Governing over rubble: Aleppo's exiled opposition council leader speaks

Governing over rubble: Aleppo's exiled opposition council leader speaks
While Brita Hagi Hassan's city is being destroyed by Russian and Syrian regime bombing, the mayor is doing all he can to feed, home and protect the citizens of Aleppo.
8 min read
09 December, 2016
East Aleppo has been left in ruins after intense Russian and regime bombing [Anadolu]
Syria's second city, Aleppo, is fast being destroyed under Russian and Syrian regime bombs, while the rebels' enclave is slowly shrinking. 

In just under a month, fighting and shelling has seen around 800 Syrians killed as the whole of East Aleppo - home to around 100,000 civilians - becomes a killing field.

Thilleli Chouikrat, of Orient XXI, met with Brita Hagi Hassan, president of the Local Council of Aleppo City to discuss the ongoing crisis in the city.

When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Hassan was a telecoms engineer who had never been involved in politics.

Soon afterwards he was elected president of the Local Council of Aleppo due to being known by various neighbourhood councils, where he worked equipping offices and installing communications systems.

Thilleli Chouikrat: In October you went to France to meet with Francois Hollande, to request international intervention in Aleppo. What happened after that?

Brita Hagi Hassan: I couldn't get back into Aleppo. I was targeted by a sniper when I tried to re-enter the city. Since March, Bashar al-Assad's regime has been preventing anyone from entering or exiting, trying to asphyxiate the inhabitants. 

The principal access route, Castello, is constantly manned by snipers. It's littered with burned out and abandoned cars, left behind by those trying to flee. I returned to France, where I'm hoping I can be a voice for the 250,000 people who live in the eastern part of my city.
Our 250,000 inhabitants are experiencing systematic bombardment targeted at civilians and civilian infrastructure: schools, hospitals and markets.
Brita Hagi Hassan, Aleppo mayor 
This is in your capacity as president of the Local Council of Aleppo. What does this body consist of?

It came into being after a 2013 jurisdiction covering the eastern side of the city, a zone controlled by the rebels and defended by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), commonly referred to as 'the free zone'. The Local Council has 25 members, elected every year. 

We're not directly elected by the population, but are chosen from lists by members of the assemblies of the sixty three area councils in the free zone. Representatives of the professional trade unions have a vote too - lawyers, engineers, teachers. I was elected as part of our fourth electoral process. 

Our role is to administer the area and be responsible for basic infrastructure requirements, like water and electricity.

Last month, only 30 percent of our electrical grid was operating. We're also in charge of schools, hospitals and road maintenance. We meet with all the area councils to find out their needs. We have a monthly press conference at which we explain what the council is doing and how much it costs. 
The principal access route, Castello, is constantly manned by snipers. It's littered with burned out and abandoned cars, left behind by those trying to flee.
Brita Hagi Hassan, Aleppo mayor 

Until recently, we had 600 employees working in the various area councils, earning monthly salaries of $100 (up to $160 for the engineers).

Where do these funds come from?

Money from the US has helped fund the salaries, but we're able to operate mainly because of the determination and generosity of our employees, who do a lot of work on a voluntary basis. We've had various revenue sources: we apply for funding from bodies in the US, the UK, Germany, France. 

Our funders might fund specific projects, or salaries, or fuel. Every contribution helps, but it still comes nowhere near to meeting the need.

Can you describe the situation in the eastern zones of the city since the 15 November offensive?

It's difficult to describe. Our 250,000 inhabitants are experiencing systematic bombardment targeted at civilians and civilian infrastructure: schools, hospitals and markets in particular. This is accompanied by the use of weapons forbidden by the Geneva Convention, such as cluster bombs, phosphorus and napalm

The attacks are being led by the Russian air force, along with Bashar al-Assad's army. They've intensified significantly over the last two weeks. It's now a military offensive, with support from Iran and from Hizballah in Lebanon.

Since 15 November, according to my local sources, around 1,300 people have been killed and 2,500 injured, [around] 60 percent of those women and children. There are no functioning hospitals, so the injured have practically no access to care. 

