Children of Aleppo

View film

Marcel Mettelsiefen
Anthony Wonke


INTERVIEWER: What do you like to do most here?

FARAH, 8: My favorite is helping my father. I stay with my father in his office, and we make bombs.

NARRATOR: Farah lives with her three siblings, her older sister, Helen, her younger sister, Sara, and her brother, Mohammed. Their parents are former engineers here in this middle class suburb that is now a front line, in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Some 200,000 residents have fled the brutal fighting.

SARA, 5: When a shell fell here, I died. When they threw the missile on that house there, I died one big death. I died and then lived again. Once, someone shot rockets and one got stuck inside a stone. It exploded and shrapnel went everywhere.

Mister, how much longer ‘til we finish? This long?

HELEN, 13: We are in an area called Sayf al-Dawla. These houses were abandoned a year ago. My mother and siblings and I are staying here. This is a very important military zone. The army headquarters are directly next to us. There’s hardly any distance between us and the army, just a wall this size.

[in English] [holding photograph] See my dad. He my dad.

[subtitles] This is my father a long time ago, when he was young.

ABU ALI, Father: [on the radio] Go ahead, in the name of God. [sound of explosion] Khalid, splendid. Go to a secure place, Khalid!

NARRATOR: The children’s father, Abu Ali, was one of the first to join the rebel group the Free Syrian Army.

MOHAMMED, 14: My mother and three sisters and I, we decided not to leave Dad but to stay with him by his side, to resist by his side. Whatever happens to the men, or to my father, will happen to us as well.

NARRATOR: Abu Ali commands a katiba, or battalion, of 300 fighters. They hold a strategic position on a hill overlooking the regime-controlled city center. Daily, there are violent gun battles.

HALA, Mother: In the beginning, I would stay at home in case someone was injured. I would put the kids in one room, and they couldn’t sleep. I gave them a lot of cough syrup so they wouldn’t notice anything. But when the shelling became heavier, I would tell them it was fireworks. They love them a lot. But then I could not lie any longer.

MAN IN STREET: Take them inside because of the shelling. Come on!

HELEN: Dad, are they shelling here?


HELEN: [to children on balcony] Come down! Come down!

ABU ALI: [to fighter with mortar] Where is the third one?

FARAH: The other day, a bomb exploded inside the warehouse, down in the garden. They were making a bomb. Dad was with them. One of them lit the lighter, but the bomb caught fire. Only one of them died. His head was cut off.

INTERVIEWER: Did you see the man who died?

FARAH: His name was Abul Waleed. His head was split like this, from here. Me and my two cousins, we were walking, and my cousin was in front of us. The army stormed the place and surrounded us.

[loud bang] That was close by! It didn’t explode. It didn’t explode. That was a rocket. No, a tank shell. But it didn’t explode.

NARRATOR: Mohammed sneaks through the front line to explore his friend’s home that’s been almost totally destroyed by shelling.

MOHAMMED, 14: The sheets act as blinds, so the snipers don’t strike. Someone will walk into a sniper zone without knowing, and then while he’s walking, he’s shot. Their lives are lost in vain.

BOY: Look what happened to our house. Here. Here. I was born here.

MOHAMMED: My heart is destroyed. When I sleep, I cry and say to myself, “I wish the revolution was a dream.”

Is this a life? No, this isn’t a life. Human beings have become cheap. They cost one dollar. I don’t have any feelings left anymore.

I’m surprised that the chandelier didn’t fall with that rocket.

SARA: I’m scared of dreams. I am walking in a house, and then some snipers stand in a circle around me. And then they shoot me! One of them shoots me here, one shoots me here, and one shoots me here.

INTERVIEWER: Are you scared?

SARA: [nods]

We used to walk around everywhere and buy ice cream. We would eat, shop, everything. But now we can’t even think about going anywhere.

NARRATOR: Just a short distance away, the rebels have tighter control and people can move more freely.

SARA: You pass by that checkpoint. You walk that way. You’ll see crowds of people. There’s the ice cream. We love ice cream. And people, people are like that, and that, filling the street like a demonstration. They stop the traffic, like a demonstration. They’re saying “The people want”— a little boy shouts, “The people want to topple the regime.”

