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Colorful Aleppo Rallies Offer Residents Escape From Worries

"Days Like This Allow Us to Forget Our Miseries"


ALEPPO, Syria — Toddlers wave national flags, their faces painted with its colors.  Older boys chant rhymed lyrics that has the crowd swaying and jumping.  But the venue is not a hip hop concert.  Instead it is one of a dozen rallies Syrian opposition activists hold every Friday within earshot of exploding shells at fronts across this city.


Throughout Syria’s largest city, residents try desperately to forget they are part of the world’s biggest urban battlefield.  But with planes and helicopters bombing residential areas, armed fighters rumbling through the streets and six-hour breadlines, it is hard to do so.  Weekly rallies are the only time residents leave their shuttered homes to flow into the streets, giving their children much needed exercise and a glimmer of joy to cheer up their otherwise gloomy moods.  


The demonstrations start around 1 p.m. after worshippers exit mosques. Teenagers armed with bullhorns lead a procession of flag bearers followed by the marching masses.  Similar groups from other local mosques head out to a prearranged gathering point.  There the two dozen or so demonstrators from each mosque gather to become a human wave of flag-bearing soldiers armed with posters poking fun at Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad and calling for his immediate downfall.  “O Bashar, where are your men?  They are cowards, without their fighter jets they are worth nothing,” reads one.


In the southern neighborhood of Karm al-Dada, a 12-year-old boy is emceeing the festivities.  The tall apartment buildings on a side street insulate his chants, keeping them from dying out.  But his smooth voice still fades with every refrain from the crowd.  The thuds of a drum keep everyone in tune. 


Off to the side Jasim Sidqi is humming the chants under his breath.  His initial circumspect look melts away as he absorbs the crowd’s energy.  “We don’t have much to be happy about these days,” the 48-year-old machinist notes.  “But days like this allow us to forget our miseries, to hide them for a few hours.”


 It is a sentiment shared by many on the closed street.  Fathers with their young children, groups of head-scarved girls and young men with three-day stubble all blend in to create the ephemeral illusion that all is normal in this war-torn Syrian town.


 “The calls for freedom are as sweet as honey,” Hamid Shakli says. The 23- year-old engineering student organizes rallies throughout Aleppo. “We have a number of activists.  We get together during the week to see what we can do.” Shakli admits doing anything is difficult these days. Alexander Ghraham Bell’s copper and wire telephone system is no longer working.  The more modern cellular network only works intermittently and Internet is not widely available.  “Mostly we hope someone is home when we visit,” he says.


Nevertheless, Shakli’s spirits are bolstered by the high turnout.  “To see so many people warms my heart,” he says as his videographer interrupts him for advice. Shakli won’t talk much about it, but his foreign funders want to see videos from the rallies on the Internet if they are to leave their financial spigots on.  


“We want freedom. Bashar, give us our freedom or go home. We want freedom,” a girl not much older than 10 sings on a podium in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood.  Underneath, a group of youths dances in a circle around an Asad poster.  Every few minutes one of the group splinters off to stomp on his effigy.


Taking a break from dancing and singing, Uday Hariri gulps down a bottle of cold water, crushing the half liter container as its contents slowly deplete.  “This regime is suffocating us every day with its tanks and jets,” the 21-year- old law student says. “But when we come here, to these demonstrations, to these events, we show Bashar we will not surrender, that we will never give up our fight for freedom.” 


It is a refrain often heard among the demonstrators.  Their defiance is their best weapon against a regime that has unleashed all its high-tech weaponry against them.  By raising their voices, by waving their flags, they demonstrate their determination to outlast a government that has nothing beyond the mere force it uses to bombard them daily.    


When the rally ends, the flags come down and the men disassemble the speaker system. People disburse to head home to apartments with no heat and electricity.  The thuds of exploding shells replace the chants.  After all, this is Aleppo and no can escape the war for more than a few hours.