Syria, Ibrahim’s War
11 year old Ibrahim just wants to go to school, play football with his mates and help his dad with his work as a laundryman. Instead, he’s ferrying his best friend to hospital after a missile attack, dodging bombs on his classroom and spending his spare time scrounging kindling for fuel.
“I have already lost two years of study. I hope I don’t lose any more this year. I want to study medicine and become a doctor.” Ibrahim, aged 11
Ibrahim and his family live in the ancient city of Aleppo, Syria. The city is divided between government troops and rebel forces fighting to overthrow President Bashar al Assad. The east, where Ibrahim lives, is controlled by the rebels. The government still holds the western part of the city.
“Over there they have everything – education, teachers, bread, oil and gas. Over here we have nothing. There’s no money to buy anything.” Ibrahim, aged 11
ABC Middle East correspondent Matt Brown and cameraman Mathew Marsic take the dangerous journey from Turkey into Aleppo, to spend a week chronicling life in the war zone with Ibrahim’s family. They film the aftermath of bombs dropping next to schools, and ballistic missile attacks that kill more than 90 civilians, including 46 children.
“If those running this war are ever brought to justice, this attack would surely count as a war crime.” Matt Brown, ABC Middle East correspondent
Matt also finds evidence pointing to the rebels using schools as a base to hide, which is also against international laws. In this war, civilians are suffering from both sides.
Ibrahim’s parents have six children, and daily life for the family is reduced to a simple struggle for survival. They never know where or when the next air strike is going to hit. Each day brings new concerns – will Ibrahim be able to go to school today? Will there be enough to eat? Who else among their friends will leave town to become a refugee in a foreign land? Even so, they don’t regret the path they have taken, in siding with the rebels. “This revolution is for the children. We are building them a better future.” Zein al Dein, Ibrahim’s father. _________________________________
BROWN: This is Aleppo, one of the oldest living cities on earth. It’s long been Syria’s crowning glory, an important commercial hub, its largest and most vibrant city. And it’s home to four million Syrians, among them parents Zein al Dein al Jabr, his wife Aisha and their six children. The youngest is two and just like any other day, all of them waking up hungry for breakfast.
AISHA: “Before, when the children used to go to school, we had jam, halawa, cheese – any kind of sandwich they wanted, I could make them. I also gave them pocket money. I bought them the nicest clothes, good shoes… I bought them everything. They would go out and we felt safe”.
BROWN: Zein al Dein hasn’t ever been a prosperous man but he’s managed to do okay. He’s always had plenty of work in the laundry business and he’s always been able to provide for his family.
ZEIN AL DEIN: “The troubles are always there but the smile is something we always have to keep. We are teaching our kids to smile, no matter what happens. Don’t let anything upset you”.
BROWN: Their eldest son, eleven year old Ibrahim, is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. He’s a good kid and a bright one, hungry to learn. He’s had a passion for school from day one.
IBRAHIM: “I want to study. I’ll enter medical school and study medicine and become a doctor. God willing”.\
BROWN: Life used to be good.
IBRAHIM: “We had no problems at all, we were living comfortably. We had work, thank God. We could buy petrol, food and gas”.
BROWN: But as the world has learned and this family knows only too well, Aleppo is now a divided place, a place cleaved into a before and after, a then and now, and an east and a west. In the brutal struggle for power in Syria the west is held by the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Here in the east, it’s held by rebel fighters and Ibrahim’s dad is one of them. The laundryman is now a rifle man. Zein al Dein leads a small band of local rebels. The way he sees it, his is a fight for a Syria he wants for his children – a place not of oppression but of opportunity.
ZEIN AL DEIN: “The revolution is for the kids who are the same age as Ibrahim. We are building them a free, bright future”.
BROWN: But the Syria of now is a hell hole and Aleppo is one of its darkest corners.
AISHA: “We used to be happy… comfortable. There were never airstrikes over our heads. We used to sleep with no fear but now out of fear, we are all sleeping on top of each other”.
