“Call me George,” says the bespectacled 21-year-old medical student who stood with a Free Syrian flag draped over his shoulders. As one of the few Christians at a weekly Friday protest in the rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo, he is cautious about revealing too much of his identity—the regime of president Bashar al-Assad still controls the city’s Christian neighborhoods. But among the city’s roughly 100,000 Christians, “there are a thousand Georges.”
Amid chants of “One, one, one, the people of Syria are one,” George holds an anti-sectarianism poster framed as a no-smoking sign: “Sectarianism is highly addictive, don’t start.”
George has been attending protests in Bustan al-Qasr, a Sunni Muslim district and activist hub, since August of last year, when the demonstrations drew thousands of Syrians out to the streets. Back then, participants risked being hit by live ammo or captured by the Shabiha, pro-Assad militiamen. But now, people feel safe enough to come with children (one father even brought his wheelchair-bound 15-year-old daughter). On this Friday, several hundred people have turned out in the neighborhood. Protests have eased since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) steadily took over the district, and now the neighborhood bustles with open shops and lively residents. In turn, the regime pursues its malicious strategy of punishing civilians in rebel-held areas with heavy long-distance artillery and airstrikes.
For George, even the journey to the protest, in the southern part of the city, poses obstacles. Nearly all Aleppo’s Christians live in just two districts and both are still controlled by the Assad regime. “There’s a security checkpoint just under my house,” he says, “and the road to get here is very dangerous.”
But attending anti-regime protests allows him to speak his mind freely, as few other Christians have been able to do during the last 18 months. “We live in a totalitarian state. There’s no free expression, no hope, no future,” George says. Seeing the Arab Spring revolutions in nearby countries like Tunisia and Egypt inspired him and his friends to start Facebook profiles to kick-start a similar movement in Syria.
"At the beginning of the revolution, Christians were afraid because they didn’t want the same scenario of Iraq and Lebanon,” he says, referring to the years of sectarian violence that drove Lebanese Christians to self-segregate in the north of the country, and forced most Iraqi Christians to flee the country. Assad has fostered the notion that his secular regime offers religious minorities a protection that rebels will not.
"The Assad regime offers stability, and gave Christians the idea that most rebels were Islamists and Salafists. But then [Christians] saw the regime kill people at demonstrations, so now they take the middle path,” George says. “Many travel abroad, because they are afraid—there is no safety here. The future is unknown.” He estimates that every Christian family has at least one member living abroad; half of his own family lives in Europe.
Most Christians in Aleppo are middle-class small business owners, says George, and they just want “a peaceful, normal life, to go out to restaurants, for example.” Now, many Christians fear the increasing power of the Gulf States, which are arming the rebel fighters. “They have an agenda,” George says. “They support the Islamists like Jabhat al-Nusra.”
The regime has made a standing offer to provide arms to any Christian who wants them.
While George believes that reports of FSA fighters massacring Christians are rumors planted by the regime to keep Christians fearful of the opposition, he has also seen violence against Christians with his own eyes. Three weeks ago, he says, FSA fighters aimed mortars at the security building in Suleimaniya, one of the Christian districts—but the attack lacked precision and hit several Christian homes, he says. As a medical student, George was working at the hospital there and saw many injuries from the attacks, and heard that seven or eight people died. “This made them more afraid. Now you don’t see anyone walking in the streets after 7 p.m. in the Christian areas.”
The regime uses such happenings to its advantage, and has made a standing offer to provide arms to any Christian who wants them. George says that Aleppo’s Armenians, poorer and less educated than other Christians, have been quick to take the regime up on its offer. For the most part, they fled Turkey after the Armenian genocide during the First World War, and Assad has planted the idea that the FSA could commit a similar atrocity. George estimates that some 500 to 600 families of the 60,000–70,000 Armenians in Aleppo are now armed and prepared to fight.
Barely 15 minutes after the protest in Bustan al-Qasr winds down, the first mortar lands, about three streets away. We dart into an alleyway and continue talking about secularism and nationhood as dust from the fresh rubble blows through the empty street. When the fourth shell comes down, nervous onlookers usher us across the street into another alleyway.
When the seventh strikes, we decide to leave. By the time the eighth hits, we are in a taxi with a savvy driver who carves a twisting path through the city, avoiding regime-controlled roads and a sniper whose bullet we hear whizzing by.
After ditching his rebel flag, George is probably on a similarly meandering route through this patchwork city. But his will lead him through regime security checkpoints to a neighborhood where Assad’s face still graces the buildings rather than lying, burnt or shredded, on the sidewalk for people to trample on—a neighborhood spared regime shelling, but where the dwindling population lives in uncertainty, hoarding weapons and fear.
Postscript: according to Spanish freelance correspondent Sergi Cabeza, who remained in Bustan al-Qasr through the shelling, the attack took the lives of eight of the neighborhood’s residents.