WASHINGTON – “Tonight, we’re all from Aleppo. Because Aleppo never fell – we did.”
It’s a freezing evening in the nation’s capital, but about two hundred are gathered in a wide circle outside the White House. There are entire families here, some of them waving Syrian flags, others holding photographs of women and children coated in rock dust and crusted over with dry blood. The mood is solemn, and the air is completely silent.
Meriem Abou-Ghazaleh and Manar Darkazanli, two young Muslim women from the DC area, make their way through the crowd, carrying rope and flour. Meriem walks over to a group of about a dozen who have separated themselves from the rest and formed a single-file line. “You can’t protest, get on the ground,” she shouts at them. They kneel. She blindfolds them and binds their hands together.
Manar takes the mic.
“They died silently, underground, they experienced all kinds of torture, all kinds of pain. How can you be ok with this,” she asks. “Can you sense their fear? Can you see their blood? Can you sense my pain?”
Meriem pours the flour over a pair of women kneeling together. They resemble the countless civilians seen in footage from Syrian aid groups being pulled from the remains of bombed-out buildings. She hands them a rose.
“It was the rose,” she tells them, with a quivering voice and tears in her eyes. “I told you to give the soldier a rose, I didn’t think they’d kill you, that they’d bomb you. It’s my fault that I failed Aleppo.”
“We failed Aleppo.”
The battle raging for Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and a pivotal point in the country’s years-long civil war, is fast approaching an endgame. Thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire as forces loyal to the Assad regime, aided by Russia and Iran, encroach on the last rebel stronghold in the city’s decaying eastern district. Food and water is scarce, brief glimmers of hope with promises of escape are cut short by relentless shelling and airstrikes that never seems to pause for long.
“Tonight is where we get hope,” Meriem says to those gathered. “Because tonight, for the first time in six years of being in the streets of DC, I’m able to look at a crowd and see more than just Syrians. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me, because for years we’ve wanted this.”
The vigil on Friday night, whose organizers included members of the Syrian American Council’s youth chapter, continued with a march to the Russian ambassador’s residence four blocks away on 16th Street.
Donika Muji, a human rights consultant from Regensburg, Germany who recently participated in a semester abroad in Washington, is one of the few marchers bearing a flag that isn’t Syrian – instead, it’s Kosovar.
“The situation in Kosovo is very similar to what is happening in Syria,” she explains, “with just one difference: in 1999, people saw, they intervened.” On March 24, 1999, NATO forces intervened in the Kosovo War on behalf of the Albanian population on widespread reports of war crimes by Yugoslav security forces.
But that was a different time, she said: “Almost two decades later, the world is standing still and doing nothing in Syria. I hope to represent all the Albanians that got support from the world, and I want to show to Syria that we stand with them and that they have our voice.”
Huddled on the street outside the ambassador’s residence, some laid roses and flowers at the gates. Hundreds joined in on a chant: “Putin is a criminal, Putin is a baby killer!” One teenager flipped off the security cameras, yelling “fuck off, Putin!”
Two men set up a speaker on the crowded sidewalk. Another man takes the microphone, and he introduces himself as a Russian citizen. He has a message for the ambassador, he tells everyone.
“It’s very difficult for a Russian to be here because Putin, a dictator of Russia, is doing something terrible on behalf of the Russian people,” he said. “As a Russian citizen, I am here with you, and I want to say: we are against Putin, we are against what he is doing in Syria.”
Another man takes the mic: “Our fight is one, whether you’re Russian, Iranian, or Syrian. We all believe in freedom, and we’re all oppressed in our countries.”
A walk back to the White House brought the march to a close after a round of songs and prayer. “I can’t wait to see you all at our next demonstration,” Meriem later posted on the event’s Facebook page. “This is not the end, this is only the beginning.”