Assad's amnesty policy. If you are a Syrian citizen and have been out fighting against your own you will be granted amnesty if you hand in your weapon, answer some questions and then sign a paper that you'll never do it again. That's all. You can be re-integrated in society again. Only if you have a court case against you, say by a family a member of whom you have deliberately killed, you'll be punished.

What several - civilians as well as soldiers - told me was that they did not agree with this soft, reconciliatory philosophy of their president. Some said that legal processes were necessary and Syrians who had fought against their own people and participated in the occupation of Eastern Aleppo deserved to be punished. Others were of the opinion that they deserved to die.

Oh yes, and I saw lots of Syrian youth, university students in particular, volunteering for the Red Crescent and helping people in this dire situation.

What I did not see or hear

Aleppo is - or rather was - home to about 2 million people according to Wikipedia while locals would say up to 4 million due to the influx of citizens from the countryside, the drought etc, before the war. It is huge, covers 190 square kilometres. Of course I did not visit or pass through all quarters, streets and parts of the East or the West during the 3,5 days I was there.

Media reports of rebels and their families being massacred or killed in the last days and hours may or may not be true. I cannot judge and I cannot exclude. I did not see it and did not meet people who talked about it. I did interview one soldier who told me that, as a principle, the Army kills only when in fight with people who are armed; he assured me that he had never killed an unarmed civilian. I have no reason to not believe him - other things he said made sense and could be verified.

But, sure, people may have been killed in the last pockets of the occupiers when the game was lost for them.

But it is not my duty as a conflict analyst and peace researcher to report on violations of human rights and international law - as it isn't the duty of Doctors Without Borders to investigate the economic situation in the agricultural sector. I can not report something truthfully I did not see or hear about during my interviews.

What, however, I did not see in Eastern Aleppo in anybody was fear of the government - rather gratitude for health care, transport in busses into the East and into the registration Jibrin centre. I did not see fear in anybody's eyes of having come back under government control.

I did not hear anybody say that life was good or even tolerable under the siege of Eastern Aleppo. I heard people talk about living in fear, not getting enough food or health care, being harassed, family members or friends having been killed or wounded; I was told stories of how some had tried to get over to the West but were brutally prevented from that by the occupying forces. Or killed in the attempt. And that children had not gone to school during the last two years.

I did not meet the White Helmets, the alleged humanitarian organisation that has received over US$ 100 million to rescue people, mobilised opinion for themselves to get the Nobel Peace Prize and was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm a few days earlier.

I also met no one who had seen them or been helped by them - but did meet some who had heard about them.

Where should they have been if not in Eastern Aleppo helping tens of thousands getting with all they needed after the liberation from four years of hell?

During my days in Aleppo I did not see the leading international humanitarian organisations working in the field. On the road between Damascus and Aleppo, the only humanitarian transports I saw were Russian and Syrian; I did not see any of the large international convoys that Western governments have insisted on bringing in as part of various earlier ceasefire attempts.

I ask myself why. The full liberation of Aleppo took more than two weeks. How did they plan for the liberation of Aleppo?

And I did not see any reporters or camera crews from the Western mainstream media - some having been to Aleppo but gone back to Damascus or Beirut when they should have been present at this particular event. Nordic media were not to be seen at this historical moment. True some don't get a visa - but that does not explain that so many were absent.

The world has too much - far too much - war reporting and blame journalism and far too little conflict reporting and human story journalism. They are obsessed with governments and violence and ignore the perspectives of the citizens, the victims and those who can make a change for the better.

Aleppo's liberation should be a good story - right up to Christmas at that - from a war that has cost so many lives. But the liberation didn't fit the general Western narrative about this conflict - something I've learned too from the way some media have treated my story, being interested in placing me as "embedded with the Syrian military" and a "regime supporter" and what not.

Up till today, no single mainstream media has shown the slightest interest in the human suffering, the destruction or the happiness I saw (Around 3000 informed).

However, I can't be bothered. Have tried it before.

What really means something to me is that I met dozens of people who expressed gratitude that I had come the long way from Sweden to Aleppo and cared about the suffering of the people. I made many new friends during my ten days* in Syria.

It was touching beyond words and it feels very good, therefore, that I can express what I felt through images too.

Never again!

Yes, it's a worn out phrase, that Never again! - from the First and Second World Wars, from Hiroshima, Burundi and Rwanda, Srebrenica, Sarajevo. But let us never forget Aleppo. And may something like this never happen again!

This is the single strongest motive for me in publishing these photo stories.

And thanks to you brave Syrians!

