I will try to tell you what is happening here in Aleppo since the army’s offensive to take back the city began. On the night between the 3rd and the 4th of February, two missiles that were fired by the Jihadists landed in the area of Soulaymanieh-Ram, where our Pastoral Center is located.
Before this, I thought to gather all the Friars, in a local pastoral Chapter, in order to figure out how to intensify our mission in the area of Soulaymanieh and of Midaan.
The result of constant bombing is always the same: death and destruction of homes. Two Christians have died; there are many injured and a lot of damaged houses. We’re discouraged because we had just finished repairing the damage caused by the previous missile of the 12th of April 2015 when these new bombs came to destroy again what we had just repaired. Our church hasn’t been damaged so far, but the roof and the catechesis classrooms have been struck and partially destroyed; tremors and explosions have ruined walls and shattered windows.
The first missile that fell on our pastoral Center pierced the roof, hitting the statue of the Virgin Mary, the bell tower and some water storage units that had been recently installed. The statue of the Virgin Mary has been reduced to smithereens with the debris falling in the middle of the street. While, the other missile fell on the other street, damaging the Center entrance and killing two Christians, and not sparing the buildings which had been hit by many bombs and missiles in the past.
We, Friars, immediately visited the houses in the area where the two men died and we listened to the painful experience of mothers and fathers who told us the events and how they and their children have experienced fear and shock. We are trying to stay close to our people who knock on our door seeking help.
Our Center hosts the families who live in the area, as well as people from Midaan (who have sought help after the destruction of the church of Bicharat in Midaan). We are also hosting the Maronite Christian Community which often celebrates Holy Mass during the week, after the destruction of their churches nearby. Ours is a place where different parish groups meet for their weekly meetings and where there is also a school for the deaf and mute. It is one of the very few still functioning specialized centers in Aleppo. In addition to welcoming and the various human and spiritual services we offer, we distribute water to the people from our well.
The Christian district of Midaan
Jihadists continued to fire missiles on the night between the 4th and the 5th of February, as a counter-offensive to the advance of government forces and their allies. The explosions affected the Midaan district, where the majority of the people are Christians. It has been total destruction: the poor inhabitants, who are still there, have no houses left. Try to imagine what it means for the families staying here while, during the night missiles fall, without knowing what will happen. An old woman cried while she was telling us that, during that night, people didn’t know how to behave or what to do: “Is it better to flee our homes with the fear of meeting “sister death” on the road or to stay put and risk being killed by missiles?” Some families have decided to sleep in the cold, at the entrances of their houses, others under the stairs. Once, a woman knocked on our door seeking help, with her baby in her arms. She told me that there still were people under the rubble. She was crying for help, hoping that someone would go to help those poor people, but no one had the courage to answer. The injured were left stranded there, along with the corpses, for hours.
Why we remain.
But we have not given up. We are suffering but we are not defeated. We immediately brought emergency food supplies to the damaged houses while visiting them with the engineer, and we started to fix them, beginning with the doors and the windows. For those who had their entire house damaged, we helped with money to pay the rent of other houses for three months, with the possibility to renew the payment. Many, many scared people knock at our door, especially families with little children. The majority of them cannot even think of escaping, they don’t have any money, not even the minimum for transportation. In this situation, there is nothing left for me to do except to provide shelter and listen. Soon we will have to do something because it cannot be put off forever. But the work is immense and so are the necessities.
Water and prohibitive prices.
There is still the enormous problem of water. While rockets were flying it was shocking to see people wandering about looking for water. People are desperate and they brave rockets and rain in order to some water from the faucets installed on the roads above the wells. The dollar is now up to 410 Syrian Pounds; only yesterday the price was 400. This means that the price of food rises from a day to another, even for those simpler things like vegetables. One woman, who still has a job and a monthly wage, told me that not even a month’s wages is enough for a portion of vegetables for one day.
“How long oh Lord, will you forget me?” (Psalm 12)
In the sorrow of these days, it comes to my mind the Psalm that says, “How long, oh Lord, will you forget me?” Sometimes this question comes to me: “Has the Lord left us? Where is the Lord?” This is a moment in which the faith is mightily shaken from its roots for all of us, little flock that is left in Aleppo. Christ asked Saul, “Why do you persecute me,” leaving sure proof of His union with every part of His Holy Body. He is here, suffering, on the cross and he does not “look away while His people are suffering.” He is here in the midst of his people; He helps them and He assists them through the tender clemency and mercy of His pastors; even if many of them are weary and embittered as they see what is happening to their flock. This is what it means for us, Franciscan monks. And this is why we stay here.