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Jutarnji List / Interview / Aleppo

“Aleppo, outside of the frames of interest, religion, politics, propaganda is a place of unthinkable human tragedy and destruction. I have been here eight days and am actually at a loss for words to describe daily life filled with… suffering. This is a fall. An omission. An omission of humanity.

And of all places, for a deeper paradox, right where civilization was born. In Aleppo. It was all here. In one place. Culture, cohabitation, history, tradition. But then something went wrong,” this is how Zoran Marinović begins his story, a combat photojournalist we talked to after his stay at the current ground zero of the Syrian conflict.

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text / Martina Hrupic

A short while after he contacted Jutarnji List, BBC broadcasted the Syrian government suspended the evacuation of civilians and fighters from East Aleppo, which began on Thursday, accusing rebels of violating ceasefire conditions. In the meantime news came of evacuation buses coming under fire. Some 6.000 people were evacuated from town on Thursday, but the UN claims there are still 50.000 of them there.

Marinovic, commenting on the situation in Aleppo, claims that in 20 years he has been in this business, he has never witnessed such an amount of propaganda and abuse of small human lives to justify the war in any way – from both sides.

“On the battlefield Bashar al-Assad is winning this battle, but he is far from winning the war. There is a media battle raging too, which is where he’s losing. The entire American and a large portion of the European populace is sending news based on several tweets. Often tweets of a seven year old girl for who no one knows if she exists or the account is fake, or of the Syrian Observatory based in London. And then suddenly, with astounding speed, a tweet becomes a report or front page of genocide, repetition of Bosnia or Ruanda, of the murder of civilians in the streets.”

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“After this, people to whom such stories are served in their warm and safe homes, unleash an avalanche of emotions for bickering on social networks. War is not black, nor white. There are countless nuances of grey. War cannot be good. I am in Aleppo. Past several days, especially in the end of last week, an incredible amount of bombs were dropped on this unfortunate five square kilometres where, UN estimates, some 50 thousand people and several thousand rebels are trapped.”

“Civilian casualties will be high. How many? No one knows at this moment. No one. Not even those who must know! Such as the UN or other international organisations on the ground. Is there retribution or genocide? Maybe, but I doubt it, as no nothing in the field points to any such event.”

“The Croatian populace is quite familiar with the term ‘excessive shelling.” And in this case this is excessive shelling squared! Is there justification for such activity, such brutality? No. No humane person can claim there is a reason to achieve a goal in such a way and with such casualties. And Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies have decided the means are not important.”

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“Just the goal. And it was accomplished. Aleppo was too big a weight in this political game, and human lives were unimportant. They smelled the enemy is weak. In the past month rebel positions caved in as a house of cards. Only a year ago the situation was completely different. The rebels were near victory.”

“Let us return to the centre of town. Into the five unfortunate square kilometres. Who is in there? This is the question now? Are they seven year old girls who tweet their fear, school teachers leaving their last messages to their children, White Helmets who pluck people out of ruins or young girls who write ‘Don’t forget us.’ There certainly are some. School teachers and girls. But there are also others.”

“Among the housewives and teenagers are also Abdulah Muhagsini, Saudi, proclaimed rebel leader, who said a month ago ‘we won’t surrender, we came here to die,’ there are Chechens, Tunisians, an entire echelon until recently under the flag of al-Qa’ida, then the Front al-Nusra, renaming themselves Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Not changing their doctrine at all. Or means. Or purpose.”

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“There is the American-Turkish backed Free Syrian Army which in the first days of the Arab Spring exchanged democratic ideas with collecting household appliances around people’s homes and reselling them. Oh yes, they are here. Among the children and female sellers. All of them, not to mention another six paramilitary groups, are here. The palette of ideologies is broad, but the technique of decapitation, launching rockets on hospitals and sniping civilians is the same. Furthermore, when they controlled the town, all of the above was preferred to sending goodbye tweets. They committed all the atrocities they are exposed to now, calling out for help. Yes, this is the key problem.”

We asked Marinovic what kind of human stories he came across.

“This is a place of extreme emotions. Sorrow and despair are almost palpable. And the sacrifice will be borne by the innocent and weak once again. The huge amount of stress and fear shadows those who just left. Pushing through corridors. It is horrible to see people who have just lost their closest family. There are no words to describe it. In this place we can erect a monument to fallen humanity. As we haven’t ended this vicious circle. We allowed hate to bond with revenge. And then revenge with hate. We allowed these teary eyed boys, coming out of the ruins, to be given an opportunity to become mindless killers. We allowed it. we did.”

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When talking of the future and answering what the fall of Aleppo will mean for the Syrian regime and Syria in general, Marinović says he would not describe the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad as a regime, or the fall a liberation. Assad, he adds, is not an ideal solution. “It’s not. Of course it’s not. But right now… it is the only one. He is the only one in this moment who does not exclude any options. And options in Syria are many. Unbearably many. From Sunnites, Shiites, Alawites, Kurds and Islamists to Russian interests.”

“Let us try to imagine what Syria would be like if run by the al-Nusra. Actually there is no need to imagine it, there are excellent examples in the region where women are stoned to death, homosexuals thrown from buildings, public executions performed on traffic lights. The success in Aleppo overshadowed the failure in Palmira. Palmira was a few months ago liberated with large pomp and celebration, only for the Islamic State to walk back into the centre a few days ago. It is significant the Russians had no response at all. The Russians are the beginning and end of any Assad success, but obviously not his failures,” Marinović claims.

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He also compared the west and east parts of Aleppo. “Life in the western part does function. Somewhat. Let us not forget in the past five years of war over 15.000 died there. And a few days ago, on Friday, before the beginning of the horrible attack, several shells from the eastern part were launched, killing 12. Three outside the very hotel where journalists are based, It is also interesting how few journalists there are. Not even a dozen. We know each other well. Unlike Mosul in Iraq where there are hundreds.”

In this media frame the biggest stars are Russians. They can do anything. I even get the feeling the locals, primarily Arabs, are to a degree scared of the Russians. Their firmness and resoluteness. We the ‘others’ are all viewed as westerners. Under certain control. And it is exactly this part of the military action that feeds doubt. If the Assad army is not doing anything outside of conventions, why limit the work of journalists. Today, besides local employees, there is no CNN, no Al-Jazeera, no Reuters… or many other omnipresent agitators of offensives under the ‘reflector lights’ of the fourth estate,” Marinović points out.

We wonder what the town looks like, the extent of destruction.

“The city looks unbearable. Destruction is comparable to the Second World War. There are large sections of town where everything was literally destroyed. Everything. Not even stone upon stone, due to a large number of aerial bombardments, I would say the statics of the town have been disturbed. The only building standing is the fortress in the centre, one of the oldest in the world, resisting with its stone walls. more or less everyone attacked it,” he says.

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“An Arab story says it takes only one fool, one finger of that fool to push a glass from a table and break it into a thousand pieces. And then even a hundred smart people and two hundred hands are not enough for the glass to be put together again. And even if they do, it won’t hold water. No one will drink from it again. Such is peace. It is easy to break, hard to keep. And it will take many smart heads and hard working hands for Syria to drink from the glass of peace again,” concluded Marinović.