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Orphan, teenager, widow: One girl's tale of survival in Aleppo

'Homeless, with no parents or husband and a dead sister and dead baby, and I am just 16 years old. These are my memories and my life'
Hala and her brothers now live in a camp for orphans in Idlib province (MEE/Muhammad al-Shimale)

From a distance of more than half a decade of war and loss, the memories that 16-year old Hala clings to most from her early childhood in Aleppo are the mundane routines of family life and childhood. Going to school. Playing with her three younger brothers and sister. Even the occasional arguments her parents would have about money.

Hala's father, Hosam, worked hard as a taxi driver to support the family, but times were hard and frustrations simmered in the al-Mashad district where they lived in on the eastern side of Syria's second city.

The aftermath of an air strike in Aleppo's Maadi neighbourhood in 2013 (AFP)
When demonstrations against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, broke out in Aleppo in 2011, Hosam used his taxi to help protesters escape from the feared shabiha – pro-government thugs deployed by the authorities to attack and intimidate the participants. And when police started shooting, he drove the injured to hidden medical centres for treatment.

One day, the police broke into our home and took my father during the middle of the night

- Hala

"One day, the police broke into our home and took my father during the middle of the night. We were all crying and my mother was in shock," recalls Hala, who did not want to give her full name.

"I remember saying: 'Please leave him alone, don't kill him… leave him, he has done nothing,' but, poor dad, they took him and my mum didn't stop sobbing all through the night and the next day.

"She called my uncles to go and check on him, but they couldn't get any information. The police just told them to forget about him."

The first sound of bombs

For the next three months, Hala and her family heard nothing of Hosam as the demonstrations outside grew larger and louder and the clashes grew fiercer.

Then, finally - Hala recalls that her mother Esraa was reading the Quran and the children were eating their lunch - they heard a knock at the door. It was Hosam, pale and skinny from his time in prison.

"I fell on the ground and started crying, shouting to my mum: 'Dad is here! Dad is here!'"

Syrians protest against the government in Shaar, Aleppo in July 2012 (AFP)
Hosam described how he had been abused and humiliated in Aleppo's Central Prison, part of a notorious network of government detention sites where thousands of people have been tortured and "disappeared" since 2011, according to human rights groups.

By 2012, living a normal life in Aleppo had become impossible. "There were demonstrations everywhere, even many times in our schools," says Hala. Her father took her out of school and the children passed the time most days at home with their mother.

The warplanes were shelling nearby. It was so close. It is something that became a normal part of day-to-day life, we simply got used to it

- Hala

And then during Ramadan, Hala was awoken by the sound of people screaming in the street.

"Everyone was leaving their homes and going out onto the streets with their packed luggage and walking," she says.

"The warplanes were shelling nearby. It was so close. That was the first time we saw and experienced the shelling and bombing. It is something that became a normal part of day-to-day life, we simply got used to it."

Death of a father

The family left for a few days to stay with relatives as Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters took control of the streets and launched attacks on government forces. When they returned, they found FSA fighters occupying their house.

Hosam returned to his taxi work, but his involvement with the opposition played on his wife's mind. One day, Hosam was returning to the then-rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo from the government-controlled side of the city when he was stopped and questioned by police.

The burial of civilians who were executed and dumped in the river, in Bustan al-Qasr, Aleppo, in January 2013 (AFP)
"He denied all accusations but they were aggressive with him and arrested him," Hala says, citing eyewitness accounts of the incident. "He was trying to escape but they kept beating him brutally."

After three days, a friend told the family that Hosam was being held in western Aleppo.

"We were completely devastated because we knew that my dad had been in jail before and we realised they would not let him out because of his activities," recalls Hala.

"It was one of the most horrid days of my life. I thought my dad won't come to see us ever again."

Then my mum got a call from our old neighbour. 'He is dead, we found your husband's body,' she said.

- Hala

In January 2013, the family heard news of a massacre near Bustan al-Qasr, where executed civilians were found floating in the river that now divided the city into two sides. For nearly a week, bodies kept appearing in the water.

