Khaled Kaddoura and his wife Samira are both 50 – they married when they were only 15 – and they are a tough, forthright couple who decided just over a week ago to abandon their besieged home in eastern Aleppo. They and their son Almuatazbilah, a boy of eight with long, uncombed hair, were among only 48 men, women and children in weeks to make it to the Syrian army lines surrounding the east of Syria’s largest city with its tens of thousands of civilians and its collection of militias, most of them Islamists, who refuse to surrender.
Both husband and wife have dark, almost haunted eyes, and they tell a frightful story which is often at odds with the East Aleppo narrative of heroic ‘rebel’ defenders and civilians fearful of a regime massacre. Samira al-Jarrah – in Syria, wives keep their maiden names — says she prays for her country every night, but neither she nor her husband mention Bachar al-Assad.
They agree that the bombing and shelling of eastern Aleppo was terrifying but they also say that the Jabhat al-Nusra – the thousands of al-Qaeda followers who have twice changed their name in a vain attempt to shake off the West’s claim that they are ‘terrorists’ — are the least offensive, perhaps even the kinder, of the armed groups which still hold their sector of the city. This family are no Syrian government patsies.
But slowly and with great deliberation, Khaled Kadoura describes how hundreds of east Aleppo militiamen prevented at rifle-point thousands of civilians from fleeing their enclave over the past two weeks, how they shot dead six people, including a pregnant woman, and of how, after Samira and Khaled had reached the west of the city with their son, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham arrested Khaled’s 27-year old brother Hamzi and sentenced him to execution. The news, he says, was broadcast on the opposition ‘Aleppo Today’ television and he is now desperately telephoning eastern Aleppo to see if the sentence has been carried out.
“Even my friends were arrested after we left,” he says. “The militias came to our house after we crossed, they stole from our shop and smashed our home to warn other people not to do the same thing we did. They had told me that if we left east Aleppo, the government would execute us, but when we came here they didn’t.” He is staying now with relatives in the west, a man who might once have been called middle class – he still has his deeds to his lands and broken property in eastern Aleppo – but who now sits in a grey robe and black woolen hat, his wife dressed all in black. They need to register now with the UN for food.
This is their story, as they tell it, and readers must judge for themselves how much it reflects the lives of others in eastern Aleppo. As we journalists like to say, there can be no ‘independent confirmation’ of this family’s account – because western journalists dare enter eastern Aleppo today for fear of decapitation by its defenders.
“We were living a real tragedy in east Aleppo,” Khaled Kadoura says. “We were short of everything, especially food and fuel. I had a shop that rented out chairs and tables for weddings. Of course, there was no business. We couldn’t find any medical aids or medicine since the beginning of the war. We were deprived even of learning and education. The Ahrar al-Sham [Islamist] group and other groups made their bases in the schools.”
Eight-year old Almuatazbilah is listening to his father and when I ask him about his education, he tells me he can neither read nor write. It’s clear that poverty and hunger as much as fear drove the Kadouras to leave eastern Aleppo. “We were under pressure,” Khaled Kadoura says. “At the beginning of the war, one kilo of sugar cost 10 Syrian pounds, now it costs 3,000 for a kilo. Gas cylinders were 200 pounds. Now they are 150,000 pounds. Fuel shortages began five months ago. I have diabetes and there was no more medicine for me. My son was often sick. There were only Turkish medicines in the hospitals. I have properties there – my house, my car, we used to be a rich family – but I could leave all this. There was so much shelling and bombing in our neighbourhood.”
Samira interrupts her husband. “When there was no bread, I managed to bake from wheat we got from the UN. I made ‘burgol’. But otherwise we had to starve, even during the festival of ‘Eid’.” She says they felt free before the war, which began in Aleppo in 2012, a year after the rest of Syria began to collapse into open insurrection. In 2011, Khaled Kadoura made the ‘Haj’ pilgrimage to Mecca. It must have seemed strange for Khaled to pick up a still-working telephone – the militias had taken away thousands of mobile phones in eastern Aleppo for ‘security’ reasons – and call a member of the Syrian government’s ‘reconciliation’ committee, a man he called ‘Abu Hassan’, when he heard that the regime was to open eight passageways across the front lines for civilians and even armed men to leave eastern Aleppo. He didn’t want to be shot by the Syrian army.