And thanks to those who took time to tell me their story. Thanks to those who translated for me and to those who, here and there, gave me protection in dangerous areas.

The very least I can do to pay you back is to convey your words, emotions and my impressions. Your dignity amid suffering and injustice.

I hope the defiant boy above will have a future in a re-built Aleppo. He and everybody else there deserve it. Deserve to live in freedom and peace and benefit from the productive capacity of Aleppo, one of the largest industrial cities in the Middle East and - once - the embodiment of history, culture and development.

And we should help the citizens of Aleppo and Syria no matter what we may think of the government and its policies.

TFF's conflict and peace mission - share and support

The visit to Aleppo at this historic moment was part of a ten-day conflict and peace fact-finding mission by the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, TFF, in Lund, Sweden of which I am the director.

Our gratitude to those who support the foundation in its work for the UN norm of making peace with peaceful means and made this mission, the first since the violence broke out in Syria in 2011, possible. To the extent that we can raise the funds, it will be the first of more missions.

Thanks for helping us continue this mission here.

You can subscribe to the stories that will appear here. And you can help us bring out the message by copying the url above and paste it into your social media pages or elsewhere. Thanks!

These photos and copyright

Finally, many of the images here are snapshot-like. They are shot either with my Nikon D7000 or my iPhone 6S. They are taken under very difficult circumstances, no time permitting the search for the perfect angle or focus; some are "drive-by" photos shot out of the car window. But they have all been processed and improved upon my return from Syria.

All rights reserved to these images. Under no circumstances must any of them be reprinted or reposted online without my written consent.

* Ten days is the maximum duration of a visa when you visit for the first time. It isn't a helpful policy when you are part of a worldwide, fierce war about perceptions and opinions.

Themes and Scenes

A taxi driver in Western Aleppo

My taxi driver in Western Aleppo on the eve of December 12, 2016. The liberation was one of the three most important events in his life, he tells.

My taxi driver in Western Aleppo tonight

Posted by Jan Oberg on Monday, 12 December 2016

Documents and transport

These photos are from the Hanano area of Eastern Aleppo. People gather to show their IDs to the uniformed person so they can get over to the West.

These and other buses take people over to the West where they can get help, medicine, go to the Jibrin Registration Centre or meet family and friends they've been separated from during four long hellish years.

Buses arrive with people from Western Aleppo - better dressed - coming back to see what their former homes look like and start all over again - the last two pictures.

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A piece of bread and some salad

A feast when you haven't had much for years and food was rationed by the occupiers.

Aleppo used to be a bustling city with lots of enterprises and a vibrant cultural life. Like elsewhere in Syria education and health care was free and medicine cheap. No wonder these people told me that they lived a good life before 2012.

With dignity and order, the humans of Aleppo must now queue up to get so little. Like beggars. Watch the sandals, the clothes, the plastic bags and some of the clothes which were once fine but not totally worn down and dirty.

It is these people too who will be hit by the Western sanctions, sanctions that will make the re-building of Aleppo much much more difficult. In the West sanctions are called a soft measure. Ask these innocent victims of war and sanctions how hard these soft policies are on them.

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Street scenes # 1

Remember how each and every individual here has a story - about the brutality and meaninglessness of war. Everyone has lost something precious.

And there is this enigmatic human strength to go on in spite of all.

Click on each image to enlarge it. Also, hover over an image to see whether there is a caption that explains the situation.

Water is being delivered by the UN and Ministry of Education
A very happy man close to tears
Civilians and young soldiers chat and laugh. In safety for the first time since 2012.
Fine chairs to sit in - in the street, after a war! In spite of all, getting together, smiles.
Seeming - miraculously - to have survived in his apartment that has taken a few hits.
We are moving - Victory!

Street scenes # 2

Remember - the mainstream media did not think they had to be present when close to 100.000 people got freedom from an occupation and obviously celebrated that they were back under the government of "the dictator."

Here is a great opportunity for a true civilian humanitarian intervention - and it won't take place.

Click on each image to enlarge it. Also, hover over an image to see whether there is a caption that explains the situation.

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Street scenes # 3

I regret to tell you that when Aleppo was liberated in full from its violent occupiers on December 12, the main humanitarian organisations were not present there. I also did not see any on December 13 and 14 either. Those I saw doing humanitarian work in Aleppo was the Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers, the Syrian Army, the Russian field hospital surgeons, the amazing French Pierre Le Corf and his handful of volunteers, the Russian Reconciliation Centre under the Russian Ministry of Defence.

That's it.

So much for the humanitarian concerns and intervention policies of the NATO/EU countries. The liberation of Aleppo had started almost three weeks earlier. I fail to understand why preparations had not been made to secure that humanitarian organisation would be on the ground the moment that liberation was 100%.

