Circles of Hell in Aleppo

Circles of Hell in Aleppo
Comment: Adham Sahloul, an advocacy officer at the Syrian American Medical Society in Turkey, is in daily contact with doctors in besieged Aleppo whose only hope is 'to die peacefully'.
7 min read
30 Sep, 2016
Aleppo is the living, breathing, screaming, bleeding, present embodiment of Dante’s Inferno. [AFP]

"Our biggest dream: We started dreaming of a quick death, one that is more merciful than suffocating slowly under the rubble, or the fire claiming us, or our entire family dying and one's heart burns for their family. We wish to be full bodies not scattered pieces if we die. We wish to have our own personal grave, not to be piled and buried on top of each other's pieces as we are doing now. A peaceful death is all but a dream now… In Aleppo…"

These words were spoken by Abu Khalid, medical assistant at the M2 hospital in east Aleppo, which was bombed out of operation this Wednesday at dawn.

"What is Aleppo?" asks Libertarian candidate for US president Gary Johnson, along with likely most other people worldwide. When working in the bubble of Syria analysts, journalists, civil society and humanitarian NGOs, it's sobering to realise that one's work – or rather the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation – has not escaped the echo chambers of Twitter and the Beltway.

Aleppo, one of the world's most historic cities, is the second largest city in Syria and most dangerous place in the world; the eastern side of Aleppo has been under siege for the past three months by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

East Aleppo is now being bombed to a pulp, thanks to a new Syrian government offensive to reclaim the north following the breakdown of a US-Russia brokered ceasefire, which was hardly observed by the Syrian government in the first place.

In the past week alone, 382 civilians have been killed by barrel bombs, rockets, cluster bombs, vacuum bombs, incendiary weapons such as napalm, and now bunker buster bombs  – all deployed by Syrian government and Russian warplanes.

Hundreds bleed in the hospitals as the 29 remaining doctors attempt to triage and save whoever they can. 

Some have likened Aleppo to Guernica of 1937, where the Nazi Luftwaffe air forces massacred over 1,650 people during the Spanish Civil War to prop up the Spanish nationalist regime of General Francisco Franco.

A peaceful death is all but a dream now… In Aleppo
- Abu Khalid, medical assistant at a hospital in east Aleppo

I had the solemn privilege of viewing Pablo Picasso's rendition of the events in the Basque town, while in Madrid in 2014, at the Reina Sofia museum. It made me reflect on my family's hometown of Homs where I used to spend my summers, which was all but destroyed by the Syrian government in the early stages of the Syrian revolution.

But the Hama Massacre of 1982 is far more appropriate of a comparison. When the current Syrian president's father, Hafez al-Assad, unleashed his air force to flatten Hama and quell the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion, he murdered at least 40,000 people. Guernica was the prelude to the Second World War  – Hama was the prelude to everything we see today.

Another commentator compared Aleppo to Pompeii. I visited Pompeii a few years ago, the ghost town which fell victim to the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii reminds me most of the Damascus suburb of Daraya, which is a 20 minute drive to Mount Qasyoun where Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad resides.

Daraya, one of the vanguards of the peaceful, democratic protests in 2011, fell to massacres carried out by Assad's security forces and a brutal siege entailing a bombing and starvation campaign enforced by the Syrian army and its ally Hizballah. Daraya surrendered a few weeks ago, and has now been evacuated entirely. Darayans called for help for five years, and as Pompeii succumbed to a cloud of volcanic ash, so did Daraya suffocate under a blanket of global apathy. Daraya today – like Pompeii – is the ghost town. 

As Pompeii succumbed to a cloud of volcanic ash, so did Daraya suffocate under a blanket of global apathy

The question lingers, What is Aleppo? I for one, am partial to the most recent assessment of one of east Aleppo's doctors during which she exclaimed yesterday that she is living in Hell itself. 

