Blue Marists’ Christian charity in Aleppo is the true ‘peace spring’ that heals the wounds of war
by Nabil Antaki*

A high rate of unemployment, poverty and a mad cost of living are the friars’ lot. The violence linked to the Turkish offensive in the north-east seems to follow a “well-worn script”. Christians take steps to deal with huge needs. The war might be at an end, but peace is still faraway.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – The US pull-out, Turkey’s offensive and fresh violence seem to follow “a well-worn script” that favours some of the players in the conflict. Against this background, the help and solidarity provided by some Christian groups represent a ‘peace spring’, even if what Blue Marists “do is but a drop in the bucket”, this according to the 37th letter from Aleppo.

The latter highlights the huge needs and paucity of resources and help available. “The economy is still in shambles, unemployment is high, the cost of living is off the chart as a result of runaway inflation, and poverty is constantly rising.” What follows describes the situation, in a shorter version of the original, translated from the French by AsiaNews.

There has been no real fighting in Syria for about a year and a half. We live in a state of ‘neither war nor peace’ that has been going on for some time. The Syrian government controls about 70 per cent of the country’s territory, including the main cities, but three regions are not yet under its control with a stalemate in one.

The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) still control a big chunk of north-eastern Syria, about 25 per cent of the territory, along the border with Turkey and Iraq (with the country’s main oil fields) with US and French support.

The YPG sought to take advantage of the chaos of war to set up a Syrian Kurdistan or, at least, an autonomous region. But in January 2018, the Turkish army seized Afrin, the Kurdish-inhabited north-western part of Syria, driving 140,000 people from their homes.

Islamic extremists linked to the al-Nusra Front have held Idlib province for several years, turning it into a home for tens of thousands of foreign fighters and terrorists.

UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva petered out years ago, replaced by meetings in Astana and Sochi under the aegis of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Against the backdrop, US President Trump announced on 9 October the withdrawal of US troops from Syria (in fact, only a pullback further south), paving the way for Turkey’s Peace Spring operation, a ground offensive preceded by air strikes against the region’s main cities: Qamishli, al-Darbasiyah, Ras al-Ayn, Ain Arab, home to Kurds as well as Syrian Christians and Muslims. This provoked a massive exodus to other cities in the region.

After five days of fighting, Russia and Turkey struck a deal with a ceasefire that has left the situation as is. This has followed a well-worn script. The Turks got their 35km buffer zone in Syrian territory, the Syrian government got back a big chunk of its territory without even fighting, the Russians showed off their influence, and the Americans kept control of Syria’s oil wells whilst patching up their differences with Turkey.

In Idlib, the Syrian army has launched several offensives to clear it of Islamic extremists but, each attempt was stopped due to Western pressures. However, in the last one, armed rebels had to retreat 10 km to the north, placing two Christian towns, Mhardeh and Squelbiyeh in the Hama region, beyond their artillery range. The terrorists in Idlib had bombed and besieged both places in the last two years. Residents celebrated in the streets the latest reports.

Unfortunately, violence hasn’t ostensibly stopped, even for Christians, and their pain is great. On 11 November a Catholic priest from Qamishli, and his father, were murdered on their way to Deir el-Zor to help their congregation. On the same day, two car bombs exploded near the Chaldean church in Qamishli.

In Aleppo the situation is stable. Essential services have been restored, water is available five days a week, and electricity comes on for 18 hours a day. The university and schools are operating normally. However, armed rebel groups near the western suburbs continue to fire rockets into the city from time to time.

Recently, one rocket fell 200 metres from the St Louis Hospital and my office, killing one person and wounding many others. The economy is still in shambles, unemployment is high, the cost of living is off the chart as a result of runaway inflation, and poverty is constantly rising.

In a sea of ​​needs, we Blue Marists continue our work helping and supporting the poor and displaced families, even if money is in short supply and fund raising has become increasingly difficult.

Despite the dangers, we are working at the Shahba refugee camp in Afrin, some 55 km from Aleppo and only three kilometres from the Turkish lines. Rockets often fall nearby, but this hasn’t prevented us from handing out food. We are working hard to give families a chance to live and grow.

NGO Drop of milk provides milk to 2,900 children under 11; at least 200 families receive aid to pay the rent on short-term leases as they wait to go back to their homes; medical and surgical assistance is provided to 150 patients each month. Vocational and professional training is offered to men and women, alongside the Hope project which teaches foreign languages.

Thanks to the continuous and untiring work of 85 employees and volunteers, we serve poor families and displaced people from Aleppo. Christians and Muslims look to us as a true ‘peace spring’, even if what we do is only a drop in the bucket. As much as the war seems to be close to an end, the rendez-vous with peace is still faraway.

*Doctor from Aleppo and a lay member of the order of the Blue Marist Friars