What I don’t know and what I do know about Aleppo

A reflection on the current discussion surrounding tragedy and the politics of disbelief

Annie Koh

Above: A bombed-out street in Aleppo / Wikimedia

My parents are both survivors of the Korean War. For me, the siege of Aleppo has been filtered through what I know about civil war, from family stories and graduate seminars about the Korean War. I don’t know if more “boots on the ground” would save lives or take lives.* I don’t know how much to blame Russia or the U.S. and geopolitical realpolitik.*

I do know that the images of families fleeing the rubble of their city have an emotional reality that has absolutely nothing to do with assigning blame and everything to do with empathy. My parents endured three years of civil war as children. My dad was orphaned at the age of 7. My mom was bundled up by my grandmother and put on a refugee boat to a southern island. A quarter of a million pounds of napalm was used to firebomb entire cities.

All of this is reality for the people of Aleppo and Syria too.** It’s a goddamn tragedy we have seen countless times before and in this case, it’s some next-level bullshit that people are trying to convince me to discount the suffering of Aleppo’s residents as propaganda. Seoul was taken by the North Korean military, retaken by the U.S. and South Korean armies, and then taken back yet again by the North Korean combined with Chinese military and then once again by the allied forces. And each time the city changed hands there were massacres and reprisals and targeted revenge killings on both sides. I suspect that accusations of atrocities and killings against the rebels as well as Assad’s troops and foreign fighters will be borne out.

But I cannot call a pox on both their houses, because in both houses are families and children and siblings and aunts and uncles. That rebel jihadist? That government stooge? They are people, in all of their heartbreaking complexity. My spouse’s grandfather went North before the war to help start what he believed would be a just society based on equality instead of a hierarchical system of exploitation. My grandfather stayed South and sought to improve understanding with the American military government. After that goddamn civil war, one was kidnapped with whereabouts unknown and the other was dead or alive on the other side of the most densely militarized border of the Cold War. So don’t tell me that I should only mourn the innocents, apportion out my caring and grief based on whether people deserve it or not. Sorting out the deserving or undeserving dead is ghoulish.

* I’m referring to both the war in Syria and the Korean War.

** 5 million people have fled Syria because of the six-year-long civil war. In total, the U.S. has accepted 100,000 Syrian refugees. Canada, with a population barely a tenth the size of the United States, has resettled three times more Syrian refugees since last fall. (source: Washington Post, Sept 2, 2016).