Issa Touma, photographer from Aleppo, has portrayed the Syrian people before, during and after the war. But it was only when he moved to Sweden that he understood why the Western world’s image of Syria was so distorted. Despite great difficulties in Syria, he feels hopeful for the future.
I call several times at the agreed time. I write a message. After a while, I get an answer: please try again later.
There is a power outage. I had to start the generator to start the computer. We only have electricity for maybe two or three hours a day, says Issa Touma when we talk via Facetime.
He is in Aleppo in northern Syria. The Internet connection is unstable but, during most of the conversation, both audio and video work. In Aleppo, Issa Touma has been running Le Pont Gallery for 25 years. Although he periodically has worked in Europe, he always returned to his hometown and his gallery.
When the war in Syria started in the spring of 2011, life in Aleppo continued as usual. On August 19, 2012, the calm was over. Issa Touma, who in his professional role usually stands by and watches and listens to people, ended up in the center of events. With his camera, he documented what he saw from his window.
The short film 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo has received several international awards, and has been highlighted by BBC News and shown at festivals around the world. It depicts what happened when the war came to Aleppo.
Issa Touma’s street was at the front line in the fighting between the Syrian army and the armed groups. The film shows that it took nine days before the young, secular men with weapons disappeared and the uprising was in the hands of combat-experienced religious extremists.
Some of the fighters were foreigners. The military leader on Issa Touma’s street were from Chechnya.
“When the war started, a lot of people in Syria, especially the secular ones in the cities, were shocked by the religious fanaticism in the uprising. For me, it did not come as a surprise,” says Issa Touma.
“Before the war, I had traveled around northern and eastern Syria. I had visited the villages and listened to people. The change came with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The influence of the fanatics grew rapidly in the years that followed.”
After the war came to Aleppo in 2012, four difficult years followed. Issa Touma’s home ended up on the eastern side of the divided city, which was controlled by extremist groups. For a time, the western, government-controlled part and its more than one million inhabitants were completely enclosed by the armed groups. There was an acute shortage of food, water, medicine and electricity.
Thousands of Aleppo residents fell victim to the shelling from the eastern side. But Western media rarely reported on what was happening in western Aleppo.
During these dark years, Issa Touma received scholarships that enabled him to save his digital archive and continue his work abroad. In March 2016, the Swedish city of Gävle, member of The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), welcomed Issa Touma to stay there for two years.
“Something I asked myself during the first years of the war was how come the voices of the war fanatics were so loud in the West. I found the answer when I came to Sweden,” says Issa Touma.
”In Sweden, oppositional Syrians could tell anything and get it published. No one checked if the things they claimed were true. The task of these Syrians was to clean up the dirty pages of the war, so that the fanatics in Syria would get the support of European politicians.”
Issa Touma was frightened by the situation in Sweden. He saw cultural centers and human rights organizations controlled by Syrian extremists. He saw how some Syrians were elevated by media as Syrian experts, despite the fact that they barely had been in Syria during the war, and sometimes came from cities other than those they claimed.
These so-called experts were also among the cultural workers who received support from ICORN, Pen International and other similar organizations.
Issa Touma told me about a conference in Norway in 2017. At the conference, an acclaimed Syrian filmmaker said that allies of the Syrian government side conducted ethnic cleansing in Aleppo. The audience was told that Iranian Shia militias occupied the city and purged the Sunni Muslim majority.
“What was he saying, I asked myself. I had been in Aleppo recently before the conference and saw nothing of this. There are few Shia Muslim families in Aleppo, almost all living there are Sunni Muslims. But the audience in Norway believed his lies. Ten organizations had invited this filmmaker to speak.”
During the conference, the Syrian government was accused of killing an opposition activist, despite the fact that it was known that the terrorist group Jaysh al-Islam was guilty of the murder.
“I was so angry. I went to the ICORN director and said this is too much for me. I do not mind criticizing the Syrian government—but told him that ICORN should criticize what it does badly, rather than promoting the fantasies of war activists in Europe.”
9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo and Issa Touma’s other movies have been shown worldwide.
