‘Aleppo’. It’s the name we’ve heard on our radio stations and televisions. We’ve brushed over it in conversation. It’s seemed too far, too big, to understand fully.
Today, finally, we can talk about it with some underlying hope.
Tens of thousands of people who’ve been trapped in East Aleppo, Syria, in the heart of the Middle East without water, food or medicine will hopefully be freed in today’s ceasefire.
The evacuation started at 6am on Thursday morning, Aleppo time – just hours ago – and the ceasefire deal was brokered by Russia and Turkey to allow civilians living in enemy territory to leave the city. The same attempt was made yesterday, but failed due to Iranian opposition.
There are a lot of players involved in this ceasefire. There is a complex history. The most important people are the civilians.
This is the story the world is talking about right now. Here is how to understand Aleppo better:
For four years, the city of Aleppo – once home to 2,132,100 people and famous as Syria’s largest city, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world – has been divided into East and West.
It became divided when the East became held by rebel fighters, and The West by government forces under President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia, Turkey and Iran are fighting alongside the Syrian government. The civilians fleeing today are fleeing from the East.
Until now, it could have been anyone's fight. The position of strength has pivoted constantly. It tipped to the East in December 2012 when the rebels seized a number of military and air bases, and again in August 2013 when they blocked the Aleppo-Damascus highway into the West. The West gained strength in January 2014 when Islamic State also entered rebel territory. In October last year, the government's position strengthened again when Russia, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran joined forces with Assad's army.
But the residents of Aleppo, who still remember the city library, the parks, the Saint Elias Cathedral, who still reside in the city they once loved? They have been trapped.
On November 22, the UN security council heard of nearly one million civilians besieged in Syria; 250,000 people trapped in Aleppo alone. "Horror is now usual," the Under-Secretary-General For Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien told the Council. "It is a level of violence and destruction that the world appears to consider normal for Syria and normal for the Syrian people."