Escape from Aleppo: one man's journey
From Aleppo to Paris. A freelance journalist who posted a video of the evacuation of the Syrian city as Bashar al-Assad's forces took control of it recounts his journey from a war zone to the French capital.
In December 2016 the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad agreed to a mass evacuation of Aleppo city, which had been under siege for months. The Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups were effectively squeezed out and the United Nations requested that remaining civilians and opposition fighters be allowed to leave.
Before the official evacuation, freelance journalist Salah Alashkar posted from his Twitter feed a video of him with Aleppo in ruins behind him. In it he appealed for help for the city's residents, subjected to daily air raids at the hands of Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran.
“You have to act now, please” he urged viewers.
But nothing changed.
A few days later he posted a video of the evacuation. In it he says:
"We asked to live in a free and democratic country," the young, blond-haired journalist says, while watching people getting ready to leave. "In a country that is free for everyone. We asked for a free Syria. We asked to remove al-Assad. We don’t want Syria in Assad’s way. We want free Syria. No one supported us or even helped us. And as you can see we are being kicked out of our city. Out of Syria. I will go out of Aleppo …. I will go out of Syria, I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave.
Then the camera turns sideways and one assumes Alashkar has left with the others.
Salah Alashkar is not his real name. He was born Karim Serjia, the name he used when he went to study banking at the University in Aleppo.
But in 2011, when the first protests in Dar’aa were violently put down, he adopted the new name and joined the opposition fighting to rid Syria of Bashar al-Assad.
“They are one family, Assad's family,” he explains in a café in Paris, the city he eventually came to after leaving Syria for Turkey. “They take everything we have …. in Syria you can't speak against all subjects. If you want to talk or [write] about wrong things Assad's family [has done]…you will die or you will [spend] all your life in a prison.”
The protests in Dar’aa were violently put down by Assad's forces.
Schoolchildren who wrote graffiti calling for freedom and criticising Assad’s family, were reported by a security worker to officials, then arrested and tortured.
The photo of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, who was tortured to death while in custody, eventually became the poster of the revolution. Wanting to take part in the revolt, Alashkar ("the blond one" in Arabic) left the world of banking and, along with his friends, started a production group “to show the people the revolution”. He hit the streets as a reporter.
Ten days in jail
In mid-2011 his life took a major turn, one he still hasn’t recovered from. While he was filming a protest on 17 August, “one security [worker] with Assad regime catch me”. Alashkar remained in prison for 10 days.
When speaking about those days in prison, Alashkar says he doesn’t want to go into the details. "Horrible things” went on, he says.
His family eventually paid a huge sum of money to have him released.
“After that I can’t go back to my family house … every day I sleep in a new place. I go to my neighbours, my friends, sometimes I got to another city to sleep.”
Because his name was now known to Assad’s forces, he would have been watched and probably rearrested if he went home, so Alashkar began his journey of working and living anywhere and everywhere to report on what was happening and to stay alive.
Eventually Aleppo city was split into two: the east under the Free Syrian Army opposition militias and the west under Assad’s forces. Alashkar’s family remained in the west and he continued to live in the east.
“I don’t have [the] choice to come back to my family,” he explains, adding that he chose to continue fighting “to support the revolution”.
There he began to work for media outlets such as Agence-France Presse, Qatar's Al-Jazeera, French TV company Arte and others, enabling him to buy necessities.
But in 2016 food and other essentials started to become scarce. “Assad regime made a siege east of Aleppo, so at this time it’s not easy to have food and electricity.” During this time he reported on the “many families with many characters, some of [whom] die after”, he explains, struggling to control his emotions.
His Twitter feed of this time shows video after video of him begging for help, asking the embassies of Russia and Iran to stop the bombing of east Aleppo. He shows the ghostly looking city in ruins and the people struggling to maintain their daily routine.
Finally, in December 2016, the United Nations reached an evacuation deal with the Assad regime for all residents and fighters to leave east Aleppo.
This was not the outcome people like Alashkar were hoping for. But he had no choice, he had to leave. Unlike the others, however, he couldn’t go to Idlib in northern Syria. “The situation is not good for me because I wrote many articles about radical people, so two kind[s] of people don’t like”, those being Assad’s forces and the Islamists.
The only place he could go was outside of Syria. So he crossed into Turkey and, through the help of contacts and Reporters without Borders, was able to claim asylum here in France.
“When I left Aleppo, I feeling…I am loser”, explains Alashkar, adding “I am sorry to say that, but the revolution lost.”
Without the help of Russia or other allies, he feels, the Assad regime would have been toppled many years ago. But that was then and this is now. Today he finds himself alone in Paris, with his family spread across the Middle East, some still in Syria.
Adapting to new culture
Life in Paris is not easy for him. Adapting to a new culture and language is always a challenge, let alone when one arrives with no family or friends.
“In Aleppo I have more friends, I know every neighbourhood," he points out. "I have my memories still in Aleppo ... I can't speak about all things; it's not all my subjects I can share with my new friends.”
Nightmares echoing what he has seen and what he has experienced haunt him; but, with certainty in his voice, he insists that, although it will take time, he will be good again, one day.
Having missed out on victory doesn’t mean he has hung up his boxing gloves. “If I have any chance to come back to make a new revolution, I will do [it],” he says.
In the meantime he is working on a documentary, Four Lives, which tells his story and those of other characters he encountered during his time in the revolution.
It recounts the numerous ways one loses oneself in such a situation. At the start of the revolution there was Karim, and now “the revolution name is Salah. So now I don't care about Karim. I believe Salah, because Salah shared the revolution.”