BEIRUT — When Afraa Hashem reflects on life during the siege of Aleppo, she remembers how inventive everyone was.
By the end of 2016, Syrian government forces had cordoned off the eastern half of rebel-held Aleppo, with 270,000 people inside, and for months they and Russian warplanes reduced it to rubble. Food was scarce. Hashem’s family, like others, survived largely on one meal a day.
One day, her eldest son Wisam, then 11 years old, asked her out of nowhere, “Mom, can we have some fish?
Her three children didn’t even really like fish. But when you have next to nothing, you miss even the things you don’t like, she recalls.
Not wanting to give in to despair, Hashem fried moldy bread, found cilantro, garlic and the famous Aleppo red pepper flakes and told them it was tilapia. Together they all pretended it was fish – the kids even said they could taste it.
“It wasn’t just me, but all the women in Aleppo were making these inventions to feed their children,” she said.
Hashem and other Aleppo survivors mark the 11th anniversary of Syria‘s revolution-turned-civil war on Tuesday. This year, many of them are not just pondering their own destiny, they are watching in amazement as Ukrainians face familiar horrors: bombings, a brutal siege and fleeing their homes.
In the war in Syria, Russia helped President Bashar Assad’s government gain the upper hand with a ruthless strategy. One by one, they besieged opposition-held areas, bombarding and starving them until the population’s ability to hold collapsed.
The siege of Aleppo was among the most brutal. Aleppo was Syria‘s most populous city, famous for its unique cuisine of elaborate dishes and its thousand-year-old old town.
At the start of the war, its eastern districts fought the government for four years, brimming with revolutionary fervor. But nearly six months of siege reduced much of the east to empty rubble, its population scattered or dead.
In Ukraine, a similar siege has been underway for nearly two weeks on the port city of Mariupol, where tens of thousands of people are seeking food and shelter from Russian bombardment. The fear is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will expand a Syrian-style siege strategy across Ukraine.
Now in London with her husband and children, Hashem said she has stood with Ukraine since day one of the Russian invasion.
“A lot of people ask me if I’m angry that the world sympathizes more with Ukraine than with Syria. I tell them that I don’t care if people sympathize more. I care if they are victims” , she said.
In a corner of Syria still beyond government control, another Aleppo survivor, Abdulkafi Alhamdo, is also trying to connect with Ukraine.
He lives in the opposition-held province of Idlib and works as a literature teacher in the nearby Turkish-controlled town of Azaz.
In class, “I always make the connection between Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 novel and Putin, both in Syria and now in Ukraine,” he said.
Alhamdo printed two Ukrainian flags to wave alongside Syrian revolution flags at a local protest in Idlib marking the anniversary this week.
When the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, Hashem worked as a school principal and activist. His hopes for change in Syria grew with opposition gains, including his capture of the eastern half of Aleppo from government. Hashem worked with the local council that ran the city and helped organize protests.
Over the next few years, Russian and government warplanes increasingly bombarded eastern Aleppo as they fought rebel forces in the countryside. Hashem moved his school to a basement and turned the dark rooms into classrooms and shelters. She opened a theater there, writing plays for the students to perform.
As the fighting escalated, the ordinary life she once had became more distant. In the morning, she passed by the hill separating her part of eastern Aleppo from government-controlled western Aleppo.
It was as impassable as the Berlin Wall, she recalls. If you got too close, the snipers would shoot you. But she wanted to hear cars, any noise coming from the other side that would evoke memories of friends and relatives who lived there.
“I always wondered, ‘What is life like in this second universe?'”
His universe was thrown into complete hell when the siege was imposed on the east in July 2016.
Eastern Aleppo was cordoned off, with virtually no supplies entering. Russian and government bombing destroyed everything, including hospitals and schools. Residential blocks were left in ruins.
At first, one of Hashem’s students was killed. She quit the school theater. The few gardens in the neighborhood become cemeteries. The drugs ran out. The sound of explosions was constant. Hashem’s building was bombed several times, before and during the siege, and they moved often.
With no electricity and little fuel, residents have turned to “plastic gasoline”, extracting fuel from plastic bottles and containers. It was bad for the generators and gave off a toxic smell. But it did generate enough electricity for people to charge car batteries, cell phones and small LED lights.
Without gas for cooking, families collected furniture and bits of firewood from the ever-increasing number of bombed-out buildings.
Prices have skyrocketed. There were no fruits and few vegetables. Flour was nearly impossible to find, so Hashem and other families made bread by grinding white beans.
As the winter chill set in, scrap wood was also needed for warmth. Her children missed sahleb, a sweet and warm comfort drink that is a winter favorite in the Middle East. It is made from the tubers of an orchid, not found during the siege.
So Hesham improvised again. She dipped into her precious reserve of flour, boiled it with water and sugar, “and it was like you were drinking sahleb but in a different way”.
Soon after, in late December 2016, she was among tens of thousands of residents who agreed to leave under an evacuation agreement. She traveled to opposition-held northwestern Syria, then to Turkey.
On her first night in an apartment in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, she saw the washing machine running for the first time in years – and cried.
Hesham took her children to a mall, in the “promised land” of the food court. “We bought all kinds of foods that we dreamed of eating. Pizzas, burgers, chicken nuggets, fish and chips. All that.”
Today, a Syrian regime soldier lives in his former home, relatives still in the town tell him, reflecting a government tendency to confiscate property after battles.
Iman Khaled Aboud, a 40-year-old widow, also left Aleppo in the same evacuation on a foggy December day with snow and freezing cold, similar to temperatures in Ukraine today.
She described seeing Russian troops for the first time as evacuation buses passed through checkpoints – after months of receiving Russian strikes. Both her son and her husband were killed in a Russian strike, she said. Under the bombardments, she and her family had to move 15 times during the siege.
Aboud said she hopes Ukrainians don’t have to go through what she did. But, she says, “I would advise them to stock up on food.”
In February 2020, Hashem was invited to attend the British Academy Film Awards for her participation in the award-winning film ‘For Sama’, which follows the birth of a child during the siege of Aleppo and highlights Hashem’s family. In Britain, she was able to apply for asylum.
For the anniversary of the war, Hashem plans to attend a demonstration in London against the Syrian government, where they will also raise banners against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,
“I want to show the world that our disaster and our experience could be transferred to another country.”