Note: The original photo story was published on Jan Oberg’s website. The cover photo is used with the author’s written consent. © Jan Oberg 2016.
In Aleppo in mid-December 2016
Most Western media, commentators and politicians were not in doubt: Aleppo fell (back) to "the regime", to "the dictator". Their focus was on civilians and moderate rebels, as they are called, being killed in the last hours of the battle about Eastern Aleppo that had been occupied since mid-2012.
I walked the streets and could talk to and photograph anybody I wanted to, no one guiding me to particular persons.
These pictures here are real. They are genuine.
What I saw and heard
My photos convey what I saw at the places I mentioned. No more and no less:
Overwhelming human happiness after four years of what many called "hell under the terrorists." I saw smiles and pride and victory signs like with the boy above.
I listened to people expressing gratitude to both Bashar al-Assad and the government and to Putin and the Russians – the latter both bombing and sending field hospitals. And telling me that life was good in Aleppo before the occupiers swept in and began the looting and the destruction.
I joined people in restaurants in the West who were celebrating, toasting to freedom and talking with relief about how fantastic it was to finally not have to live in fear every day; they had been hit now and then too by rebel mortars and other ammunition in that side of town, something I experienced myself during my visit.
And I saw victims of this occupation in the East get bread, vegetables, bananas and water. Sitting in chairs at the pavement and enjoying tea and a cigarette. And talk without fear.
I saw people leaving in green buses from the East to the West in order to get health care or reunite with family members and friends – and those who came over from the West to see what may or may not be left of their homes in the East.
And I talked with young soldiers and older officers who were proud of having liberated their citizens and city.
Finally, I heard people express their disagreement with al-Assad's amnesty policy. If you are a Syrian citizen and have been out fighting against your own you will be granted amnesty if you hand in your weapon, answer some questions and then sign a paper that you'll never do it again. That's all. You can be re-integrated in society again. Only if you have a court case against you, say by a family a member of whom you have deliberately killed, you'll be punished.
What several – civilians as well as soldiers – told me was that they did not agree with this soft, reconciliatory philosophy of their president. Some said that legal processes were necessary and Syrians who had fought against their own people and participated in the occupation of Eastern Aleppo deserved to be punished. Others were of the opinion that they deserved to die.
Oh yes, and I saw lots of Syrian youth, university students in particular, volunteering for the Red Crescent and helping people in this dire situation.
What I did not see or hear
Aleppo is – or rather was – home to about 2 million people. It is huge, covers 190 square kilometres. Of course I did not visit or pass through all quarters, streets and parts of the East or the West during the 3,5 days I was there.
Media reports of rebels and their families being massacred or killed in the last days and hours may or may not be true. I cannot judge and I cannot exclude. I did not see it and did not meet people who talked about it. I did interview one soldier who told me that, as a principle, the Army kills only when in fight with people who are armed; he assured me that he had never killed an unarmed civilian. I have no reason to not believe him – other things he said made sense and could be verified.
But, sure, people may have been killed in the last pockets of the occupiers when the game was lost for them.
But it is not my duty as a conflict analyst and peace researcher to report on violations of human rights and international law – as it isn't the duty of Doctors Without Borders to investigate the economic situation in the agricultural sector. I can not report something truthfully I did not see or hear about during my interviews.
What, however, I did not see in Eastern Aleppo in anybody was fear of the government – rather gratitude for health care, transport in busses into the East and into the registration Jibrin centre. I did not see fear in anybody's eyes of having come back under government control.
I did not hear anybody say that life was good or even tolerable under the siege of Eastern Aleppo. I heard people talk about living in fear, not getting enough food or health care, being harassed, family members or friends having been killed or wounded; I was told stories of how some had tried to get over to the West but were brutally prevented from that by the occupying forces. Or killed in the attempt. And that children had not gone to school during the last two years.
I did not meet the White Helmets, the alleged humanitarian organisation that has received over US$ 100 million to rescue people, mobilised opinion for themselves to get the Nobel Peace Prize and was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm a few days earlier.
I also met no one who had seen them or been helped by them – but did meet some who had heard about them.
Where should they have been if not in Eastern Aleppo helping tens of thousands getting with all they needed after the liberation from four years of hell?
During my days in Aleppo I did not see the leading international humanitarian organisations working in the field. On the road between Damascus and Aleppo, the only humanitarian transports I saw were Russian and Syrian; I did not see any of the large international convoys that Western governments have insisted on bringing in as part of various earlier ceasefire attempts.
I ask myself why. The full liberation of Aleppo took more than two weeks. How did they plan for the liberation of Aleppo?
And I did not see any reporters or camera crews from the Western mainstream media – some having been to Aleppo but gone back to Damascus or Beirut when they should have been present at this particular event. Nordic media were not to be seen at this historical moment. True some don't get a visa – but that does not explain that so many were absent.
The world has too much – far too much – war reporting and blame journalism and far too little conflict reporting and human story journalism. They are obsessed with governments and violence and ignore the perspectives of the citizens, the victims and those who can make a change for the better.
Aleppo's liberation should be a good story – right up to Christmas at that – from a war that has cost so many lives. But the liberation didn't fit the general Western narrative about this conflict – something I've learned too from the way some media have treated my story, being interested in placing me as "embedded with the Syrian military" and a "regime supporter" and what not.
Up till today, no single mainstream media has shown the slightest interest in the human suffering, the destruction or the happiness I saw (Around 3000 informed).
However, I can't be bothered. Have tried it before.
What really means something to me is that I met dozens of people who expressed gratitude that I had come the long way from Sweden to Aleppo and cared about the suffering of the people. I made many new friends during my ten days* in Syria.
It was touching beyond words and it feels very good, therefore, that I can express what I felt through images too.
Yes, it's a worn out phrase, that Never again! – from the First and Second World Wars, from Hiroshima, Burundi and Rwanda, Srebrenica, Sarajevo. But let us never forget Aleppo. And may something like this never happen again!
This is the single strongest motive for me in publishing these photo stories.
And thanks to you brave Syrians!
And thanks to those who took time to tell me their story. Thanks to those who translated for me and to those who, here and there, gave me protection in dangerous areas.
The very least I can do to pay you back is to convey your words, emotions and my impressions. Your dignity amid suffering and injustice.
I hope the defiant boy above will have a future in a re-built Aleppo. He and everybody else there deserve it. Deserve to live in freedom and peace and benefit from the productive capacity of Aleppo, one of the largest industrial cities in the Middle East and – once – the embodiment of history, culture and development.
And we should help the citizens of Aleppo and Syria no matter what we may think of the government and its policies.
TFF's conflict and peace mission – share and support
The visit to Aleppo at this historic moment was part of a ten-day conflict and peace fact-finding mission by the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, TFF, in Lund, Sweden of which I am the director.