Aleppo, November 12, 2012
With this new chronicle we thank you for your concern and prayers for us and Syria. We have much to tell you, wonderful things and sad things. This is what you see in war: miseries and miracles.
The situation here is still alarming. What some claimed would last only a few days in Aleppo has turned into an endless, bloody confrontation that has lasted more than three months with no end in sight. The consequences are regrettable.
Anyone who has previously visited this legendary city would today fail to recognize it. There were two things in particular that gave Aleppo primacy even over the nation’s capital: the commercial movement, which attracted the wealthy because of the businesses and the middle and lower classes for the jobs; there was also a lively social life that copied the West. Aleppo was distinguished for being a quiet, safe, picturesque and neat city.
But now things have changed.
Especially in the old town and in some central areas, the spectacle is frightening: bombed neighborhoods, demolished buildings, the dead piled on the sidewalks. The ambulances traverse the city at full speed sounding their sirens. The tanks roam the streets and everything trembles because of the explosions. There are trenches scattered throughout all corners and major routes. And there are snipers on the roofs, ready to shoot at the slightest movement. The rebel artillery rarely has determinate targets, and often destroys civil buildings.
Schools and colleges are packed with refugees who have lost their homes. But these buildings are no longer enough. The green spaces of the city and the boulevards of the avenues are filled with entire families who sleep outdoors covered with cardboard. An estimated one million people have been left homeless. Only in the gardens of the campus there are seven thousand refugees sleeping outdoors. There was benevolent weather until a few weeks ago, but now that the cold and rain has begun, what will all these people do? No one has the answer. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Along with the wounded patients, there are those who are sick because of the cold and lack of food.
There is general chaos, which has affected the life of the city in all its fields. Public services of electricity, telephone, water and internet are interrupted often and in some neighborhoods for weeks. The air that we breathe stinks because of the smoke from the explosions and the accumulation of waste which is no longer collected. Insecurity reigns in the streets, there is no traffic police, no one who represents public order. Every day there are more and more kidnappings and threats in the interests of money, which is used for the supply of arms. And these are not distant news; our own parishioners have suffered them.
Who would have imagined Aleppo turned into a place of such cruel massacres?
Aleppo’s people have also changed.
Unlike the early months of the conflict, the Aleppans try to live their daily life. Their families have to eat and they cannot survive if they remain locked indoors. So, despite the chaos and danger, people are on the streets, at the risk of not returning home … “We will return next week,” one of our youth said, and then added with a saddened expression: “if we are still alive .” Every day there are many casualties among civilians. Even in the less affected areas, people are killed by stray bullets. The other day a 10 year old boy to us: “earlier, we used to collect the fallen leaves, but now we collect bullets.”
“The shootings and explosions have become familiar to us,” they all say, but they have caused a lot of tension and nervousness: “We have not slept for weeks.” Every day, they hear promises of hope: “We have been told that in two days all this will end, and we will return to normal life.” But those two days never come.
In an attempt to regain normal the rhythm, some universities have opened their doors, but there are not enough teachers or students to have regular classes. Also some schools have begun to work a few hours to a few days a week, using borrowed buildings, because either they were on the outskirts of the city where there is much danger, or they have been taken over by refugees. One of the teenagers who comes to daily Mass gladly told us “Finally we have started classes! But there is the permanent noise of the shootings. We have difficulty hearing what the teacher says.”
The industrial zone on the outskirts of the city was destroyed. Factories and businesses have been burned, bombed and looted. Those were the sources of jobs for thousands of people …
It is not unusual for a woman to cry. But what can we say when we see men — fathers of families — sobbing quietly, overwhelmed by despair, helplessness, and concern for the future of their children?
So our presence as missionaries in these times is very necessary. Many – entire families, faithful from our cathedral – have already left the country. These were the ones who had at least some economic support to be able to survive abroad, even though without work and a home. But most stay because they cannot afford the escape or prefer to remain in their land. Many ask us “you, why do you stay when you have the possibility to escape?” But, what kind of shepherd is he who would flee from his flock at the moment of the greatest danger in order to find peace for himself, while leaving his sheep into the hands of the enemy? It is true that we can not save them from the bullets; we can not prevent a projectile from falling on a house and killing the whole family. We are not able to do that – and so, we experience a great powerlessness. But we can support them, encourage them, and comfort them so that if the time comes to offer their lives, they are prepared and calm. What better occasion is there to prepare them for Heaven?
And it is in this sense that we see every day new “miracles”. Miracles of conversion in persons who earlier never prayed, but now pray the Rosary daily. Persons who were very far from being practicing Christians, but now attend Mass daily with sincere devotion. Youth who even in the midst of all this uncertainty and bewilderment felt the call of God and choose to embrace the religious life. Works of heroic charity. Confessions after many years. Reconciliations that seemed impossible.
Miracles of the Virgin Mary in protecting Christian families. More than once we have heard that a missile fell on a house, but that it did not detonate. Or there had been very large explosion that destroyed an entire floor but its inhabitants had been spared. And they say with complete conviction: “The Blessed Virgin protected us because we pray the family rosary.”
In the apostolate, it is not less impressive what God is allowing us to do. We organized a continuous chain of the Holy Rosary for 24 hours, in which the parishioners participated with great generosity, confident that the Rosary will bring back peace to this blessed land. Young people keep coming and new ones have shown up. Upon their request, we began a course of study of Christian Doctrine in which some adults of the parish also participate. And as a way to counteract the great tension that they are suffering, we organize weekly sports with them. It’s amusing to watch them play, the contagious joy with which they celebrate every goal, while in the background the sound of the bombings are heard. These are one of those few moments in which they can “forget” that they are living in the midst of war.
We preached two Ignatian spiritual exercises with the participation of 20 youth. They did not have the environment to which we are accustomed, contact with nature, surrounded by peace and calm. They did their exercises virtually shut in, commending to God the fate of their families and meditating surrounded by the noise of explosions. How heroic these youth are!
Miseries and miracles. Thus the history of Syria is woven, like many other places in the world torn apart by war. It is also the story of our lives nuanced with joys and sorrows, trials and achievements. It is also the history of the Church that “advances in her pilgrimage amidst the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God” (St. Augustine, The City of God 18, 51, cf. LG 8).
¡Viva la misión!
Missionary Fathers and Sisters in Aleppo