And Hell it is. Aleppo is the living, breathing, screaming, bleeding, present embodiment of Dante's Inferno. If that term sounds familiar, then perhaps you watched the latest trailer for the next Tom Hanks thriller Inferno, coming to a theatre near you this October.

Hell – if you believe in the concept – should be beyond imagination. It is described in often vivid detail across Muslim and Christian scripture, and Dante Alighieri's famous Divine Comedy, of which Inferno is Part I, derives from both.

Inferno, which means "hell" in Italian, describes a journey through hell descending into nine circles; Dante's character witnesses graver "sins" the deeper he travels. The people of Aleppo descend through the circles of an Inferno on a daily basis, witnessing graver versions of inhumanity with each step. 

The people of Aleppo descend through the circles of an Inferno on a daily basis, witnessing graver versions of inhumanity with each step

The first Circle is called "Limbo", a dark valley, the border of Inferno which contains the Uncommitted/Undecided, people who may be of virtue but did not stand for good or evil. In this instance, we are those who watch Aleppo burn but stand by silently, unaware of the agency we posses as global citizens, unable to bridge knowledge with empathy. That is our sin.

As the conflict raged on, children like Omran, the Ambulance Boy, descended deeper into that Hell, facing sniper fire, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, cluster bombs, starvation, water shortages, attacks on hospitals and the destruction of their homes. Omran was carried out of the rubble following a barrel bomb to his home. His brother Ali died of his wounds, and Omran may yet die from our apathy despite the internet virality of his situation.

Aleppo's people are now in the ninth Circle, filled with those who carried out what Dante calls the worst "sin" –  treachery. Not those who actively commit murder. Traitors.

In Aleppo's Hell, the ninth Circle is filled with the world's leaders who set "red lines" against the use of chemical weapons but then rescinded them, politicians who promised "Never Again" after the atrocities of the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Srebrenica, Bosnia, leaders who promised to support human dignity and the revolution for democracy.

It is a "graveyard" of the world's credibility. In the ninth Circle of Aleppo, Omran finds world leaders who pretend to care about him, who place him conveniently under the bucket of "refugee" as a part of a broader strategic communications effort to deny that they have a role, a responsibility to protect children like Omran from the bombs raining down.

At the UN Refugee Summit last weekend, our leaders' words could not have been more violently hollow and toothless

What burns my friends in Aleppo the most is the hypocrisy, where symbolic gestures are extended towards refugees but not towards people in Syria who do not want a reason to become refugees in the first place. At the UN Refugee Summit last weekend, our leaders' words could not have been more violently hollow and toothless.

As sweet as young Alex's letter to President Obama was, Omran has a family, and the White House kowtowing to Russia's hand in Syria is what allows for the barrels and cluster bombs to rain down on them.

On a daily basis, I receive messages from friends in Aleppo who feel betrayed by the world, by President Obama (whom I campaigned for twice), and by the United Nations. When doctors and nurses who work day and night without pause in crowded, chaotic, underground hospitals, where they are low on anesthetics and blood supplies have time to message my colleagues and I on WhatsApp, it is always of pictures of patients, often children, and memes that mock the UN or depict the US  –  my country  – as complicit with Assad and Russia's massacres.

Am I supposed to sit there and explain to a doctor who has patients die in his operation room daily or to the man who saw his wife and child  –  his world  – suffocate from a chlorine gas attack last month about the complexities of international politics, why my colleagues at the DC think tank I interned at paid very little attention to Syria in 2013, or try to break down the bullshit I learned as an international relations major in college?

How am I supposed to explain to my Syrian colleagues at the NGO I work at in Gaziantep, Turkey, why Syria  –  the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War and the incubator for the world's IS and refugee problem  – was not mentioned in the first presidential debate? What are we expected to tell a man in hell when hell burns hotter because of us?

Adham Sahloul is a foreign policy professional based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to the Newlines Institute. His work has been published in Foreign Affairs, Axios, and Lawfare.

Follow him on Twitter: @AdhamSahloul

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.