NARRATOR: Twelve-year-old Aboude is one of those demonstrators. He performs here almost every day. He was one of the first to lead protests at his school. Teachers reported him to the police and he was beaten for his defiance. Now he’s a well-known member of the local opposition, leading singing at peaceful street rallies.

ABOUDE, 12: Demonstrations have become our profession. We are addicts now. Now, if we don’t demonstrate each Friday, we don’t know what else to do.

WARDA, Aboude’s Mother: Once he cried for 10 hours after his father forbade him from going. He was dying to go. He wanted to disobey our orders. The revolution is in his blood. Chanting is in his blood.

DEMONSTRATORS: [singing] We will be free whether you like it or not. Bashar.

ABOUDE: [singing] He who kills his own people is not a human, but an ass. Free, free, freedom. We want freedom.

DEMONSTRATORS: [singing] Whether you like it or not, Bashar, we will get our freedom—

WARDA: He obeys his brother, Abu Mariam, because he is his older brother and he knows what’s best for him. I say to him, “Whatever he tells you, you have to do.”

ABU MARIAM, Aboude’s Brother: The peaceful civilians protested before the Free Syrian Army came, and we still do. The protests are a reminder to show that all the shelling and destruction will not bother us. We will protest every day, and we’ll bring him down.

NARRATOR: Aboude’s family worries he is a visible target. They say government spies infiltrate the rebel-held areas and kidnap protesters. Those who have gone missing are often never seen again.

ABOUDE: We try to protect ourselves with knives. They gave me a gun, but I don’t know how to use it.

NARRATOR: Life here has dramatically changed. In parts, the city’s almost a ghost town. Homes abandoned during the fighting have become a place where the girls go exploring.

FARAH: [exploring] Oh, poor thing! This bird is dead in its cage.

HALA, Mother: In Syria, you have to work really hard to own a house. And in the end, all your hard work and your dreams, it falls apart in front of your eyes and you can’t do anything about it.

FARAH: Maybe I’ll find a rifle or something.

SARA: [discovering some toys] Look, Mister, look! Wow! They are like my bear. They’re so lovely. We won’t take any of them.

Wow! Farah, come and look at this little bear. I’m going to save these in my house. Can someone help me carry these? Farah, can you carry that ball and that bear? Put them all in a bag. We’ll only take these. Look at them! Only these. OK?

HELEN: You shouldn’t do this. It’s wrong.

FARAH: I’ll give them back to them.

HELEN: No. You shouldn’t take them. It’s shameful. It’s wrong.

SARA: But they are really pretty, aren’t they? Let’s go! We won’t break them, right? We’re finished. You and I can go downstairs on our own.

HELEN: No, no. it’s wrong.

SARA: But we should hide them from the sniper? Shouldn’t we hide them in our house?

HELEN: No, we shouldn’t.

SARA: [to father] Look at these! She got these from people’s houses.

ABU ALI: No. We got them from the library.

SARA: Those are from people’s houses.

ABU ALI: No, they aren’t from other people’s houses.

SARA: But you’re taking things from houses. You just got some coffee kettles. They were from other people’s houses.

ABU ALI: Darling, we got them from your other house.

SARA: Well, that’s it. I don’t want anything.

HALA: Once I was telling my daughter Sara, “If someone asks you, never say that we don’t like Bashar because they will take your mum and dad.” She said, “Don’t worry, Mama. Don’t worry.” I used to be very upset that I was teaching them to lie, but it’s essential.

[ Watch on line]

NARRATOR: Most schools have been destroyed or closed.

HELEN: I just want my siblings to be happy, to feel the spirit of childhood, the spirit of play.

[to children in home school class] Look at me! Don’t laugh! Don’t laugh! Come on!

My friends, half of them were pro-regime. They were dear to me, but when they saw dad speaking on TV at a demonstration, they abandoned me. I only had one friend left. No one would talk to me any more. All the teachers became very hard with me. When I’d walk down the staircase at school, I felt that at any moment, I could be slaughtered. I felt afraid.

ABOUDE: The head teacher came and caught us, and put us in the office. Then they called the Kallaseh police station. And the police came. They held our feet up high in the office and started to beat our feet. My mum doesn’t know this. I haven’t told her we were beaten on our feet.

NARRATOR: Aboude now spends most of his time at the demonstrations and protests.