"We didn't think that my dad could be among the dead," says Hala. "Then my mum got a call from our old neighbour. 'He is dead, we found your husband's body,' she said."

Hala's mom collapsed sobbing. "She told me: 'Take care of your brothers until I get back.' I begged her to tell me what had happened, but she said nothing."

Yet from the look in her mother's eyes, Hala knew that her father was dead. A few hours later her mother returned to the house. "He was shot right in the head," Hala recalls her as saying.

At least 68 bodies were eventually recovered, all killed by single gunshots to the head or neck, according to reports citing FSA officials. The Syrian government denied the killings and said "terrorist groups" were responsible.

Marriage in wartime

Hosam's death also left the family without any source of income. Just two weeks later and despite being only 13 years old, Hala agreed to marry at her mother's request. Her husband Khaled, who was 25 and worked at a phone shop in the Ferdous neighbourhood, was known to her uncle but Hala had never met him before.

Sonia Khush, Syria director for the Save the Children, an international charity, told MEE that child marriage was a growing problem in Syria and refugee communities as families and communities were "pushed to the brink" by the brutality of the country's war.

Hala looks at photos of her family on her phone (MEE/Muhammad Al-Shimale)
"Teenage girls, who should be in school, have found themselves with very few options. The parents often have been out of work for years and long spent all their savings, meaning that providing the most basic things like food or medicine for their children has become an impossible challenge," says Khush.

"In these grave circumstances, where one or both parents could have been killed or injured, girls and their families often see getting married as one of the only ways to alleviate the financial burden."

Kush says that many families feel they cannot protect their daughters from kidnappings, sexual assaults and rapes and hope that, by finding them a husband, they will be better protected and have a better life.

Suddenly I became mum and dad to my brothers, They had no one to stay with but me. The bombs and the attacks kept going on our street

- Hala

"Whatever the reasons, however, the sad fact is that even once this war is over, many girls who have been married off will never be able to get their childhood back. They will not be able to return to school, and may have already become mothers far too young."

Hala moved into a house with Khaled close to where her family lived. One day in mid-September 2013, she was visiting them while her husband was at work. A rocket hit the building as her mother prepared food in the kitchen. Hala and her brothers fell to the floor - but the room where her mother was suffered the full force of the blast.

"She was covered in blood, all over her chest and body," says Hala, referring to her mother. "She died instantly when a big piece of metal hit her heart and killed her."

At the time Hala was a few weeks pregnant but the shock of the attack caused her to miscarriage, she learned later at the hospital.

"Suddenly I became mum and dad to my brothers," she says. "They had no one to stay with but me. The bombs and the attacks kept going on our street. The whole city was being hit constantly."

But despite the constant danger, Hala did not want to leave the city. "I couldn't because my dad and mum are buried here," she says. "How could I bear being away from them? I couldn't."

Flight from Aleppo

In 2015, the area again found itself the target of devastating air strikes. "The neighbour shouted to us to get down to the basement," says Hala. "We got down, but it wasn't safe enough and the building collapsed. It was a massive rocket."

A young boy sits with bird cages after being evacuated from eastern Aleppo in December 2016 (AFP)
She woke up in the hospital with injuries to her leg and head, only to learn that Maya, her sister, and Khaled had died in the attack. Their home had also been destroyed.

"Homeless, with no parents or husband and a dead sister and dead baby, and I am just 16 years old. These are my memories and my life right now," said Hala.

Hala and her brothers were put up in a house by her mother-in-law's family and survived thanks to the kindness and charity of their neighbours.

Along with tens of thousands of other residents they were eventually evacuated from Aleppo in December 2016 as part of a deal which returned the eastern part of the city to government control.

Six months on, Hala and her brothers live in a camp for orphans in Idlib province, studying for an uncertain future as the Syrian war continues to shift around them.

"I love my brothers and will stay with them to protect and raise them properly," she says. "Like my mum did for me when I was their age."

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