Click on each image to enlarge it. Also, hover over an image to see whether there is a caption that explains the situation.

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Wonderful finally they can play in the street and not risk getting blown up.
This man said "Thanks, Putin" when he did this. It was his message to the world.
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The Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers

As I said, the White Helmets - that I have analysed elsewhere - were not present but had messaged to the world (and Western media) that they had to flee and that they feared a "genocide" on the people in Eastern Aleppo.

You wonder why a good-hearted humanitarian organisation counting almost 3,000 members of all walks of live and with more than US$ 100 million in support from the US, Denmark and other NATO members plus Japan which allegedly has saved tens of thousands Syrians out of the ruins (their movies are numerous and look professional) would be on the run at the same time as what the people here call "the terrorists" are also on the run.

Those I actually saw were the people below - young volunteers, mostly university students from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

I was impressed by their professionalism and energy and their refusal to speak about politics - "there are questions we do not have any opinions about since our job is to rescue and help anybody, anybody." But they did confirm that they had heard about the White Helmets but never seen them.

Click on each image to enlarge it. Also, hover over an image to see whether there is a caption that explains the situation.

Water tank on the central street of Hanano
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Visiting a school in Eastern Aleppo

This school, I was told when being shown around by one of its teachers, had been used by one or more of the "rebel" group, presumably the Al-Nushra Front. There were no classes here for more than two years.

The occupiers had written slogans on its walls - now painted over with white-pink colour.

Click on each image to enlarge it. Also, hover over an image to see whether there is a caption that explains the situation.

Occupiers' text on the school wall painted over.
Employee protests the occupation of his school.
One must hope that civil, secular education can soon begin again at this school
It'll take some time to rebuild this school - but can be done, the teacher told me, within weeks.
Pamphlet of the Al-Nushra Front left at the school
A wall the occupiers did not paint over
Beginning the clean-up to prepare for classes very soon

The Syrian Arab Army

The only ones I saw in Hanano were this little group positioned in arms chairs and sofa next to where citizens came and left in busses.

While I am no advocate of violence or the military - have fought for the UN principle of building peace by peaceful means over four decades - I took these pictures both because they wanted me to and were obviously proud of the liberation of Eastern Aleppo and because they are also, when not on duty, civilian citizens with families and friends, members of their communities.

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The children of Eastern Aleppo

These children have experienced more evil and fear than most adults around the world do in a lifetime.

One sees it in their eyes. Pain and sorrow - while there are also smiles and hope. Relief.

Yes, Aleppo was liberated.

Ask the children. Look at them. If you are in doubt.

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Most media give this or that government - usually their own - a voice. And people tend to divide parties in conflicts into just two pure groups - all the good ones on one side, all the bad ones on the other. And then they take sides.

That there exists no such two-party conflicts in international politics doesn't seem to matter.

Media give priority to those who use weapons, big and small. It satisfies the assumed need for drama. And when the focus is on the violence, every understanding of the underlying conflicts and how to move to peace can conveniently be ignored.

Most of the time, citizens who work for peace in conflict zones - the peace lords and peace ladies - and those who are the object and victims of violence are forgotten. The obsession with 'high' politics - and its low morals - dominate.

Big resourceful Western media had left Aleppo - BBC for instance. Reuters reported about Aleppo from Beirut and Berlin.

The lack of compassion, of interest in the human story is mind-boggling. The people you have met above were not worth one percent of the attention - it was all paid to "the regime", to the terrorists and to NATO countries and their allies.

They stayed away because the event, the liberation of Aleppo, could not be reported within the narrative they had uniformly built during five years by repeating monotonously the simplifying stories - if not propaganda - the large US/Western corporate news bureaus and media produced.

We need conflict reporting with a human face - not only a terrorist, government or international 'community' face. To understand anything we need the perspectives of all sides and a multitude of media - not just our own interventionist perspective and not only Western bureaus.

We need to focus on those whose future is really at stake - and integrate them in the reporting, debates and the future negotiations and peace-building:

People such as the humans of liberated Aleppo who have been abandoned, considered uninteresting in media, politics and politically correct humanitarian work.

The contempt for civil society, for the 98-99% in all war zones who do not use violence, must stop!

That's one of the lessons we must learn from the media's catastrophic coverage/cover-up in Syria in general and ignorance of the suffering of the 'wrong' people in Aleppo.

Footnote: All rights reserved. © Jan Oberg 2016. No reproduction, re-print or other re-use without prior contact with me.
Aleppo, Syria