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Aleppo, struggling to recover. Christians in the front line of national reconciliation

After a siege that lasted more than four years Aleppo tries to get back on its feet. It’s not only a matter of rebuilding the city but also of mending a society whose thousand-year-long tradition of tolerance and peaceful coexistence was shattered with utter violence. It’s a difficult challenge that the Christian community is determined to win with the peaceful weapons of solidarity and friendship. The personal accounts of Greek-Melikte archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart and of Jesuit Fr Sami Hallak, from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) of Al-Azizieh (Aleppo). Hopes are reposed in the Geneva summit of 20 February to silence all weapons for good and hand back to the Syrian population the key to their future

Aleppo tries to get back on its feet after almost 4 years of war. The reconquest of the eastern part of the city, or rather of what remains, by the military loyal to President Assad supported by Russia aviation, by Iranian volunteers and by Lebanese Hezbollah factions, ended a siege ongoing since 2012. Now it’s time to assess the damage, that is huge. Homes, roads, hospitals, open markets, factories, infrastructures and schools have been destroyed. Even the Great Umayyad Mosque, symbol of bygone beauty, is reduced to a heap of rubble where Russian technicians are coordinating demining operations. Nonetheless, the population is trying to recover a semblance of normality, also thanks to the reopening of 23 schools in the eastern part, whereby 6500 pupils have returned to class. After four years, the rattling noise of a commuter train once again crosses the city, while the stadium was reopened for an official match attended by almost 5000 people. The civilian population hopes that the ceasefire will hold, and that everything will be rebuilt as it was: their homes along with social unity.

National reconciliation is probably the greatest challenge that Syria and Aleppo are called to face, while the war is not yet over. Hence, while waiting to know the outcomes of the Peace talks in Geneva, scheduled for February 20, Syrian forces advance on Isis-controlled territories, reaching the area near al Bab, the last stronghold in the hands of the Caliphate in the district of Aleppo, considered a strategic site by almost all warring parties.

A challenge to be won.   The Christian community of the city, relentlessly engaged in helping the entire population, promoting coexistence – the only effective way to mend the broken pieces of a heart-stricken society – is not afraid to face the challenge of coexistence. Monsignor Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Greek-Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, is optimistic, but he makes no secret of the ongoing hardships. “Rockets and bombs are heard much less frequently. But life in the city remains difficult – he said – there is a shortage of water, electricity and jobs.

But we are alive. The city was liberated.

Schools are reopening. Our Christian community helps many families meet their primary needs such as food and electricity, which we purchase from power generators on the streets. We distribute water tanks with small vans. To date we managed to reconstruct 300 homes destroyed by the war, and we helped 80 youths in the start-up of business activities via non-repayable grants. We are working in the restoration of the railway line and roads. Even basket and football matches resumed.” Eyes are fixed on the present, and on the upcoming Peace Talks in Geneva.

“I’m optimistic” said the archbishop, who hopes that “the reconciliation between Russia and the United States will be positive not only for Syria but for the whole world. The changes in the politics of Turkey Russia and the United States might usher in a peace negotiation.

I am increasingly convinced that when foreign mercenaries will have left our Country the Syrian population will revivify their great tradition of dialogue and coexistence.

Syria must remain a sovereign Country not a puppet in the hands of the power of the day.”

Yearning for a new life. The yearning for a new beginning in the martyred Syrian city was shared by Jesuit Father Sami Hallak, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (Jrs) of Al-Azizieh, in Aleppo. Father Hallak, who has always been in the front line of support to the Christian and non-Christian population, said, “the people are happy although they’re without a job, water and electricity. The situation is worse in the eastern part of Aleppo, the scene of violent clashes and bombings. Entire neighbourhoods were destroyed, and in the past years many of their inhabitants took shelter in the western area. They returned to the areas they had fled from only after government forces regained control of the eastern part of the city. But things are developing at a very slow pace, owing to a lack of primary services, and due to a shortage of food, electricity and drinking water. Law-enforcement authorities are equally lacking. Hence security cannot be guaranteed. Most houses were blown up, some of them were pillaged by the rebels and the militia. The city’s full recovery requires large amounts of money. It’s hard to consider returning now, perhaps later on, maybe in May, when all the rubble will have been removed and the school year will be over. Until then, the displaced population of eastern Aleppo will remain in the western part.” At this stage JRS is focusing all efforts on helping numerous families fallen into situations of extreme poverty. For them, said the Jesuit Fr, “we are setting up small assistance centres near the checkpoints patrolled by armed militia. This discourages ill-intentioned people wishing to steal the food and water supplies meant for the needy. We are trying to do the same in the eastern part of Aleppo with stations for the distribution of warm meals, since the population is left without food.”

We are doing our utmost always hoping in a peaceful resolution. Geneva? “We shall see. Silencing the weapons is what counts.” The Country’s sovereignty? “Right now it’s the least of our worries. I’m saying this as a Syrian citizen who underwent great suffering because of the war. Syrians want to live in dignity and peace.”

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