An Aleppo Resident Bids Farewell to His Hometown: "I Will Be Free Physically, but My Mind Will Be Trapped"

An evacuee from rebel-held east Aleppo carries bread on December 15 upon her arrival with others at the town of al-Rashideen, which is held by insurgents. Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

Zouhir Al-Shimale is a Syrian opposition citizen journalist from eastern Aleppo. He has remained in the city throughout the conflict and has posted a series of viral videos on social media about life in the besieged area. He says he lives in an abandoned office and has survived a Syrian regime barrel bomb attack that left him with shrapnel in his back and right leg.

He spoke to Newsweek in two phone interviews, first on December 14 after the evacuation agreement between Russia and Turkey collapsed, and then on December 15, as the first buses with civilians left eastern Aleppo under a new agreement. Al Shimale offers an insight into his ordeal holed up in the Al Mashhad district and locals' reactions to the announcement of a new evacuation deal. In the background of the first phone call, loud explosions could be heard.

December 14: Hopes crumble as the evacuation deal collapses

I want to leave, but not toward the regime area. I just want to leave the way they said we would yesterday—that they would evacuate people toward the countryside. That's what we were expecting this morning.

Everyone was hoping for the injured to go to the countryside, but no one has arrived and made it safe there. The first buses just went and came back. We have heard that Iranian checkpoints told them to go back and made them leave with the force of guns.

Physically I am so exhausted, I haven't slept in two days. Yesterday I didn't sleep because I was so intense and emotional about the situation and that we are going to leave. I was so excited. Like, yes it is the end of this catastrophe and we will be leaving very soon . Even today, right now, I was hoping that we would be leaving. But no. The attacks just began suddenly and all of these hopes went away. We are so desperate right now.

In [this] situation, your thoughts and ideas go really crazy. Thoughts and ideas that never stop coming into your mind when you are being bombarded [and] under this amount of attacks. What will happen? What will the next hour, the next minutes bring? You can't imagine how your head can be coming up with ideas about death or being trapped and killed under the rubble of your building you are staying in, or being a hostage and put in jail by the regime.

We have a horrible, catastrophic situation and no one, even from a Muslim country, or from the Western and European states, [is] taking steps against the regime. They are doing nothing and just watching the massacres that are taking place here right now.

I just want the people to take some actions to stop the massacres here. By demonstrating against the Russian and the Syrian army…They are in the sky now and bombing the city.

They are using another kind of weapon in this situation: starvation. People have run out of every kind of food. We have been under siege for three constant months. We can barely have one meal a day. Some families have just one meal for every two days.

For me, I was very happy yesterday to go first thing to Turkey, stay there for a while and then manage my way out to somewhere else in Europe...

These kinds of weapons are cluster bombs and the warplanes have just started bombing the city. Oh my god…

You cannot recognize the streets, the buildings. The regime has turned it to pieces. The attacks have really changed the identity of the areas. It's tough, it has changed unbelievably so much.

The real heroes are in the families, the people who are carrying on in these circumstances. They have just decided to stay in their homes.

Talking about heroic actions, I would direct my finger to the civil defense workers who are doing unbelievable work while the attacks are ongoing. They were rescuing people from under the rubble. These are the greatest of people. They are putting their lives at risk while the regime and warplanes are in the sky killing and bombing everywhere.

The last month, before the cessation of hostilities, the situation [in Aleppo] became totally unbelievable. It was the worst ever in the last six years.

We are so afraid, and depressed, and angry. All of these bad thoughts. You can't help it. The attacks just don't stop.

Aleppo evacuation
A Syrian man cries during an evacuation operation of rebel fighters and their families from rebel-held neighbourhoods on December 15 in the embattled city of Aleppo. A convoy of ambulances and buses left rebel territory in Aleppo in the first evacuations under a deal for opposition fighters to leave the city after years of fighting. Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty

December 15: A new agreement brings fresh hope

People are now evacuating the city. The first group of buses has arrived to the Aleppo countryside and they are coming back to take the others. It is just a matter of time for us.

I am just trying to stay for the last bus today. I will just try to stay as long as possible. It will be tonight or tomorrow morning. We will just wait and see.

I am so happy that I am going to have my freedom back. But I feel so bad because I will not come back here for a long time. It is my homeland, it is where I was born, where I was raised, where I was working.

It's really such a homesickness I am going to feel whenever I leave. I will be free physically, but my mind will be trapped.

The first days and months may be very bad after leaving. Getting used to the normal life, that there is no bombing and that everything is available to you. All kinds of foods and medicines, electricity and water, the internet. Even going down the street at night and the lights are on. Here, it is dark and you can't see your way.

People are just so excited. They are packing. They are breaking their stuff before leaving. They are breaking their cars and motorbikes and others are breaking their furniture and laptops. Some people have burnt their houses if you can believe it. They do not want the regime to have it. In every area of Syria the regime has captured, Assad's soldiers have taken everything with them.

We are breaking some of our stuff, too. Like the desks, the closet and the printing machine. Some of the stuff that we have in our memories. It's somehow a relief to see your stuff breaking than seeing it with the regime. So it's really not quite happy, but a relief. We are not leaving anything.

Many people here are writing messages. We are writing about Assad and writing that we will come back very soon. People are drawing on the walls and in the streets.

We are just spending our last moments here. I'm taking some pictures of my neighborhood, my house, my streets. It's going to be the last time that we stay here and talk in my office. I will miss the desks, walls, pictures of revolution flags, pictures of our martyrs who have died during the last six years.

How you would feel in such a situation when you are forced to leave your country? Maybe you are alone and just crying because you cannot do anything to stay. You are being displaced. The whole world has abandoned us.

Even though the situation is very bad, I am alive. We have a ceasefire here. I will just keep hoping and praying. And things are just great now.