Like it or not, cities under siege have always been a regular aspect of warfare, from Londonderry in the seventeenth century to Stalingrad and Sarajevo in the twentieth; there are countless other accidental fortresses that could be listed, but if we are to set our time machines for 2016, the city unfortunate enough to be subject to that unenviable status is Aleppo, historically Syria’s largest metropolis and one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. Archaeological records show that it has been populated since at least the 3rd millennium BC, which makes it all the more sad that one of the goons so dim that he made the other contenders in the US Presidential primaries seem like leading intellectuals didn’t even know what Aleppo was.
The constantly shifting geographical changes in the region, such as the advent of the Suez Canal in the late nineteenth century and the encroachment of Turkey into Syria following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, had somewhat isolated Aleppo whilst helping to preserve its numerous antiquities in the process. Being awarded the Islamic Capital of Culture award ten years ago underlined Aleppo’s pioneering place at the heart of ancient human civilisation, yet recent events in Syria have turned a jewel in Islam’s cultural crown into a charnel house of death and destruction that we probably won’t know the true horrific extent of until the shooting has stopped.
Different reports put the death toll of this week’s heaviest bombardment of Aleppo somewhere between 25 and 45, and that was on just the one day. Opposing sides in the conflict release contrasting figures in order to suit their own agenda, whereas even independent observers struggle to compile accurate statistics due to the chaos on the ground. Just a couple of months ago, viewers of ‘Newsnight’ were witness to a remarkable life-saving operation undertaken in an Aleppo hospital basement which was dictated via Skype by a surgeon in London, but even that level of inspired improvisation seems impossible now.
A UN envoy this week declared Aleppo risks becoming ‘one giant graveyard’ during an emergency meeting of the Security Council, yet the current carnage in Syria once again highlights the impotence and absolute inability of the UN to make any difference to the lives of those caught in the middle of a bloody conflict, just as it has failed to do throughout its seventy-year existence.
When the roll-call of casualties and fatalities in the Syrian Civil War and a comprehensive account of the bloodshed inflicted upon Aleppo are neatly compiled into a book a decade or so from now, the thousands of names lost as a consequence will melt into each other so that only the survivors will recognise them. Buried amongst the tragically anonymous will be the name of Anas al-Basha, whose death as the result of a Russian-sponsored Syrian Government airstrike on Aleppo was announced yesterday.
Anas al-Basha wasn’t one of those western gap-year gits who volunteer to work in some of the world’s trouble spots solely to add some gravitas to their CVs despite spending the majority of their time there getting pissed and generally doing bugger all to improve the situation. In contrast with some of the jokers dressing as clowns and causing a momentary moral panic both in the UK and US, al-Basha donned the same costume not to scare the shit out of strangers in some overgrown schoolboy prank, but to put a smile on the faces of the children subjected to the relentless pounding the city has received over the last few months – of which there are an estimated 100, 000.
One could be cynical and come to the conclusion that a city without any functioning hospitals and dwindling food supplies doesn’t necessarily need a home-grown volunteer clad in clown gear to inject some silliness into a nightmarish scenario; but the fact that al-Basha was prepared to stay put when 25,000 have fled, purely to bring a little cheer into lives without any at all, shows how the human instinct to laugh in the face of extreme adversity cannot even be extinguished by circumstances that would test the funny bone of the most committed comedian. What Anas al-Basha was doing was, to put it as simply as possible, something selfless and rather nice. It would have been easy (not to say understandable) had he joined the exodus from Aleppo when confronted by the kind of pounding few could tolerate on a daily basis, but he saw a way to temporarily alleviate unimaginable anguish and went for it. And now he’s dead.
At a time when words such as ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ are severely devalued by being bandied about carelessly to describe pawns in an exploitative game who shed tears on daytime TV when recalling alleged events that took place decades ago, it’s worth remembering that in the here and now there are people in the world who are making the ultimate sacrifice just for the sake of raising a smile. They don’t beg for sympathy with puppy-dog eyes and they don’t give half-a-dozen idle police forces the excuse to spurn current crimes in favour of fishing expeditions to the safe haven of the past; they do what they do because they have a heart and they place the happiness of others above their own selfish concerns. If only the serial protestors could switch their attention to the real issues instead of hysteria over trivia, perhaps Aleppo could figure higher on their radar than it currently does.
Come the Syrian Day of Judgement, one would like to think the guilty will answer for their crimes, even if the example of Nuremburg has been distilled by the slo-mo legalities of The Hague. Chances are the contributions of Anas al-Basha to the pitiful peace process probably won’t figure as an antidote to the list of atrocities on both sides, but sometimes it’s worth noting those who put their neck on the line because they came face-to-face with man’s inhumanity to man and did what they could to neutralise its appalling effect upon the next generation of extremists. We can but hope.
© The Editor