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‘There Have Been so Many Ugly Scenes’: Staying to Save Lives in Aleppo

As the Syrian regime and Russia intensify their bombing of Aleppo, activist and aid worker Zein al-Sham says she refuses to leave the besieged city, even after spending 14 months in prison and years witnessing the unforgettable horrors of war.

Written by Lizzie Porter Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Even amid the chaos and devastation of the crisis in Syria, the country's women are challenging themselves in ways they can be proud of, says teacher and aid worker Zein al-Sham. AFP/Marco Longari

Syrian teacher and aid worker Zein al-Sham, 26, currently lives under siege in one of eastern Aleppo’s worst-hit districts. Her political activism began in 2012, while she was studying at the city’s university, taking part in anti-government protests around campus that were met with brutal force by the security services. Despite having several chances to leave Syria, Sham decided to stay. She used what she had learned in her nursing courses to get a job at a hospital, which was eventually destroyed in continual aerial bombardments by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In 2013, she was arrested for speaking out against Assad and imprisoned for 14 months. On her release, she went back to work as a teacher and field worker with an international aid organization. In the meantime, her family has become scattered, with her sister now living in Turkey and her parents trapped with her in eastern Aleppo.

Sham spoke to us from eastern Aleppo a few weeks ago. As she spoke, she described feeling tired and sick from what she said were chlorine bombs being dropped on the besieged part of the city. It was difficult for her to send replies to follow-up questions because power supplies to the area are slowly being cut off. In one of her last messages, sent as regime forces retook rebel-held districts, she described walking through empty streets and witnessing terrifying airstrikes around her house.

And yet, Sham says she feels the crisis in Syria has given women such as herself opportunities they would never have had in their country pre-2011. Even as they struggle to cope with the uncertainty, trauma and grave loss surrounding them, the situation has pushed women to challenge themselves in ways they can be proud of, she says.

At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, I was always afraid of arrest by the shabiha [pro-regime armed militia] and the security forces, who would follow us after demonstrations at Aleppo University. After the liberation of the city [in 2012], I took courses in nursing and relief and joined a civilian hospital.

At first, it was a nine-story building, with good equipment, but day by day we started losing floors because of the airstrikes. In the end, we had to work in the basement.

Yesterday evening [November 14], the regime sent text messages saying: “In 24 hours, we will start a large assault with Russian forces to enter Aleppo.”

And that is what happened. For a while, the planes flew so low that I imagined I could see the pilot in his cockpit. At one point, I was in a school, in a basement underground. When my students heard the sound of the plane, they crouched under the desks and started crying. I was very sad because of them, but I could not do anything. The plane’s sound is awful when it is so low.

But the siege is uglier than the bombardment. It is very hard to see people around you hungry, with nothing to eat. No needs are met. For example, there are no medicines for pregnant women. There are no female sanitary products, and no nappies or milk for babies. There is no electricity, and the water is decreasing day by day.

I stopped studying when I began volunteering in the hospital. My dream was to do a master’s degree, but when I went to apply for it, I was arrested [and imprisoned] for 14 months. After my release, I began participating in revolutionary activities again. I had studied child development at university, so I had experience in teaching. I then started doing relief work, to send aid to refugees around Aleppo and in the camps on the border with Turkey.

Now our work has shrunk because there is no way into the city and no open route, so the aid trucks cannot enter.

But I am proud of my job. Nobody – as I am told – expected that after 14 months in prison I would have something to give. But thanks be to God, I am proud of it. Saving an injured person’s life is a great feeling.

The revolution [in Syria] was a good thing for women. They left their homes and worked, and started to learn – there are even training centers and women take on significant roles. The revolution made us go out and do things for ourselves, like men. Me, for example, before the revolution I lived with my parents and it was impossible for me to do what I did. But then I left and went to work in the hospital. There were things bigger than me and them.

I am not married, and from the beginning of the revolution, I was separated from my parents for a long time. They escaped [from Aleppo city] because the situation here is very bad, and I stayed and worked in the hospital. I was alone. When the siege was broken for a short period [in August 2016], they came to visit me. But then they got stuck here because the way out was closed again. Now, they are here in Aleppo in the besieged area. My mother is sick and needs special medicines, but I cannot find them because of the siege.

I miss going to Turkey to see my sister and her children. I used to go there frequently because I have a permit to cross the border. My sister’s family always calls me and asks me when I will go to visit them. I answer: “When they open the route.” I have not seen them for five or six months.

There have been so many ugly scenes, so many pictures that I cannot forget.

When I worked in the hospital, I remember a six-year-old girl who was brought in without the bottom half of her body. I thought that she was dead, but she was awake and staring at me. They sent her to Turkey in the end, but I will not forget the way she looked at me. A lot of child patients would arrive during the massacres. We tried to save them and to be strong at the same time. After this, I would go to my room and cry. We are human and have feelings, after all.

I will not leave Aleppo. I will not leave our revolution. I have been to the U.S. twice, and to the U.K. – and I had multiple chances to stay. I came back from the U.S. in May, a short while before the siege. I did not want to stay there. I went with my friend – she stayed there and I came back here. I do not want to leave my city.

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