Beirut: When Afra Hashem thinks about living through the Siege of Aleppo, she remembers how inventive everyone was.
In late 2016, Syrian government forces cordoned off the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo, holding 270,000 people inside, and for months they and Russian warplanes wrecked it. Food was scarce. Hashem’s family, like the others, largely survived by eating once a day.
One day, his then 11-year-old eldest son, Wissam, asked somewhere: “Mommy, can we have a fish?”
His three children did not like fish at all. But when you have almost nothing, you also end up with things you don’t like, she recalled.
Unwilling to sink into despair, Hashem fried the moldy bread, found some cilantro, garlic and flakes of Aleppo’s famous red pepper, 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, all the women in Aleppo were inventing this to feed their babies,” she said.
Hashem and other Aleppo survivors on Tuesday celebrated the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution leading to civil war. This year, many of them are not only reflecting on their fate, they watch in shock as Ukrainians face familiar horrors: bombings, brutal sieges and flight from their homes.
In the Syrian war, Russia helped President Bashar Assad’s government gain the upper hand with a brutal strategy. One by one, they laid siege around the areas occupied by the opposition, bombarded and starved them until the capacity of the population was exhausted.
The Siege of Aleppo was one of the most brutal. Aleppo was Syria’s most populous city, famous for its unique cuisine of elaborate cuisine and its millennia-old old city.
When the war began, its eastern districts fought the government for four years with revolutionary fervor. But a nearly six-month siege reduced much of the former to empty rubble, with its population scattered or dead.
In Ukraine, a similar siege has been underway for nearly two weeks over the port city of Mariupol, where tens of thousands of Russians have been under bombardment seeking food and shelter. The fear is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will expand a Syria-style siege strategy across Ukraine.
Now in London with her husband and children, Hashem said she has stood in solidarity with Ukraine from day one of Russia’s invasion.
“Many people ask if I’m mad that the world sympathizes with Syria more than with Ukraine. I tell them I don’t care if people are more sympathetic. I care that they suffer, “He said.
In a corner of Syria that is still out of government control, another Aleppo survivor, Abdulkafi Alhamdo, is also trying to connect with Ukraine.
He lives in the opposition-held Idlib province and works as a literature professor in the nearby Turkish-controlled city of Azaz.
In class, “I’m always connecting Big Brother in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ novel to Putin in both Syria and now Ukraine,” he said.
Alhamdo printed two Ukrainian flags to be flown alongside the Syrian Revolution flag at a local protest in Idlib to mark the anniversary this week.
When the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, Hashem worked as a school principal and activist. His hopes of change in Syria grew with the opposition’s gains, including the government’s capture of the eastern part of Aleppo. Hashem worked with the local council that ran the city and helped organize the protests.
In the following years, Russian and government warplanes bombed eastern Aleppo as they fought rebel forces in the countryside. Hashem turned his school into a basement and darkened rooms into classrooms and shelters. He started a theater there, in which he wrote plays for the students to perform.
With the fight getting worse, she was once more distant in normal life. In the morning she passed by the hill that separates her part of East Aleppo from the government-held West Aleppo.
It was as impassable as the Berlin Wall, she recalled. If you get too close, snipers will shoot you. But she wanted to hear the cars, any sound from the other side that would remind of friends and relatives who lived there.
“I’ve always wondered, ‘What’s life like in that other universe?'”
When the East was under siege in July 2016, his universe fell into complete hell.
Eastern Aleppo was cordoned off, with hardly any supplies. Russian and government bombing destroyed everything, including hospitals and schools. The residential blocks were left in ruins.
Initially, one of Hashem’s students was killed. He closed the school theater. Some of the gardens in the district became cemeteries. The medicines ran out. The sound of explosions was coming continuously. Hashem’s apartment building was bombed several times before and during the siege, and they were often moved.
Without electricity and limited fuel, residents turned to “plastic gasoline” to extract fuel from plastic bottles and containers. It was bad for the generator and gave off a toxic smell. But it helped people generate enough electricity to charge car batteries, mobile phones and small LED lights.
With no gas to cook, families collected scraps of furniture and wood to burn from the increasingly bombed buildings.
Prices jumped. There were no fruits and some vegetables. Flour was almost impossible to come by, so Hashem and other families grinded white beans to make bread.
As winter progressed, scrap wood was needed for the summer as well. Her kids remember the Saheb, a sweet, warm comfort drink that’s a winter favorite throughout the Middle East. It is made from the tubers of an orchid, which is impossible to find during the siege.
So Hesham reformed again. He dipped into his precious stockpile of flour, boiled it with water and sugar, “and it was like you’re drinking Sahleb but in a different way.”
Soon after, in late December 2016, she was among thousands of residents who agreed to leave under an evacuation agreement. She went to opposition-held northwestern Syria, then Turkey.
On her first night in an apartment in the city of Gaziantep, Turkey, she saw the washing machine spin for the first time in years — and cried. Today, a Syrian regime soldier lives in his old home, relatives still in the city tell him, reflecting a government tendency to confiscate properties after fighting.
Iman Khalid Aboud, a 40-year-old widow, also left Aleppo in the same evacuation on a December day with snow and a bitter cold, similar to temperatures in what is now Ukraine.
She described seeing Russian troops for the first time as evacuation buses passed through checkpoints – months after Russian attacks were on the receiving end. She said that both her son and her husband were killed in the Russian attack. Under bombardment, he and his family had to move around 15 times during the siege.
Aboud said she hoped Ukrainians would not have to go through what she did. But, she added, “I would recommend them to stock up on food.”
In February 2020, Hashem was invited to attend the British Academy Film Awards to participate in the award-winning film “For Sama”, which follows the birth of a baby during the Siege of Aleppo and features Hashem’s family. is prominently shown. In Britain, she was able to claim asylum.
For the anniversary of the war, Hashem plans to attend a protest in London against the Syrian government, where they will also put up banners against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.