With more than 50 residents being killed per day by everything from airstrikes to barrel bombs to chemical gas, Syria’s Aleppo is not a city most people living in the safety of western Europe would seek to visit at the present time.
Yet that is exactly what a group of Berlin-based activists is currently planning to do, in a march on foot across the European continent to the Turkish-Syrian border, and thence onward to the besieged center stage of the 21st century’s deadliest conflict.
The #CivilMarchForAleppo, as it’s being called, was born from the frustration of one woman witnessing the carnage inflicted on the city’s civilians by the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Russian, Iranian, and other allies, with apparent total impunity and indifference from the international community.
“When all the hospital bombings started, when my [Syrian] friends were telling me more and more stories, when I was watching all those little videos (which most of us just scroll down), I had enough,” said Anna Alboth, a Polish journalist and humanitarian activist living in Berlin, in an email exchange with The Daily Beast. “I imagined myself in it and I was shaking. And then I said it loud: what if all of us from in front of [our] computers would do that? And in the next 24 hours I had an amazing group ready to work.”
The exact details of the plan are still being finalized, but as it currently stands Alboth and those accompanying her will set off from Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld at 10 a.m. on Dec. 26, heading south to the Czech Republic, then Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. The more than 2,000-mile trek could take as long as six months, the initial phase coinciding with winter’s bitterest cold.
Alboth says she and a team of volunteers are working to find hostels, campsites, schools, churches, and any other accommodation facilities along the route, but warns marchers on the campaign website that at times they may need to sleep “wild” in the outdoors. Given the conditions and timescale involved, Alboth doesn’t expect every participant to join them all the way, but rather encourages people to show up wherever and for however long they can.
“If people from all the countries on the way join for one hour, or four, or just two days, we will be big.”
An obvious concern will be security, not only inside Syria itself, but also in Turkey, where a series of suicide bombings and shootings (to say nothing of an attempted military coup) have killed scores of civilians this year.
In 2008, an Italian activist, Pippa Bacca, was murdered in Turkey’s Gebze while hitchhiking for peace from Europe to the Middle East. Alboth’s hope is that the Turkish authorities might provide security assistance, adding the campaign was “in touch” with people in the country. As for physically reaching Aleppo—which would require traversing terrain held by Syrian rebels, and/or Kurdish militias, as well as pro-regime forces, with Islamic State jihadists never far away—Alboth acknowledged it might not ultimately be possible. Her hope, however, is that making it as far as the Syrian border would still raise sufficient awareness about the city’s suffering to compel the world to alleviate it.
“The aim of the march is that the civilians in Aleppo have access to humanitarian help,” she told The Daily Beast. “Will it be needed that we really reach Aleppo itself? Let’s see […] we just have one aim, and we would like to, while walking step by step from Berlin, [put] pressure on the decisive people to find the solutions.”
Hopeless idealism? Sheer insanity? Call it what you will, though for their part, residents of Aleppo’s besieged neighborhoods told The Daily Beast they thought the march a welcome initiative.
“It’s really amazing and a great thing, what they’re doing,” said Lina Shamy in a Facebook voice message. “They proved humanity still exists in this world. And such actions do affect the world public opinion, and attract attention to our just cause. So, really, amazing what these brave and free people are doing.”
Similarly, while Bahaa al-Halabi in western Aleppo Province told The Daily Beast he feared completing the march would be “impossible,” he nonetheless concurred the attempt by itself would be worthwhile.
“We hope for everyone to show solidarity with Aleppo and its people, to stop this hell. When the Arab and Western peoples show solidarity, that will pressure their governments to stand with the people of Aleppo and pressure Russia. Certainly, any solidarity from other peoples will pressure governments, and if those governments stirred they could stop Russia’s crimes.”
Time, however, is not on their side. The Assad regime and its allies have recaptured at least half of the opposition’s territory inside Aleppo city in the past fortnight, leading rebels to issue a proposal Wednesday for a five-day ceasefire to be followed by “negotiations over the future of the city.” At the UN Security Council Monday, Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution that called for a seven-day ceasefire, raising fears the pro-Assad coalition seeks to annihilate Aleppo City’s opposition entirely. Meanwhile, life for the more than 100,000 residents remaining in the besieged neighborhoods grows worse by the hour.
“It’s a siege, so every day is worse than before. Every day means less food, less medicine,” the resident Shamy told The Daily Beast. The rapid loss of territory and corresponding influx of internally displaced neighbors has added further desperation to living conditions already described last month by the UN’s humanitarian chief as “barely survivable.”
Many of the recently-lost neighborhoods contained patches of land on which residents had grown their own food to survive the siege, said Shamy. As well as meaning more mouths to feed with less food, the increased population density means “every shell now, every hit” causes a greater number of deaths and injuries. With no more functioning hospitals, survivors of attacks are treated by field doctors who increasingly have to operate without anesthetics or oxygen.
Six months, in other words, is a long time for Aleppo’s residents to wait for help to arrive—a fact Alboth fully acknowledges.
“I got a message from Aleppo yesterday: ‘Anna, no idea how long we gonna still survive.’ Yes, we are aware that it’s late, that it would be great to [have] started this months or years ago.
“But we started now, and we’re going to do what we are able to do to make the life of civilians better.”