Breaking out of a siege mentality

Likely lucky for most of us, we’ve spent the past 5 years  living out our lives, in a peaceful nation, free of religious or political tyranny. Not so the citizens of Aleppo, they’ve been in a different place – a possible hell; witnessing the virtual destruction of their home city, their lives endangered on a daily  (hourly, even) basis, by a fierce, relentless, murderous siege. Now a city of two million has drained to a bruised and battered rump of 400,000 in what the UN consider ‘the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation’.

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Last week this photo of a little boy in an ambulance, pulled grubby and grazed from the rubble of his home, flashed around the globe.  Across the worldwide web our gasps were perceptible. Collective concern, collective consternation. For a moment Aleppo held our attention, and then… it was time to worry about something else (the psychological impact of traumatic news).

You might know Istanbul or Baghdad or Cairo; imperial-like cities of historical, cultural and religious significance.   Aleppo was sister to these Queens of the Levant; an ancient Silk Road trading metropolis strategically located between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. It was synonymous with peace and plenty, subtlety and sophistication, home to Muslim, Jew and Christian. Today factional rows between rebel and regime are destroying it  – scarring the city tit for tat – in it’s wake; bombed-out houses, collapsed apartment blocks, crumpled lives. (A history of Aleppo).

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The labyrinthine politics behind the factional wars in Syria need some clear-sighted and courageous redress – or is this too simplistic – What’s going on in Aleppo?

No doubt Western nations are “working” on Syria; demands, threats and promises in the name of diplomacy. With hope sense (the power or money kind, humanity seems to have no wash) will prevail soon.

Like the family of Omran Daqneesh, the little boy in the ambulance, they are many Syrians who are determined to not to fall prey to a siege mentality but see out the war in their home towns.  “We don’t want to get out of the city,” said Omran’s father. “We don’t want that even if there is bombing every day from the Assad regime and the Russians. We hope the shelling will stop soon. We don’t want more destruction for the country. We don’t want to hear the sound of the jets any more.”

Others can’t leave because it is too expensive or because they don’t have a passport.

Others have decided to stay, believing that art could play an important role in documenting the war.

Photographers like Issa Touma and Thomas Rassloff. Issa caught the world’s attention in 2012 when, amidst the violence and crossfire of war, he continued to host his annual international photography festival –  “[Art is] the only way to respond to the barbarism” continues to produce a variety of work from photography to film (The war outside my window and Art Camping.)  

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Activist writers like Mahmoud Rashwani  and graffiti artists like Salam Atrash and Khalifa are interpreting political events in their own creative way.

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Noticeably absent though are the big name Western creatives and thinkers.  Where are the artists and actors and philosophers standing up for the people of Syria?   Angelina Jolie, in her capacity as special envoy for the UN makes an impact visit about once a year. Some other have been quietly donating to the refugee cause or making a statement like Benedict Cumberbatch (who ranted at Hamlet audiences that they should donate money to Syrian refugees, ending his speech with the cry ‘**** politicians’). But no-one with an audience is really making any noise.

But the Western world has good experience of sieges –  Stalingrad, Warsaw, Sarajevo. (And everytime we said, never again…). Out of the misery and despair of these besieged cities, important creative comment had grown our knowledge and understanding. We really should make an effort to watch and remember and learn from these stories to remind ourselves how extremism, sectarianism and hate brook a deadly, destructive mix.

Because for those of us without influence or guns the best way we can help the people of Aleppo is to hear them (those in power have other plans).

Listen to their stories and pass them on to the next generation, again and again and again.

Watch: The big screen shows the scale of city sieges well…

Enemy at the Gates (2001) –  A Russian and a German sniper play a game of cat-and-mouse during the Battle of Stalingrad. Starring Jude Law.

Stalingrad (2013)- the Russian view in 3D. A band of Russian soldiers fight to hold a strategic building in their devastated city against a ruthless German army, and in the process become deeply connected to two Russian women who have been living there. . (Review)

Sarajevo – Five films about the siege of Sarajevo including Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) by Michael Winterbottom.

But the small screen stories are more humane…

Bosna!  “Bosna!,” Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Ferrari’s documentary polemic about the war in Bosnia, was a blunt, impassioned call for the countries of Western Europe and the United States to step in and halt the bloodshed (Review)

The Siege – Remy Ourdan documentary about the Sarajevo siege from French war correspondent, journalist for Le Monde newspaper, Remy Ourdan.

Siege of Leningrad – a feature-length Russian documentary film with original footage –  evidence of the ultimate meaning and sacrifice of total war.

In November 1993 BBC2 TV broadcast ‘Sarajevo: A Street Under Siege’, (a day-by-day account of how the siege was affecting a group of ordinary citizens) as 2-minute films – shown every night before the 22.30 Newsnight programme.

No UK TV channel is doing the same for Aleppo. But Channel 4 has recently screened  Inside Aleppo, a series of six short films from filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab.


Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City by Philip Mansel

Life and Death in Sarajevo by Barbara Demick

Recommended books –

The Siege by Helen Dunmore, a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.



Donate: Five practical ways to help Aleppo

Visit – Syrian Artists exhibition, Singapore. “Syrian artists continue to work and create, sounding out the resilient contemporary voice of one of the oldest and most culturally rich polities in world history. Instead of being drowned by war and mayhem, such voices ring out loud and clear, broadcasting poignant and clairvoyant messages of peace”.

Featured image – Texture of the city we Lost…..Aleppo by Issa Touma (source – insight 143)