BROWN: For this family like so many in this city each moment is a battle to keep faith in the idea that some kind of normality will return and that their children will have a future.
AISHA: “I hope that they will become educated and study and turn out well. Travel abroad…wherever they want to go”.
BROWN: Despite their burdens, they’ve allowed us into their home to get a sense of how they’re trying to get on with their lives against all the odds, even as the sky rains a daily downpour of horrors. Life’s basic tasks have become almost impossible and yet they press on, particularly Ibrahim a boy determined to learn no matter what.
IBRAHIM: “I get upset because I want to study and not miss classes and waste all these years”.
BROWN: In Aleppo going to class is to gamble with your life. Ibrahim’s regular school has been bombed so he’s headed for a makeshift classroom in a basement just around the corner.
AISHA: “I’m afraid when he goes to school. I’m afraid, that while he’s on his way an airstrike will hit him and I will never see him again”.
BROWN: Sure enough as school is about to begin, the bombs begin to fall.
SCHOOL HEADMISTRESS: [walking along street] “Come here, it’s a strong one!”
BOY: “It fell… it fell”.
BROWN: A bomb has hit an apartment block around the corner from the classroom.
SCHOOL HEADMISTRESS: “Come here!” Come here in case a missile falls”.
BROWN: Despite the commands of his headmistress, Ibrahim is hyped up by the blast and heads off to investigate. Once again the class is cancelled.
IBRAHIM: “If there was no shelling, I would have been in the 8th grade. I’ve already lost two years. I hope I don’t lose this year as well”.
BROWN: One of the reasons getting an education is such an uphill battle is that most of the schools in this part of town have been attacked or abandoned. Just six per cent of this city’s school aged kids are still going to class.
YOUNG BOY #1: [at bomb site] “We were sleeping and the glass shattered and flew at us”.
YOUNG BOY #2: [at bomb site] “A woman was killed”.
BROWN: Kids here tell us this girls’ high school was turned first into a shelter for people who’d run away from the fighting and then it was shelled more than once. Instead of being a wasteland, this is where the next generation of Syrians should be educated.
Under international law schools are supposed to be immune from attack, but both sides seem to see them as part of the fight.
Well there is plenty of evidence of an artillery strike on the school, but the other thing the kids told us also seems to be true – they said government troops moved in with explosives and put them in the school and that is clear evidence of a demolition job.
It’s one thing to be a determined student, but you’ll also need a determined teacher to make an education possible. At Ibrahim’s latest make shift school his teacher, Afif, is packing up. Too many families have fled and too many shells are coming in to keep it going. But Afif plans to keep teaching in a similar school in the suburb next door. He’s taking precious textbooks with him because he risked his life to smuggle them in from government controlled territory and he’s not going to let them go.
AFIF: “The dangers are that there’s a 99% chance of snipers and 1% of missiles. Mainly the battlelines are manned by snipers. I’m very happy now because I’ve been able to secure something for the students and children and this is the least thing we can do”.
BROWN: Ibrahim’s been invited to join the class so we give him a lift. Today it’s modern Arabic. Despite the cramped conditions, Ibrahim’s loving the chance to finally get back to learning. But the class lasts less than half an hour.
Well that explosion was from a government jet which was flying overhead. I was standing outside here while the class was on and heard the jet fly over, the bomb come in. It was so close that shrapnel actually rained down outside the school here.
IBRAHIM: “I dream of becoming a doctor. It worries me when I don’t attend school because it affects my chance of becoming a doctor. If I don’t attend school, I can’t become a doctor”.
AFIF: “Something inside me… my conscience bothers me that I’m not able to take them out of the situation they are in – or even offer them something that they can benefit from.
There is a lot of ignorance. I expect it to result in a generation of gangs. From what is happening, they will become a generation of gangs.
If you ask any child to draw a picture for you, you’ll find him drawing a soldier… a victim… and blood”.
BROWN: The bomb landed just six hundred metres away from the classroom. A young girl is stunned by the blast but at least she’s alive. Others may not have been so lucky.