In Sweden, it was difficult to reach out to the public. During Issa Touma’s two-year stay in Sweden, his film was shown in Gävle only. Not a single film festival invited him. He believes that it is because of his refusal to accept the image that the conflict is between freedom-fighting rebels and a dictator.
“If that was really the case, then why did 80-90 percent of the inhabitants flee to the dictatorial side when the freedom fighters came? If it was freedom that they brought, then surely the people should have gone the other way?”
“People fled from eastern to western Aleppo because they were terrified of the Islamist fighters, not because they liked the government.”
Due to his statements, Issa Touma has been accused of being an agent of the Syrian government. He shakes his head at the absurd statement: “I am independent, and everyone knows my history with the government.”
That the ruling Ba’ath party did not always appreciate Issa Touma was obvious long before the war. His exhibitions and the annual international film festival attracted thousands of people. When the content was considered too controversial, the ruling party tried to stop the activities by turning off the electricity, and they forced him to keep the gallery closed.
In the autumn of 2016, the final battle for Aleppo took place. On December 22, 2016, the Syrian army retook the eastern part of the city, and the last hard-core jihadists and their families were bussed to Idlib west of Aleppo. During the Christmas celebrations the same year, thousands of Christians and Muslims took to the streets together.
The week after Christmas, Issa Touma entered the previously closed eastern part. He saw destruction and dead bodies. His house remained, albeit marked by bullet holes. Many of his neighbors’ homes had been demolished. He also saw how people tried to get their lives back to normal and do things they could not do before.
“A football pitch (soccer field) located on the outskirts of the Armenian Christian quarter in eastern Aleppo was quickly restored. The field is in the middle of war-damaged houses. It is a great place, always clean and tidy. It is not just Armenians who play there, all ethnic and religious groups come there.”
Five years after the liberation of Aleppo, a few hotbeds remain in Syria. One is the Idlib province under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Another hotbed is the border area with Turkey in the north. It is occupied by Turkish troops in cooperation with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army with a new name. The wreckage of ISIS is operating in the east at the border area with Iraq.
Issa Touma’s image of Syria at the end of December 2021 is simultaneously both gloomy and positive.
He told me that “most of those who fled Aleppo during the war have not returned. At least one million people now live in the city, but it was two million before the war. The roads in the city have been cleared. The street to my house was one of the first to be opened. It is step one to enable people to return.
The biggest problem is the economy. The Syrian pound has plunged against the U.S. dollar, and commodity prices have risen dramatically.”
“Life has become so difficult,” Issa Touma continued. “A pair of shoes costs as much as the monthly salary of a government employee. In many families, all adults and also young people 16-17 years old work. It is their only chance to survive. A lot of people want to leave Syria for economic reasons, but it is difficult to get out when the road to Europe via Turkey is closed.”
When I ask him what role the U.S. and EU sanctions play, Issa Touma answers that he honestly “does not know the answer.” Instead, he points to what he himself can see in everyday life, such as that “some use the crisis to enrich themselves.
There is no control over business and pricing. Control is needed.”
However, Issa Touma believes that “the war did not only bring death and destruction.”
“For the past year and a half, I have chosen to only work in Syria,” he said. “The Syrian people who are 40 years and older are dreaming of going back to the old times. The young people, the war generation, do not remember what Syria was like before the war. Here is the chance to build something new.”
The young people he has interviewed for his film project Freedom of Choice are open to change. According to Issa Touma, Islamism is in sharp decline. The liberation process is also directed at deeply rooted traditions such as the influence of the family and the clan.
“The real revolution is starting now. It can give Syria a better future.”
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About the Author
Patrik Paulov is a freelance writer based in Gothenburg, Sweden.
He has published several articles about the war in Syria in Sweden’s largest newspapers, as well as in alternative and independent media.
In 2015, he made a well-publicized revelation about Swedish foreign aid to opposition groups in Syria, that were cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists. Until 2018, Patrik Paulov worked as international editor of the weekly newspaper Proletären. His book Syria’s Silenced Voices was published in Swedish in 2019 and in English in 2021.