There are ten ambulances for the whole area, but they're unusable because there's no fuel. There are 27 doctors left in Aleppo, working in basements and cellars to avoid the bombardments. 

As far as medicine and equipment goes, there's still some left, but stocks will run out in a few days. Access to drinking water and electricity is practically zero.

I'm in constant contact with people there: members of the council, friends and relatives, journalists. They all tell me the fear of being hit by a bomb any minute makes it impossible to sleep at night. 

Yesterday, three members of the Local Council of Aleppo were killed. One was a close friend of mine. For those who still have a roof over their heads, mobility is reduced to the bare minimum. Everyone stays inside. 

The head of the family goes out to look for bread, and everyone knows he might never come back.

It's a humanitarian catastrophe. I was already reporting a serious food crisis back in October. The Local Council was encouraging people to maintain plots of land in the city, but that wasn't enough; they still need the staple foods. 

The reserves we'd built up to deal with the siege were practically exhausted. Now they're completely exhausted: all we have left is bread. People are beginning to die of starvation. Babies can't get milk because their mothers aren't eating. I get thousands of messages every day, via the internet, from people begging me to help them escape Aleppo.

The areas of Sakhour, Massaken Hanano, Haydariye and Sheikh Khodr, situated to the north of the 'free zone', were taken by Bashar al-Assad's forces on 25 November. We know many civilians have fled. What can you tell us about the movements of people?

Most people have fled to the west of the rebel zone, to escape the regime, or gone to the areas controlled by Kurdish forces. But some have entered western Aleppo, the area controlled by the regime. When they get there, the men experience systematic arrest, imprisonment and torture.

I've called on the people in the territories controlled by Bashar al-Assad to go back to the rebel zones that are still resisting the offensive. If they stay where they are, they could be arrested and tortured at any time. 
I know they won't surrender. In terms of weaponry, it's an unequal fight, but that has no effect on their conviction.
- Brita Hagi Hassan, Aleppo mayor 

Witness testimonies tell us that all men under 40 coming from the eastern parts of the city are arrested or killed. We've heard about many abuses. We received reports recently that two women had been raped by regime forces.

Are you still in contact with the Local Council representatives in the zones taken by the regime?

Yes, we talk on the telephone, or use WhatsApp. We've formed a group on that application that all the Local Council members are part of. We communicate several times a day to agree decisions. 

But the members in those areas are taking a huge risk by communicating with us. Bashar al-Assad's forces could take over the telephone network at any point. I know the members are afraid. They're aware it could cost them their lives.

Is the Local Council still operating?

Yes, but the unstable situation over the last few days has meant we couldn't exercise all our functions. Our means are also reduced. We're concentrating on trying to distribute bread and medicine and repairing the electrical infrastructure.

Is the Local Council of Aleppo the political wing of the FSA?

No, we represent the people. Our work is complementary, but we're not organically linked to the FSA. You know, most people who decided to take up arms and join the FSA were civilians - engineers, teachers - when we had peace. War has been forced on us. 

A friend of mine joined the armed struggle after his family were massacred. It's the same with lots of other FSA combatants. The FSA organised peaceful demonstrations to express the will of the people, but the regime responded with bullets. So some people decided to arm themselves. 

The Local Council works directly with the governorate of Aleppo, which administers the local councils for the whole province, and with the provisional government. That's the political infrastructure of the revolution, which is demanding a free and democratic government.

What do you hope to achieve in France?

Aleppo could fall into the hands of the regime in a matter of days. I've come to ask for a humanitarian corridor to be put in place - supervised by the UN - to allow civilians to leave the city and to bring supplies to the areas under siege. The regime is pursuing what could be called a 'scorched earth' policy. That means in practice that if people don't submit, it will massacre them by trapping them in the city. 

Three attempts by the UN and humanitarian agencies to petition for the entry of food and medical equipment have been rejected by the regime and the Russians. Up to this point, no decision or action has been taken by any government or international body. It's time for action.

Do you think the FSA is on the point of surrender?

I know they won't surrender. In terms of weaponry, it's an unequal fight, but that has no effect on their conviction. They might have to choose between flight and death, but they won't choose surrender.

version of this article was first published by our partner website, Orient XXI.