Wednesday, August 10, 2016

L'Orient-Le Jour: "Will the Jihadists Spare the Christians of Aleppo? Of Course Not..."

French original here.

"Will the Jihadists Spare the Christians of Aleppo? 
Of Course Not..."

Inhabitants of West Aleppo describe their daily life since the beginning of the Battle of Aleppo

"If I was afraid of Fateh al-Sham, I wouldn't return to Aleppo!" confides R Tam, a student in West Aleppo. The great Battle of Aleppo is only beginning, but the first round won by the rebels does not seem to excessively frighten the populations in neighborhoods under the control of the regime.

Last Saturday, the rebels inflicted a blow against the regime and its allies by breaking the siege that the regime had established on July 17. The fighters of Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria) played a key role in this offensive. In late July, the jihadist group broke its ties with its parent (al-Qaeda), with the latter's approval, in order to move closer to the other rebel groups and win the hearts of the people. Known for its many abuses and suicide bombings, Fateh al-Sham now finds itself at the gates of Aleppo, welcomed as liberators by the inhabitants of East Aleppo but considered the most radical group by the inhabitants of West Aleppo.

"Am I afraid of Fateh al-Sham? Yes, but we have a great army," says Jack Khazanji, 23. "We Aleppines have been suffering horribly for four years and our quality of life has greatly diminished, but we will never abandon our city," says Georges J Khoukaz, a merchant in the western neighborhoods. "We are not afraid of the groups that are fighting against us, but if things get worse, we, the people, are ready to take up arms for our country," he continues. The past weekend was a rough test for the nerves of the people of West Aleppo, as it was for those of East Aleppo. If joy and hope have appeared in the rebel camp, fear has quickly gripped the populations in pro-government neighborhoods, who fear being surrounded. Between east and west, the contrast is striking.

But yesterday, determination and hope quickly swept away the fears in West Aleppo. "When we saw that Nusra attacked the south of the city, we were shocked. But the fear went away quickly, because we are ready to fight," says Tony Sakkal, 37. In 2012, he decided to leave Aleppo for Tartous after Fateh al-Sham (at the time, al-Nusra) seized his factories in al-Shkayef, one of the industrial zones of Aleppo. After the jihadist group's recent alliance with the rebels in Aleppo, Sakkal now fears the worst. "Will the jihadists spare the Christians of Aleppo? Of course not, they'll cut off our heads. They are worse than the Islamic State, since the fighters of the Islamic State all come from abroad, but those of Fateh al-Sham are from among us, which makes them more dangerous. I hope that they will not penetrate into the city, or else we'd better prepare to face a third world war. All the people of West Aleppo, both Christians and Muslims, hate them because we have all lost relatives because of their shelling."

A student at the University of Ebla, located in the province of Idlib but whose location has been transferred to Hamdaniya in Southwest Aleppo, R Tam lives between Syria and Sweden, where part of his family has resided for more than 40 years. He has not yet obtained Swedish nationality. A year ago, he nevertheless decided to return to live in Aleppo, while the security situation was at the lowest. Last Saturday, the neighborhood bordering Hamdaniya, Ramousa, fell into the hands of the rebels. "Classes were suspended at the university, but I can't really say that the security situation is any worse than usual," he says.

Since the city was divided in two in 2012, many residents of West Aleppo say they have become accustomed to the situation. "The first days of the offensive, over the weekend, people were a little bit afraid, but not more than usual. We went through worse than that a year and a half ago," recounts Jack Kazanji. Despite the battle, the young man hasn't changed anything in his usual way of life. Yesterday night, he went out to meet with friends in a café close to Aziziya Square, particularly frequented by the city's Christians. Yet the fighting was raging nearby. "We don't have any water, any electricity, to say nothing of the internet connection on our telephones, which is spotty. But when I see people smiling around me tonight, I know that it's because they no longer feel the pain and suffering. There are bombs and deaths one street over, and we are having a party. It's because people are tired of the war and we don't fear death."

"The main road has been closed, so my parents were unable to go to Beirut to catch a plane. But in our neighborhoods, the situation is good," says Lara*, 22. "I can't say that after what happened this weekend the situation is any worse than before." On Sunday, rumors circulated that the inhabitants of West Aleppo were stockpiling food and water in preparation for  a siege. "That's very exaggerated," says Lara, "There is everything, but the shops are making sure to hold on to goods in order to charge residents three times as much." "It's true that since the road was cut, prices have increased in a very strange way," says Jack Khazanji. A kilo of tomatos that was worth 100 Syrian pounds [around 75 cents] last week is now selling for 400 or more. "Fuel and bread as well," says R Tam. All are holding on to hope that the main road will be reopened in the coming days.

* This name has been changed.

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