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School in an Aleppo factory

The occupiers denied children education. Now they get it.

Story by Jan Oberg February 5th, 2017

Background to Sheikh Najjar - industrial city - outside Aleppo

We are in the huge industrial city a little outside Aleppo - Sheikh Najjar. It was one of the largest industrial centres in the Middle East, the largest in Syria with around 2000 enterprises of great diversity and providing the livelihood of 30.000-40.000 workers. It's estimated that it represented about half of Syria's industrial capacity.

With over 2 million citizens - locals would say twice as many due to the influx from the countryside before the violence began - Aleppo used to be the largest city in Syria and a magic meeting point of many cultures, people and activities situated as it were at the famous Silk Road.

Read about Aleppo here and see its amazing beauty, its magnificent architecture and diversity. Aleppo was a UNESCO World Heritage site. It belonged of course first of all to the Aleppians but also to the Syrian people, to the Middle East and to the rest of humanity.

From when Eastern Aleppo was swiftly occupied and looted in 2012 by the defector, anti-government Syrian Free Army, FSA, and terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Nushra until its liberation on December 12, 2016 it's been virtually totally destroyed. See my photo series about the destruction outside its Old City.

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It's December 13, 2016, and I am being guided around in this industrial zone by a man who knows both Syria and Aleppo and this zone extremely well: forty-six years old Fares Al-Shehabi. He is out of an old respected and wealthy Aleppo family, an independent member of the Syrian parliament, chairman of its planning committee and he heads the Syrian Chamber of Industry.

His enterprises in several branches have been looted and more or less destroyed; he has personally been hit by EU economic sanctions although, according to him, the EU has never been able to prove that he has financially backed the Syrian government.

Reuters talked with him in 2012 about why he is one of the few who have stayed and what risks he has taken - and what he has experienced with the Western-supported occupiers of his town.

al-Shahbi speaks with passion and strong voice. He is dynamic business man and a patroit. Having suffered and also lost a lot, Al-Shehabi was - understandably - an angry man already by autumn 2012:

"It (the sanctions) violated my rights and they (the EU) did not hear my side of the story. I challenge them to provide a single proof that I financially backed any side," he said.

Although he blames the rebels for most of the damage to the city, Shehabi is now also critical of authorities' handling of the crisis, saying the government has been slow to promote political reforms and to fight organised crime.

"Aleppo is being punished by the revolution and now neglected by the state," he said.

But when Sheikh Najjar had been liberated, Shehabi turned his anger into something constructive: He donated one of his partly damaged factories to the Ministry of Education and let it use the building as a school.

But now first a few images of the area and a 30 sec vide...on that rainy day of December 13, 2016 in Industrial City.

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© Jan Oberg 2017. All rights reserved to these images. Under no circumstances must any of them be reprinted or reposted online without my written consent.

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

On the way to Shaikh Najjar...
The atmosphere is close to a ghost town and not much is happening...
Central management, meeting and communication centre in Sheikh Najjar after it had been an HQ for some terrorist group
- the flag is that of the Kurdish women's protection unit; they fight ISIS and participated in the liberation of Aleppo.
How long will it take to rebuild this industrial city? How many billion dollars will it cost? Who will donate? And sanctions on top of it...
The destruction is endless. Endless! Kilometre after kilometre...

I wonder about Aleppo and say #keepfocusonaleppo Here in the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City outside Aleppo lived and...

Posted by Jan Oberg on Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Chamber of Commerce and a factory turned school

Fares al-Shehabi and one of his factories that produced olive oil for export. The damage to this factory is partial and the ground floor and basement is now converted to very simple school rooms (see the next section).

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

Fares al-Shehabi interviewed at the square where the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce used to be
A photo of the now destroyed Chamber of Commerce building in Aleppo
Fares al-Shehabi explains what happened - on the top floor of his olive oil factory
Fares al-Shehabi with businessmen colleagues in Sheikh Najjar, December 13, 2016
Old photo of the Board of the Aleppo Chamber of Industri and Commerce. Fares number 4 from right. The rest fled abroad.
The olive oil factory that has been turned into a school for 1500 children in three-shift per day.
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Interviewing Fares Shehabi who gives you the background to what happened to one of his factories and how parts of it was turned into a school for 1500 children.

Posted by TFF-Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research on Saturday, 4 February 2017

School children in the factory

The rooms are damp and cold here in December but the atmosphere is warm-hearted. I was told that these children have received no education for more than two years, because of dangers and lack of transport and because several school were used by the occupiers.

A third reason of course is that many parents would not accept that their children were taught by Islamists and got influenced by fundamentalist thinking and taught to hate their government and president.

I was told that the experiment started with 50 children and that today 1500 are taught per day in shifts of 500.

It touched my heart to see these children, their proud teachers, the books on the tables and their singing for us visitors.

But in the midst of this human warmth in rather cold rooms, I could not help wondering what will be their future.

There is hope in Aleppo and individuals who carry the torch, like Fares Shehabi. And, for sure, without education they will get nowhere anyhow. I can only hope for the best and tell you that this is what also happens in today's Syria. That the Western mainstream media never reports. That is strange because it is such a human story, isn't it?

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

The headmaster of the school in her underground office
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A three-dimensional map of Syria, Aleppo near the top of it
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Civilisational Tragedy: a few questions

You've now seen the destruction in just one area of Aleppo, its Sheikh Najjar Industrial City. And you've seen a project that increases hope and aims at a better future for Aleppo.

I have a couple of questions - some thoughts arising from seeing both the destruction and the factory-turned-school.

If the dictator and his regime - the vocabulary of the Western free press - just kill their own, how come that Aleppo wasn't destroyed much earlier? President al-Assad became president in 2000.