MAN WITNESS: “I saw smoke, but I did not expect it to be here. I came and aw it was my brother’s house where eight people live… little children, a woman and her husband”.
BROWN: At first it looks like just another indiscriminate attack on a civilian home, but as we begin to poke around suddenly the local militia men are not keen on foreigners asking questions.
Well we’ve just been ordered away from that bomb site by a senior looking gunman who told us we simply had to leave. The area beside the bomb site as it turns out was a school and I saw three gunmen going into the compound and one of the locals told us that it was being used to house people who’d fled the fighting but also as a base for rebel fighters.
The rebels are a mixed bunch. All of them want to get rid of Bashar al Assad. Most want some kind of Islamic state and a few go further, seeing the war here as part of a greater international jihad. The regime is being supported by Russia, Iran and China but the rebels are only getting limited support from the west and its Arab allies. Ibrahim’s dad says they feel abandoned by the world.
ZEIN AL DEIN: “We are not asking for a lot, we are not requesting foreign troops. We only want weapons to defend ourselves to get rid of this tyrant. If someone from Australia, the U.K. or any European country has seen a rocket attacking kids, let him consider, if the child were his, how would he feel? Are you surprised we want to take up arms?”
BROWN: For Ibrahim and his mates, football offers one of the few escapes from all of the carnage and chaos.
IBRAHIM: “It helps me forget the injured people. It helps me forget the blood, the shelling, all of it”.
BROWN: But a neighbourhood game of football is not as simple as it sounds because Aleppo has been turned into a macabre topsy-turvy world where children who wait for a break in the rain must also fear a sunny day.
IBRAHIM: “When the sun is out we’re all afraid. We go into our homes and stay inside. When the sun is out, the sky is clear and the planes come. If it’s cloudy the planes don’t come at all. When the planes come, they strike us”.
BROWN: While a sunny day is to be feared, nightfall does not bring much relief. Each explosion worsens an ever present fear the next bomb could fall on you. These images from the ABC’s Mid-East cameraman Matt Marsic are the only record of a terrible and controversial attack.
[in room] “Two air strikes have just come in, just from the north of us and just a bit to the west. They just shook this building, the shockwaves seem to go straight through us and there’s only a little bit of anti-aircraft fire going out. We didn’t really even hear the jet go overhead beforehand. There was just no warning. It was deafening, terrifying and a pretty good example of what these people are living with day by day”.
When we went to see where the explosions had occurred and what sort of damage had been done, this is what we found. The US based group Human Rights Watch says this is the result of a ballistic missile attack on a civilian area. They’re the kind of missiles originally designed to launch short range nuclear weapons, flying hundreds of kilometres and landing with no warning. If those running this war are ever brought to justice, this would surely count as a war crime. Half of the people living in Aleppo are children. When ballistic missiles are fired into their neighbourhoods, the overwhelming odds are that innocent children will figure prominently in the toll.
[at bomb site] “Well that’s the second small child we’ve seen carried out of this rubble and here comes another one. That’s a third child, a third child in just a few minutes brought out of this rubble here. It’ll be an absolute miracle if those little kids have survived”.
In two missile strikes this night, Human Rights Watch calculated more than ninety people were killed, forty-six were children. The ballistic missiles can be aimed fairly accurately so it’s all the more outrageous that they fall right in the heart of densely populated suburbs.
At the scene of a separate ballistic missile strike, Afif, Ibrahim’s teacher, is searching for missing loved ones. The best he can hope for is that they won’t be here in the rubble and they fled their homes in time. More than three million Syrians have abandoned their homes in the two years of this horrible conflict.
AFIF: “Civilians were living here. They are related to me. I don’t know if they were here in the house or not. We’ve not yet accounted for most of the children and women”.
BROWN: Rebel leaders say these ballistic missile attacks have made a mockery of their appeals for weapons like anti-aircraft missiles. How they ask are they supposed to defend themselves against weapons that cause destruction on this scale? Among the forty seven deaths documented here, Human Rights Watch says twenty three were children. Little Zakaria al Sageer lost most of his family.
