Afraa Hashem / September 21, 2023

The smell of blood, the screams of patients – a visit to Ukraine reminded me of my last days in Aleppo

This article was originally published in the i newspaper

Next week at the UN General Assembly there will be much talk of solidarity and intergenerational co-operation in response to unprecedented setbacks around the world. As a Syrian human rights defender, recently returned to London from Ukraine, I can testify to the true meaning of solidarity and cooperation.

During the siege of Aleppo, my son Wissam asked me: “Is the world watching us and remaining silent? Does nobody care about our fate?”

I tried to explain that if people knew the truth they would not be silent and that one of us would definitely survive to tell our story. We did survive, but so did the Russian and Syrian regimes that inflicted the starvation siege on our city.

I travelled to Ukraine last month, alongside 13 Syrian activists, to show Ukrainian children the same age as my son that we see what is happening to them and that we care, even if the world does not.

As a former head teacher in eastern Aleppo, I helped to set up the education system under siege and shelling. I have watched the conflict in Ukraine from London, where I am forcibly displaced, and I often think, did we really suffer in Aleppo to become human rights defenders and see these crimes repeated?

In Bucha, Ukraine, I was tormented by the empty streets, abandoned houses, and shattered window panes where the Russian army massacred around 458 civilians in February 2022. It reminded me of my last days in Aleppo before it fell into the hands of the Russians. The calm after the noise of war makes you feel that the city has died.

Throughout the trip, I thought of the Russian soldier who supervised my forced displacement from Aleppo as he counted me, my husband and our three children onto a bus. I desperately wanted him to see me now. To make him understand that, although he robbed my city, he could not break me.

Visiting Mariupol hospital was a vivid reminder of Russia’s policy of bombing hospitals in both Syria and Ukraine. Alongside fellow Syrian activists and survivors, I spoke with medical staff who miraculously survived systematic attacks by Russian forces last year.

Waad Al-Khateeb, who made the Oscar-nominated movie For Sama about the siege of Aleppo, filmed our visit. Being in Mariupol brought back memories of Waad and I roaming Al-Quds hospital with her husband, Dr Hamza Al-Khateeb, documenting the latest violations by Russia and the regime.

I remembered the smell of blood, the screams of the patients, and the hospital walls on which we wrote our last appeals before leaving. Our trip coincided with the 10th anniversary of the biggest chemical weapons massacre in Syria, when the Syrian regime, enabled by Russia, also persecuted medics in Ghouta, arresting them and forcing them to give false testimonies denying the chemical attacks.

The rise in state-backed disinformation like this is rubbing salt in the wounds of Syrians and Ukrainians alike and sowing confusion among policymakers, stalling efforts towards accountability.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin shook my hand after listening to my experiences and promised to support our joint path to justice and to hold Russia accountable. I believe him, as I have not overcome the crimes I experienced and I see how Ukrainians are suffering, but I want to hear these promises from the United Nations and countries that advocate against war crimes.

I kept asking myself why I chose to go to Ukraine. Was it really to show solidarity? Or was it just as a personal victory over Russia and the Syrian regime that I am still resisting? Maybe it was simply a need to hug people like us who understand our pain. Like the sister of a Ukrainian university student who is counting the days since he was kidnapped and taken to Russia. She reminded me of Syrian journalist Wafa Mustafa’s daily struggle for her father’s freedom; he has been detained by the Syrian regime for over 10 years. Today, over 100,000 Syrians have disappeared – detained and tortured in Assad’s notorious dungeons.

I returned to my home in exile carrying many plans made with those we met to unify our efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable, but we desperately need international support. In the same month that Syrians have come under renewed attack in northwest Syria and are protesting across the country for regime change, and when 17 people were killed after Russian jets bombed a market in Ukraine, international decision-makers convening in New York must act.

I am not satisfied with solidarity alone and I hope that we can co-operate towards a real path to justice that stops Russia’s violations and impunity, with the support of countries around the world.

Afraa Hashem is a former headteacher, activist and human rights defender from Syria, living in London. She is one of the main characters in the award-winning documentary, For Sama