Shihab Halep is the nom de plume of one of Airwars’ Syrian researchers, now based in Turkey. Over the past year Shihab has helped Airwars document hundreds of alleged Russian casualty events. Originally from Aleppo and now a refugee, Shihab marks the 1,000th day of Coalition airstrikes with his personal reflections on the devastating impact that airstrikes and shelling can have on civilians in Syria.
The night the University Entrance Exam results were announced in my hometown, Aleppo, my family and friends came down to our flat in Seif Al-Dawla to say congratulations and have some sweets and special drinks we use when celebrating such milestones. I was the first one in my family to go to an engineering school, so my family was very excited and happy despite the tough time we were having in Aleppo in general.
Suddenly, loud explosions were heard from afar, and our guests decided to head home to make sure their beloved families were safe. Gradually, the noises got nearer to the point we felt our flat shaking – and suddenly we were under fire [from the regime]. In the middle of the night we were forced to leave our flat with nothing on us but the clothes we were wearing, though we were lucky as we were dressed up since we were supposed to be celebrating.
Our flat was on the highway, so we decided to move towards the home of my uncle. Suddenly, mortar shells started falling around us. It’s a horrifying experience when you hear the whistle of the shell, a silence for a second or two which feels like a lifetime, and then an explosion, I looked around, my family is still alive, and the same thing keeps repeating. It was too late for us to go back to our flat, and we couldn’t march forward. There was an empty, isolated building nearby, so we decided to hide inside it as it was the best shelter.
Shihab filmed the damage to his family home, in his last moments before becoming a refugee
‘My baby nephew was crying’
My nephew, who was a couple of months old, was crying but we had to flee with nothing on us and weren’t able to provide him with any food. We stayed there until the morning and when the shelling stopped, we quickly went back home to find it partially destroyed and lots of shrapnel and holes everywhere. We tried to quickly grab a few things, mostly food for my nephew, and ran to another shelter.
By this time, helicopters started striking the neighbourhood and we doubted if we were going to make it out alive. Somehow, we did. September 2013 was the last time I saw our flat and our neighbourhood.
Though I couldn’t graduate in Aleppo, I continued studying in Turkey and did not give up on my education. Now as a researcher for Airwars, I am always reminded of my experience fleeing home, especially when I see videos and photos of children in Raqqa and other parts of Syria where civilians are forced to flee. Only the lucky ones make it. The look of those children who are not able to go to school anymore is pretty much the same one I had when I was forced to leave my neighbourhood for the final time.
The schools in Syria all look identical, so when I see schools in Raqqa province being struck and destroyed – like the one in Mansoura on March 21st – I get some flashback and remember my own school in Aleppo. These poor students could have been me or my classmates. We all had dreams and parents who love us. What’s worse, when I escaped Aleppo with my family, I knew where I was going. These civilians don’t. There have been reports that the Euphrates Dam might collapse, which imposes more pressure and adds to the struggle the civilians go through on a daily basis. Airstrikes do not differentiate between babies, elderly or extremists. Death is everywhere and poor civilians are paying a heavy price.
Those feelings are universal, being forced to leave home not knowing if you’d go back at all. I was lucky, I made it to Turkey and managed to continue studying, but civilians in Raqqa are not lucky. They are living under extremist terrorists and can’t escape, while they might die at any minute in airstrikes. Their situation is like mine, only I had an escape route. They do not.