ZAKARIA AL SAGEER: “I have six sisters… my little sister… My six sisters were killed and two little babies, also. Our home has been destroyed. We came from Karm al Jabal in the mountains where our home was also destroyed. This is my uncle’s home that was also destroyed”.
BROWN: For his part Afif’s search through the chaos left him only with a dreadful unanswered question. At least one family member is still missing.
AFIF: “I saw my uncle’s house, but until now we have one person missing. We haven’t heard anything about him. We did not find his body or know anything about him”.
BROWN: It’s not just the people of Aleppo and the city being obliterated here, childhood itself is also being destroyed. Ibrahim and his friends want to show me the place where something terrible happened just the week before we arrived.
IBRAHIM: “I heard a really loud noise. When we were coming down we saw a soldier from the freedom army on the ground and rocks were on top of him”.
BROWN: Ibrahim saw his best mate killed in an airstrike. They’d been friends since kindergarten.
IBRAHIM: “We lifted him up and took him in the car to the hospital – and then he died in the hospital. When I saw him lying on the ground, and he was still alive I said “Wait, don’t die”. We took him to my home and we drove him in our car to the hospital. After we left the hospital, he died. I was very sad and became depressed”.
BROWN: Some of the heaviest fighting in Aleppo has been less than two kilometres away at the international airport. That means as the kids collect kindling, they’re in grave danger, but they pretend not to feel it.
“Ibrahim, you are not afraid of the shelling?”
IBRAHIM: [shakes head indicating no]
BROWN: “Why are you not afraid?”
IBRAHIM: “Because I got used to it – and also I’m not afraid because I haven’t been affected by it. And I hope I will not be affected by it. I got used to it, and God will also protect me”.
BROWN: There’s just so much going on that robs Ibrahim of his childhood, and his father worries it’s all eating away at his son’s moral core.
ZEIN AL DEIN: “Life is not about the war – we must live. When we come back to our homes, we must change. You must live your lives as children”.
IBRAHIM: “When you guys are with your parties, you talk about war. But here we are at home, we don’t know when the next missile will come. We can’t forget that. We try to forget, but we can’t”.
BROWN: The constant attacks and uncertainty are undermining Ibrahim’s sense of security. This eleven year old has started wetting the bed.
AISHA: “Ibrahim is embarrassed, he doesn’t even look us in the eye. But we try to reassure him that it’s OK – it’s normal, and all the children go through the same thing. This is what I tell him. I don’t want him to be embarrassed. I want to encourage him to stop wetting himself”.
BROWN: There’s rarely a moment of respite and certainly no time to let your guard down. Day or night in Aleppo there’s always something to make you jump in fear.
AISHA: “I’m afraid for my children more than I’m afraid for myself. I’m afraid that they’ll be terrified. Sometimes, for the sake of the children, I pretend I am not afraid. I pretend I’m not afraid so that they won’t be so scared”.
BROWN: Thanks to a generator the family can watch TV at night but the news brings only more images of conflict and death.
ZEIN AL DEIN: “He has something inside him scarier than not going to school. He has fear, revenge, cruelty… and this is what scares me more than him not going to school”.
ABRAHIM: “I focus on Bashar only. If I see him, if I catch him, we will execute him. If the free army caught him here in Aleppo and I went to see him, I’d probably execute him. But if he’s caught outside my district, let them execute him. It is the job of the adults but I would like to execute him”.
BROWN: But if President Bashar al Assad does fall, there’s no convincing plan for who or what will take his place and no knowing what life will be like for Ibrahim and his family. What we do know is that Syria’s next generation is being plunged ever deeper into a life of war. Children who represent the future of Syria itself are being scarred and forged by an endless parade of dreadful sights and experiences. How will they be able to forget what happened in this the most vulnerable impressionable time of their lives.
IBRAHIM: “I am not afraid of death, I am only afraid of God in heaven. I removed my heart with my own hands and threw it away. I don’t want this heart. I have become used to not having a heart, at all. (Noise from planes overhead) Do you hear the sounds of the planes?”