Until Eastern Aleppo was conquered and occupied in mid-2012, nobody seems to have had a plan to destroy the place which represented 50% of all of Syria's industrial capacity - not to speak of it being one of the most precious jewels in regional and Syrian culture and history.

What is the real story about the conversion of Aleppo the jewel to Aleppo the ghost city?

There was a series of politically dissatisfied people who at some point turned militant and put killing on their agenda. And there was an occupying force - or, rather, a lot of them. They were assisted by foreign countries - NATO, Saudi Arabia, the Golf States etc. There was a government of a sovereign state, member of the UN, that fought against them and called upon Russia to assist them from September 2015. In December 2016, that government again took control of the city.

Undoubtedly a substantial proportion of the destruction of Aleppo has been caused - as the Western narrative has it - by the Syrian government and the Russian Air Force. Undoubtedly civilians have been killed and war crimes committed.

But what is the real argument?

That the war should have been fought without civilian casualties? Or with nonviolent means à la Gandhi? If so, all sides must be blamed and not the least a particular category who is almost never blamed: the arms and ammunition dealers, those who have no goals or values except profiteering. The merchants of death.

The West's condemnation of Syria is convenient and self-serving but it is also illogical and systematically omits a few important things.

It seem that the argument that Syria does not have the right to defend itself when foreign powers occupy it - and dozens of actors fight it out among themselves on Syrian territory more or less functioning as proxies for foreign powers - most of whom are also on the ground with special forces (from Denmark to the US) or bomb Syria from the air?

And it seems to be built on the false assumption that because the leadership is authoritarian, we outsiders have a kind of God-given or exceptionalist right to do whatever we want on its territory - even supporting such groups whom we fight viciously in Europe and have hated since 9/11 2001.

Even if Bashar al-Assad is an evil man, he must be compared with other similar characters which the Western world have no qualms about supporting. And his responsibility for casualties and atrocities should be a) documented and b) compared with other similar deed - say the US-led occupation and mass killing of innocent Iraqis - before he is singled out and before we in the West make genuinely moral judgements.

• • •

Today, we don't know exactly how many civilians have been killed, wounded, forced to flee or in other ways have seen their life opportunities destroyed for a long time or forever. We do not know how many of these the Syrian government can be held accountable for. Neither do we know how many all other forces - Syrian and non-Syrian - must be accountable for.

One must ask who will at the end of the day bear what responsibility for this mad level of violence and for having let this go on for so? If we assume that the conflict started in 2011 when the violence started around some popular demonstrations - which is very doubtful if you read larger analyses and books instead of news media - then why was it allowed to continue for so long at ever higher level of militancy and slaughtering? And why did so many invest in it and support the violent struggle politically and militarily?

The combined policies and action by all sides have created the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 anywhere in the world - according to the UN in Syria.

The only two things I think I can say that I know is that a) those who say that everything is the fault of "the other side" - that "we" bear no responsibility and that this is a rather clearcut black-and-white conflict with all the good guys on the RIOT (Rebels-Insurgents-Opposition-Terrorist) side and all the bad guys on the Syrian government, Army and Russian side will be proven utterly wrong at some point in the future.

The other is b) that we know who pays the price in Syria.

As usual, the innocent civilians - families like the one below from Eastern Aleppo that I met in the Jibrin Reception Centre - good-hearted innocent people who just wanted to go about their lives, the 98-99% of the people who have never held a weapon in their hands and never even thought of doing it.

They have lost everything.

When will the parents in that photo get a decent place to live, a job and some welfare? When will the children be able to go to school - and if they do, what will they be able to do in this city when they are 15 or 20. What will Aleppo look like and what will its situation be when they are adults and want to build a family?

Will they get that far? Will they be killed by more warfare, more intervention, revenge killings? Or will they live most of their lives as refugees somewhere?

I have seen in other war zones just how amazingly resilient people who have lost everything can actually be. Hope and life itself is the last thing they give up. I've seen people returning to their destroyed homes in former Yugoslavia and the first they did was to plant some flowers in metal pots and put them in front of the ruins.

All I feel I can do is to help bring out the story about these people - cynically cleansed away in the Western press that has instead given the Syrian Free Army, al-Qaeda, ISIS and many other terror organsations as well as the White Helmets and the Syrian National Council all the public relations they could.

The Aleppians I met gave me their trust, let me ask them questions and take their photo. The also gave me hope.

I owe it to them to tell others what I have seen.

And should someone begin to doubt, just a bit, the homogenised Western political and media narrative about Syria, it hasn't been in vain. And if someone sooner or later feel ashamed of what we all did to these innocent Syrian fellow citizens, we've taken an important step towards stopping the next war, civilisational tragedy and humanitarian catastrophe.

Conflicts are OK, societies always have them. Life without conflicts would be boring.

Violence solves no problems. They cause only more. Plus humiliation, hatred and wishes for revenge.

How many examples does humanity - all sides - need to recognize the difference between conflict and violence and that the latter only makes things worse?

And how many more humans must die before the decision-makers use their intellects, educate themselves and learn to empathise there?

In the age of mass destruction and the fall of the US Empire hashtags such as #nomorewars and #nomorealeppo are essential. We must #keepfocusonaleppo so something constructive will come out of the tragedy.

I promise that TFF and I will #keepfocusonaleppo. For as long as it may take.


Monument in Aleppo with ISIS symbols in black and white on knocked over
From the old city of Aleppo
Family just out from Eastern Aleppo when liberated. At the Jibrin reception centre and getting the first simple assistance.

TFF fact-finding and peace missions

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. I can be contacted at janoberg@mac.com.

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.

© Jan Oberg 2017.

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

Footnote: All rights reserved. © Jan Oberg 2017. No reproduction, re-print or other re-use without prior contact with me.
Aleppo, Syria