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Middle East

Lawlessness in Aleppo

Embattled northwestern city lacks security as young media activists utilise new freedoms to cover events.
Last modified: 2 Apr 2013 12:59
The security crisis in Aleppo is deepening and dampening hopes for normality amid a lack of trust in the city [AFP]

It was just another day in Aleppo city.

We arrived in the rebel-controlled district of Fardous and found people gathered around a building that was just hit by a tank shell. 

"It happened half an hour ago," our guide told us. 

Six people were killed in the attack.

We were supposed to meet a citizen journalist whose office was in front of that building.

There is no frontline in this city, but there are areas where rebel fighters and regime soldiers regularly clash.

Aleppo is a city where nowhere is safe. Even in opposition areas, the threat doesn't just come from government airstrikes and shelling.

It was a Friday, when people still take to the streets after midday prayers.

We followed Mohammed Sayed, a Syrian journalist who volunteers at the Aleppo Media Center and was planning to film the demonstration.

"We are facing many difficulties apart from the danger," he told me. "I don't get a salary and it is getting hard to survive. A group of activists started this center, and we don't have many funds."

'Security vacuum'

He used to sell mobile phones before documenting what he calls the "crimes of the regime" and reporting on the "lawlessness" in the city. "Many people now have guns," he said. 

"Kidnappings and theft are on the rise. We have one thousand Bashars [al-Assad, the Syrian president] now, and they are all powerful. There is no security."

After filming the demonstration, we drove for a few metres and heard gunshots - there was panic.  

Many people sought shelter inside the shops lining the street. We saw a young man holding a pistol standing in the middle of the road. He then pointed the gun at our vehicle and opened fire.

At the time, we thought we were his target. 

We later found out that he was trying to kill our guide, who was in our vehicle.  It was a long running family feud; people now take the law into their own hands.

No one was hurt. We managed to escape and hide in a nearby street, but a few minutes later there was a gunfight in the neighborhood.

Young men from the two families pointed their pistols at each other in a battle that lasted for half an hour.

There is a lot of tension here; different brigades now control different neighbourhoods.

"There is a security vacuum and people don’t trust each other," Ghaith Merjan, a Syrian journalist who works for the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told me.

He showed me a video of armed fighters storming a school.

"They were looking for someone but in the process they scared teachers and children, and they ransacked the place. This was wrong," Ghaith said.

"So I showed the video to the judges at the court. They forced those fighters to leave the city. The opposition is making mistakes but definitely not like the mistakes of the regime.

"If an armed group is suspicious of someone, they will detain him. But this person will eventually be released. When the regime detains someone, that person will end up killed," he said.

Transition worries

There is a new found freedom, particularly among journalists. 

In the Syria of the past, the media was controlled by the state - now people are speaking their minds. 

They complain about the new reality in rebel-controlled areas, even if it involves criticising some of the armed groups. 

The opposition is made up of many brigades, with different agendas for a post-Assad phase. 

Already many have warned that the transition phase may not be smooth and orderly.

Ghaith, however, is optimistic.

"After the fall of the regime, those who will take power are the ones who will provide people with services and a better life," he said.

"You have some groups who want a secular Syria. Others want an Islamic state. All this will be irrelevant. The party that will emerge victorious is the one that can provide security, food and jobs for the people."

And this is what people in this city want. They are struggling to survive. Many have lost their jobs. You drive by a makeshift market and what you see is people selling their belongings, whatever they have left - sofas, televisions, old clothes, anything, just to make some money to buy food.

"I filmed a lot of the suffering and the economic problems people are facing and it helped because some international humanitarian agencies sent aid to the city," Mohammed said. "That is why our job is very important."

Ghaith said: "Even though we weren't able to convince the world to intervene in the crisis through our reporting, the images that we show the world have at least brought some aid for the people and more importantly ... prevented the regime from winning the media war.

"The regime wants to tell the world it is fighting armed terrorists, well that is not the case. And through our images the international community can see the state is fighting its own people."

Undoubtedly, Ghaith and Mohammed are supporters of the opposition. But both men say they will no longer be intimidated by any authority.

"To protect our revolution, we have to shed light and report what is going on even if it is the opposition who is making the mistake," Ghaith explained.

For decades, voices of dissent were silenced. That has now changed, at least in areas where the state no longer has control.

But there are increasing concerns that the power of the gun is becoming the strongest voice.