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In War-Torn Aleppo, There's No Place Like Home

Photo by Flickr user Vincent Ferron (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo by Flickr user Vincent Ferron (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This post is part of a special series of articles by blogger and activist, Marcell Shehwaro, describing the realities of life in Syria during the ongoing armed conflict between forces loyal to the current regime, and those seeking to oust it.

Very few Syrians have not experienced compulsory displacement. The fact of having to move from one place to another, abandoning the tangible present while ruminating on memories over and over again until they’re worn out. And like many Syrians, I too have a story involving houses—“luckily”, I should add, because for hundreds of thousands of people a cold tent is now all they have.

Throughout my past life—“prior to the revolution,” I mean—I lived in a house, a nice family home. My parents moved there when my mother was pregnant with me. A small house in one of Aleppo’s prestigious neighbourhoods where I lived for 28 years, during the majority of which I shared a room with my elder sister.

In our house green predominated. My mother, who was fascinated by this colour, invaded our bedroom with it: summer sheets and winter covers, the kitchen, the bathroom and most of the little decorative ornaments. As for me and my father, we competed for space on the shelves to hold our books all over the house.

Twenty-eight years living in the same house, as a result of which I developed strange habits, like being able to fall asleep even in the noisiest of times because I got used to the noises of the busy street outside.

I left it around two years ago, when I travelled to the UK to study for a Master’s degree. I packed only two large suitcases of clothes, thinking I would come back to get the rest of my things. How mistaken I was.

Shortly after my departure I became one of the hundreds of thousands of activists wanted by various State security branches because of my political activity. State security personnel visited our family house twice, and thank God they found no one there. This, however, made any attempt by me to visit our house an insane risk that could be classified as suicide.

Before my elder sister took off to Turkey—due to the safety threat she faced merely on account of being “my sister”—she packed our lives into boxes. Our pictures, our books, my parents’ pictures (which is all we have left of them), their love letters, their clothes, our clothes, our childhood toys, our house’s green ornaments, the feminine things my mother once bought me when she hoped I would marry one day, my father’s watch which I promised I’d give to the man I would love as much as I loved my father. Even though I finally found this man, I broke the promise: the watch sits there in a box somewhere along with copies of the book that I once published but have not even a single copy of today.

My entire past life is stacked in boxes, humble boxes that don’t manifest their grand contents. And just like us, our boxes await the chance for redemption or for burning down by an enemy’s missile, or a friend’s—it doesn’t really matter. Or maybe they’ll be violated just like everything in this country, stolen by a mad man hunkered behind his weapon.

After those 28 years my experience with houses took a sharp detour, for I have already slept in almost 50 houses in the past two years.

On the first Christmas holiday after my initial departure, we knew well that I was wanted by State security, but I took the risk of sneaking back into my city, Aleppo. And to avert security forces I slept in 20 different houses, a new house every day. Secretly meeting my sister at friends’, fortuitously kissing her kids, unable to explain to them my invisibility and the importance of keeping our meetings a secret.

Moving around every day with my suitcase and my laptop “which should not contain any thing that could condemn me at the regime’s check points”. Moving around from one house to the other, followed by the wondering, rather terrified gazes of my friends’ parents, whom I cannot blame.

Eventually, all that wandering was in vain as it did not alleviate the imminent danger from the State security. My nightly visits became a reason for my friends to be called in for investigation. At that point I decided to leave that part of the city, never to return, leaving behind my loved ones to start a new life in the other part, the one liberated by the Free Syrian Army.

A young woman looking for a house to live in by herself, an alien with a different religion and different attire. An unarmed woman among the many armed who might misuse those arms. New fears that I have to face now, as a female activist who chooses to live alone.

It was then that I experienced the first clash with my every belief: in a war society I am a vulnerable female who needs a man’s protection. The idea alone is terrifying and debilitating.

My fellow revolutionists and I decided to look for an apartment in the same building so that they could come quickly to my aid if I needed it. That’s when we briefly shared a living space in Alzibdiya. My house in Alzibdiya was a fourth floor apartment, which alone was a safety hazard due to air strikes. It was an empty space with nothing but an old television which didn’t work most of the time due to electricity cuts, some mattresses on the floor and a badly made bed in the room the guys decided was mine. We also had a small cooker that I managed to convince them to buy, after long arguments about the need to replace the sandwiches they bought every day with home-cooked food.

In that house I learned to cook large amounts of food, enough to feed ten of my male friends. In that house I stayed up late talking politics and sharing intimate stories about our families. I got to know theirs and they got to know mine. Together we shed many tears on the balcony and anxiously waited for our crazy reckless friends. In that busy house, always filled with homeless activists, I learnt how in the time of war one’s privacy completely vanishes.

We had to move out quickly because of the irritated neighbours and ISIS’ arrival in that neighbourhood. Both were paramount reasons to relaunch the hunt for a new home. We managed to find two apartments in the same building, and I moved into a house in Almashhad by myself. My friends’ caring never stopped, demonstrated even in the smallest details, like the grocery list. This house had a yard which I decorated with a jasmine arbor. I bought curtains and cupboards for this house and decided to call it home. Just like any Syrian, I was looking for something more personal and more intimate than a suitcase on the move.

It was into that house that I smuggled a Christmas tree to celebrate with friends, despite ISIS. It was in that house that the cold reduced me to tears, as all the windows were broken and all my attempts to make it warmer failed. And just as I gave in to the illusion that this house would actually become my home, an ISIS patrol stopped me in a nearby street. I escaped miraculously with the help and courage of the friends in the Free Syrian Army. For their safety and mine, we returned to moving between friends’ houses in order to dodge ISIS.

Then I spent some time going back and forth between Aleppo and Ghazi Aintab, bits of clothes here and there. At a certain point I had had bags of clothes in six different houses, a practice that ended up saving my life. And after liberating Aleppo from ISIS completely, we went back to square one, looking for a new house.

I told them I was looking for a house that resembled my family’s. We looked and looked until we finally found it, nice and neat. It was a house of newlyweds who had had to flee to Turkey. I told them they could put all their cherished things in a locked room, and I promised to respect their memories there. And so it was.

I spent two months in that house, until I got arrested by the City of Aleppo brigade for refusing to wear a head scarf. The house was raided on that day too, and friends felt I needed to leave Aleppo, and again—again—I had to leave, never to return.

Today I live in a room that I cannot afford to make any larger, and probably as a token of my nostalgia, I covered it in green, still dreaming, like all Syrians, of going back, to my stacked boxes, to my belongings, to a place in this universe that I safely call “home”, to live there again and return to my roots and to my history.

Marcell Shehwaro blogs at marcellita.com and tweets at @Marcellita, both primarily in Arabic. Read the other posts in the series here.

  • Scott Gerber

    Your story is truly sad and depressing! In the future hope you find your way home to a safe and stable Syria.

    It’s important to understand though that the turmoil playing out in Aleppo and Syria today is not recent in origin. I don’t know what it is, but from the outside it seems Syrians have some deep seated demons. INtolerance and violence seem to be running rampant with no end in sight.

    I just finished reading an excellent account of one Jewish family’s need to leave Aleppo, their home for centuries, due to rising anti-semitism in the middle of the last century.

    To get some historical perspective, and begin to see that issues of displacement, violence and intolerance are nothing new to Syria I strongly recommend Farewell, Aleppo by Claudette E. Sutton, http://www.amazon.com/Farewell-Aleppo-Claudette-Sutton-ebook/dp/B00NMP6IJ2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1411844901&sr=1-1&keywords=farewell%2C+aleppo

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