Thousands in Syria's Aleppo mark one year since 'victory'

Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) –


Jumaa Sabbuh lost his son in the violence that battered Syria's Aleppo for years. On Thursday, he was among thousands commemorating the one-year anniversary of the army's recapture of the city.

"Of course I'm sad for my son Ibrahim, but the joy of victory has eclipsed any sadness," said the wrinkled 55-year-old, his face framed by a chequered scarf.

Sabbuh carried a poster of his bright-eyed son, killed in 2014 while serving in Syria's army.

"We gave a lot of martyrs for us to reach safety," said Sabbuh, who has two more sons still in the military.

Thousands of people gathered with flags, pictures of loved ones lost, and pro-army banners in Aleppo's central Saadallah al-Jabiri square on Thursday to mark a year since Syria's government retook the metropolis.

On December 22, 2016, the army formally announced it was in full control of second city Aleppo after a blistering Russian-backed offensive to oust rebel fighters.

The historic Saadallah al-Jabiri square was once a frontline, but on Thursday it was brimming with pro-government support.

Hundreds of troops put on an imposing military display under a massive poster featuring President Bashar al-Assad against a backdrop of the Syrian government's two-star flag.

"Syria will remain led by Assad, symbol of resistance and victory," read one banner, and another insisted, "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine."

Commemorators came out in the thousands despite the chilly weather, including many dressed in military gear and carrying pictures of young male relatives killed in the fighting.

- 'Nothing is forever' -

Aleppo native Nuhaida Turun said she still deeply missed her son, killed in an explosion targeting an army checkpoint in central Syria.

"The price was high, but whatever we pay is cheap compared to our country," said the 49-year-old housewife.

She said she could now walk the streets of Aleppo safely at night.

"Despite losing our children, despite all the destruction that happened here, our joy at victory is irreplaceable," said Turun, dressed in a long brown coat and black scarf.

"Nothing is forever."

Before Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, Aleppo was the country's commercial powerhouse, with a population of 2.5 million people.

But thousands fled after rebels overran the city's east in the summer 2012, bringing the total population to just 1.5 million with around 250,000 in the opposition-held half.

For years, rebels lobbed rockets on the government-controlled west as regime troops bombed opposition neighbourhoods.

In December, after months of crippling siege, thousands of rebels and civilians agreed to evacuate east Aleppo, paving the way for the army to declare it back in regime hands.

The takeover marked Assad's biggest victory since the outbreak of war, and set off a domino effect of opposition losses elsewhere in the country.

- 'No one left but me' -

Resident Abdulrazzaq Mhanna descended to Aleppo's streets on Thursday with pictures of the three brothers he lost in Syria's nearly seven-year conflict.

"My father had four sons -- Zakariya, Haydar, Tufiq, and me," said the 28-year-old.

"There's no one left but me."

One brother was killed fighting in the army, but Mhanna said he lost two others in bombardment by rebel groups on the city.

"Victory doesn't come easily. Victory needs sacrifice, blood, and suffering," he insisted, calling on displaced Aleppines to come back and "help us rebuild what's been destroyed."

Much of the east was reduced to rubble by the fierce fighting, although authorities have begun restoring the water and electricity networks.

Mountains of rubble that once blocked Aleppo's thoroughfares have been cleared and some streets newly paved.

While rebels have been ousted from the city itself, they remain entrenched in some of its outskirts and occasionally fire rockets into the urban centre.

Just before celebrations began on Thursday, shelling on the city left two people dead and four civilians wounded, state news agency SANA reported.

That didn't deter 52-year-old Raslan al-Hajj Hussein from coming out.

"We suffered a lot from the shelling on the city, but nevertheless we resisted, and we went to work," he told AFP.

But with 2017 drawing to a close, Al-Hajj Hussein said he hoped to see "the whole country victorious, with every inch of it liberated."