Leaving Aleppo, Locals Speak About The ‘Ghost City’ They Say Goodbye To

In the wake of the most violent attacks on the city of Aleppo in six years, civilians who are now forced to leave their home behind weigh in on the experience and what it means to them. Residents who endured the incessant bombing and violence, such as Thaer al-Halabi, state that it is only a ghost town, filled with the “shadows of friends lost to war,” that remains, as the Guardian relays.

Although only rubble remains, the experience of saying goodbye to a city that is no more as it once was, still involved pain and sadness for many

Halabi, who was born in Aleppo and lived in an old home that had a courtyard shaded by vines which his family had lived in for centuries before him, raised his family and built a career there. For the past four years, he held strong in the hopes that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be taken down.

“When we were forced to leave Aleppo it had already been destroyed completely. You didn’t see a city, only ghosts, in a ghost city,” said the 57-year-old engineer, who became a politician for the opposition, “I am very sad I have left our city, it’s at the centre of our hearts, part of our bodies. But because we need freedom we cannot live there.”

The politician recounts how he had been imprisoned on three occasions by the government before the war, which caused him to turn against Assad when the uprising in Aleppo occurred and rebels took half of Aleppo. Halabi states, “We had freedom for four years.”

“Life went on amid the bombing,” said Sara, a 47-year-old teacher who also stayed in Aleppo until the enclave’s final days. “There were schools, businesses, shops, there were goods and people, entertainment, everything.”

Civilians recounting what the experience in the now demolished city note that over the years, devastation was not always the norm and that they were actually able to experience liberties they had never once been able to during the period that portions of Aleppo were under rebel control. Activist journalist Rami Zein, who is also Halabi’s son, spoke about differences that existed in the government held and rebel-held regions of the city.

“On the other side of the city was regular Syrian government that block everything they don’t want. On our side of the city it felt like you are in a place open to the world. Before the siege it was a great city, you had everything you need, could bring everything you need from the border [with Turkey], all kinds of trade, everything was there.”

Once the war began to intensify, death and destruction became the norm. The city became the target of barrel bombs that were constantly dropped from helicopters onto civilian areas by the Assad regime to instill fear and force compliance.

Soccer player Mohammed Khalifa’s sister was one of the earliest victims of the violence. The family moved from their house to get away from the heavy gunfire in their neighborhood, which was near to the front line.

It was a barrel bomb that killed his sister, and the same bomb seriously injured his daughter who was then rushed to Turkey by ambulance for treatment. Once Khalifa reached the hospital, carefully making his way so not to become a target himself, a doctor at the facility mistakenly told him his daughter had also died.

“I raced in to try to see her body,” he said, “and they told me she actually was alive but had serious head injuries. She survived, thank God, and is with me now.”

The barrel bomb had also annihilated the business he and his family had set up, a small shop, but even though they experienced great loss and hardship, Khalifa’s family decided not to leave despite the intensification of violence.

“I wanted to stay in Aleppo because of my commitment to the revolution and its principles; I started that way and won’t change until I finish,” said Khalifa stated, who was a member of the national soccer team, prior to the war beginning.

The constant violence and bombing forced a sea of individuals and families out of the city to various refugee camps while those who stayed faced steady tragedy and loss.

“We lost so many people not just to bombs and other weapons, but also because of displacement,” said Sara, who has three children.

“We cannot talk about the war because our friend may be in danger, only hello, how are you and a few words, because Assad is watching everything,” said Halabi.

[Featured Image by Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images]