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Letter from Aleppo N° 14

21/10/2013: Syria

A precariousstatus quo has been reigning in Aleppo for some weeks, concomitantly with the decision to suspend the air strikes that were going to be inflicted on us to « punish » the regime for using chemical weapons. To wish to « punish » the regime by killing young conscripts (finding themselves on the chosen sites) or civilians (by the so-called intelligent bombs which often miss their targets, as we have seen elsewhere) and by bombarding an infrastructure already largely destroyed by two and a half years of war ! What stupidity. The people of Aleppo have found this farce grotesque and, in other circumstances, would have laughed at it. As if the Syrian crisis had begun with the chemical weapons and would end with their destruction. Luckily, the agreement, which has allowed the Western warmongers to save face, appears to be the beginnings of a process of negotiated peace. Since this agreement, there has been almost no military action in the city, except for the continuing but distant noise of gunfire from one part and the battles in the countryside between the armed rebel bands, the most extremist Islamic group getting the upper hand and executing the leaders of the FSA.

As for everyday life in Aleppo, it is less difficult than before. There is still rationing of water, electricity and bread, but it seems that the people are used to this state and have organized their lives accordingly. The displaced who had taken refuge in the schools have been evacuated, and the schools have opened their doors. As for the blockade which has now lasted 3 months, it has become less painful thanks to a new profession : the « maabarji » = the one who crosses the maabar or the check point between the 2 zones. The rebels, who imposed the blockade, allow pedestrians to pass (by thousands every day and in both directions). They let them bring with them as many little black plastic bags as their 2 hands can carry (lorries carrying merchandise are forbidden to enter). So one person returns with a bag of 1 kg of tomatoes, another of cucumbers, a 3rd of raisins, etc. Once in Aleppo, the maabarji gives his bags to an associate and goes back to return with other bags. And a 1 kg plus 1 kg can make dozens of kilos, all the pavements of Aleppo are invaded by the stalls of the merchants, provisioned by the maabarjis, who sell their products at exorbitant prices considering the number of middlemen and the bakchich one has to pay those who guard the check point. Supplying has become, for the armed bands, a very lucrative business. But the 2 million Aleppans, already very impoverished by the war, pay for produce 5 times more expensive than on the other side of the maabar. The majority of inhabitants go on foot. The circulation of vehicles is very difficult seeing that the pavements have been invaded by the merchants, the roadways by the pedestrians, and the vehicles slalom between them.

Petrol, fuel and flour are always denied passage. I have been able to fill the tank of our generator with 1000 litres of fuel which the maabarji has brought through, in many crossings, in 100 transparent plastic bags of 10 litres each, passing them off as vinegar !!  We were without telephone for 3 weeks and have been without internet for 6 weeks. With the blockade of persons in force for 45 days, no one can enter or leave Aleppo without risking his life. We have been promised an improvement with the opening of a new route which will bypass the zones held by the rebels and which will allow the delivery of what is lacking and the travel of  habitants.

Our activities, with the Marist Blues and the Oreille de Dieu continue very well. We decided, at the beginning of September, to lodge in the town the families displaced from Djabal Al Sayde who had taken refuge with us on fleeing their quarter invaded by the rebels on Good Friday. And this for 2 reasons : we thought it was time for these people to live in family, after they had been lodging with us for 5 months in separate dormitories, and then, since the Marists’ house was distant from their children’s schools, we judged it preferable, with the beginning of the school year, that they live near the schools, the school bus service no longer in existence. We paid the rental for them (for 6 months) of little (rudimently) furnished flats which they had found.

As from 1stOctober, we have organised our action and activities around 2 axes :

The activities of aid :

Our aid programme for the displaced of Djabal Al Sayde continues. The 14thMountain Basket (Sallet al Djabal) was distributed to the 300 families on Friday 4 October. A distribution of winter clothing (the refugees left their appartments at the end of March wearing only their Spring garments) is planned for the end of October. At the beginning of November, we will give them shoes and bottles of gas necessary for cooking. We have offered furniture as well as school books to the children.  We do not forget our protégés of the Midane quarter who also receive a monthly food basket. Every day at noon we distribute a warm meal to 250 persons in need. And we continue with our « War wounded » project to freely treat civilians injured by acts of war who have not the means to pay for their treatment.

The pedagogical activities :

Now that our rooms have become available again with the departure of the displaced, and to return to our  principal mission as Marists, the education of children, especially the least favoured, we have developed our pedagogic activities to respond to the immense needs created by the war. « Learn to Grow » has become larger and now has a twin brother. It is concerned with children of preschool age, from 3 to 6, by education, instruction and health. The initial project continues every afternoon from 3 to 6 with 55 children from poor or displaced families. The new project takes place every morning from 9 to 12.30 with 100 children from the families of the displaced from the schools. In parallel, in the mornings, a new project « I want to learn » is going to be launched and will involve 50 displaced children of school age from 7 to 13, but do not go to school, to teach them at least to read, to write and to calculate. The « Tawassol » programme continues 4 mornings a week and is aimed at providing the mothers, from 20 to 35, with courses in English, computers, teaching and manual trades in order to allow them, apart from improving themeselves, to follow their children in their lessons ; English and computer are now in the school programme from the 1stclass. Finally, the programme « Skills School » continues on certain afternoons for the adolescents. They now number over fifty.

I would like to emphasize that our various programmes are all directed to disadvantaged and/or displaced families and are entirely free.

We have still other projects we would like to implement. But, despite the 42 volunteers, the 6 salaried (chauffeur, in charge of supplies…) and the 9 members of our team (3 Marist brothers, 6 lay people : 4 women and 2 men), we lack the manpower.

This is our situation. We are a bit more optimistic than 2 months ago but we are impatient for the war to cease. With the Marists of all the world, our motto for this year is : Sow Hope. In terminating, we wish to thank all the friends who support us by their friendship, messages, prayers and gifts.

________________
Nabil Antaki - 10 October 2013
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