“On the day this started [20 October], the armed groups in east Aleppo surrounded the people who wanted to leave with a sort of ‘security circle’ to prevent them going out,” Khaled says. “They even had weapons in their hands. They shot at some people – I was told six died – and they killed a pregnant woman. She was killed and there were others wounded. They accused the [Syrian] government of shelling the passageways. We waited till night to cross and we waited till after the Maghreb prayers when we knew that the armed men near the crossing point would have gone to rest. Later, they were all arrested and accused of taking bribes to allow us to cross. We had to be so careful because of mines.”
Khaled and his family had discussed how to cross many times – they succeeded only at their second attempt and another family which tried to follow them on the same route were caught by the militias. “We used to say there are so many of us who want to go, why can’t we force our way? We talked about how the Palestinians used knives against the Israelis. Why couldn’t we do the same to get out?” It was a highly unusual parallel for an Arab Syrian family to draw in Aleppo, to compare the Palestinians’ oppressors with the men who are supposedly defending eastern Aleppo.”
Over the months of the siege, Khaled Kadoura continued to attend his local Anas bin Malak mosque. “All the speeches were by an Imam who is the mufti of the [Islamist] Ahrar al-Sham movement – all his speeches were about the regime, about how they would kill us if we left and would force us to shave our beards. We favoured the Nusrah group [regarded by the regime as even more dangerous than Isis] because they left us alone and were respectful and kept away from the civilians. We talked a lot with Ahrar al-Sham. One time, I asked them why they kept us there and they replied that ‘we are defending you from the regime which has treated you inhumanly’. When Fatah al-Islam came from Idlib, they told civilians to join them but very few did. We saw a lot of Saudi and Gulf and even Azerbaijani and Afghan and Chechen and Chinese fighters – I knew a lot of their nationalities because I had seen their countrymen on the Haj. The Chinese Uighurs brought their families with them to the suburb of Khan al-Asal. There were Europeans too, I saw their eyes were blue. The Isis came there two years ago from Raqqa. The talked to each other but were very friendly with us. They didn’t need money and they didn’t ask for any – they had money from their organisation.”
Khaled Kadoura’s spoke of local eastern Aleppo hospitals, however, in terms which most opponents of the Syrian regime and many western politicians (and journalists) might condemn. “Yes, the aircraft bombed the schools, the hospitals – but all these hospitals are also bases for militias and their weapons. The hospitals have some patients, but lots of rockets are on the top of hospitals where they use them to rocket the west of the city.” Kadoura named three hospitals which he said were used for bases.
No-one can hear this without profound concern. Numerous Middle East dictatorships have used the ‘human shield’/terrorists-in-hospitals excuse to slaughter civilians with impunity, and the Syrians have adopted the same expression. When I called a trusted friend who has visited Syria as an NGO, he said that his local NGO workers denied the use of hospitals by militias, “but we are not there to see for ourselves.” Certainly, video footage from bombed hospitals shows no weapons in the wreckage, only wounded and dead patients. Clearly wounded militiamen may be treated in east Aleppo hospitals – just as I saw a badly wounded Syrian soldier brought into a west Aleppo hospital several days ago.
Khaled Kadoura says that when he asked the militias to re-open schools for the children, including his son, he was asked why he did not go and fight the regime. “I said: ‘let us go’. They refused to answer. They said ‘this is not your business – this is a military operation.’” Hopelessly unreliable estimates suggest that there are 250,000 civilians trapped in east Aleppo. Even Syrian military officers choose figures between 75,000 and 300,000. Khaled Kadoura suggested the latter, adding that the 7,300 families in his own suburb would all leave if they had the chance.
Now he lives with relatives, his wife is asking the UN to register them as refugees. When I spoke to Khaled Kadoura and his wife and son, the new opposition offensive had just started against western Aleppo and shells were bursting only half a mile away. But none paid the slightest attention. They had been through this before. “The government offered me an apartment but I said I would live with my sister and brother-in-law who are here and they should give accommodation to others,” Khaled Kadoura said. “We live at the moment in a mixed area of west Aleppo and there are many Christians living there and they give us bread and food. They are very kind.”