ABOUDE: I started feeling tired and I’d lose my voice. My brother, Abu Mariam, said “I’ll bring someone to help you.” Nasma approached Abu Mariam and asked him if she could join in. He approved and she sang a song. We thought she had a nice voice, so I started training her.

[November 16, 2012]

ABOUDE: We were out at the demonstration. It was the first time Nasma sang with me. We were chanting, and when we were done, there were lots of cameras. We gathered up our things. Then a journalist came up. He wanted to film Nasma and me singing a song each.

NASMA: [singing] I’m yearning for freedom. I yearn for my nation which knows no safety. I’m yearning for freedom— [loud explosion]

MAN: Are you OK?

ABOUDE: It dropped next to us, and I fell to the ground to take cover. There were heads rolling on the ground. It was a horrible scene. I was used to scenes like that by then, but the smell was horrible. You could throw up. Lots of blood. Lots of people were injured and killed. The cameraman injured his leg. Neither of us was hurt.

INTERVIEWER: Where is Nasma now?

ABOUDE: Qatar.

NARRATOR: It’s estimated the fighting has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 thousand children across Syria. It has also separated friends.

INTERVIEWER: Have you missed your other friends?

MOHAMMED: Half the school.

COUSIN: Me, too.

MOHAMMED: But now some of them are regime thugs. Others have fathers in the army.

ABU ALI: [to fighters in building] You have to fire from the other window!

MOHAMMED: He and I were the leaders of a gang in school. There’s around 11 of us. We all have BB guns. We plan the attack— us in this area, and them in that one. We block the doors, so when someone goes in, they can’t come back out. Our only games are about fighting.

ABU ALI: [carrying child] She’s got a fever.

HALA: Where’s she got a fever?

ABU ALI: Her face.

[tending to child] Is that better?

My wife and I couldn’t conceive for eight years. After eight years of patience, God granted us a child. God gave us Mohammed. That’s why they are special.

WARDA, Aboude’s Mother: There is nothing more precious than a child. I try to prepare myself every day and say “God give me patience. If one of my children is martyred, God put patience in my heart.” This is Aboude’s life. The revolution and chanting is in his blood.

ABOUDE: In the future, I would like a Syria without snipers. We would swim, go to school. The teachers would come back. Aleppo would be for all of us, not half for the regime and half for the Free Syrian Army. Syria would belong to us, the people. This is how I would love for Syria to be.

NARRATOR: But now Aboude’s brother has gone missing, and his family fears he has been captured by Islamic extremists.

ABOUDE: My brother went and didn’t come back. That’s the whole story. We don’t know where he went. Those who kidnap are no different from the regime. The same. There’s no difference We will still protest. If we keep silent, our turn will come, one by one.

HELEN: The people of Aleppo, they’re not united. How will Syria be liberated? Just tell me. How?

[Abu Ali gives sweets to children during class] Go away, Dad! Nobody is allowed to approach me during the class. Dad. Dad—

ABU ALI: I am the reason for destroying my children’s future. Living here, they could get killed any moment. They have been wronged greatly. This is all so the revolution can succeed. I hope to God this will count as a positive point for me. Those in charge of the revolution must know that I have sacrificed my children.

HELEN: [in class] Clap for Farah! She did well!

I fear nothing anymore. I’m not scared. I have my family here with me. My siblings are here with me, the whole Free Army. Why would I be scared? Why?

MOHAMMED: Death only keeps away from you if you confront it face to face. I want to face it. That way, death becomes scared. It won’t come near me. The most important thing is that if I die, it’s with my mum, dad and my sisters. I want to make sure I die with those five people

HELEN: Tell me again about your dreams.

SARA: I have a dream that’s amazing. I was walking in the street, and there’s an army and I was trapped from behind. I was blocked on both sides.


SARA: And then a plane comes, and who’s flying it? It’s Ali. He’s flying it and he goes up here and turns, and he takes me home.

I like dreams like this. There are lots of dreams, nice dreams. There’s one where I was riding a horse. I’m running and I’m happy. It’s really clean. There are flowers. People come and start singing.

HELEN: What do they sing?

SARA: I’m not going to tell you. [Helen tickles her] My favorite— my favorite song—

CHILDREN: [singing] What happened to this town? A child was martyred. What did he do wrong? Keep away, soldiers! Don’t obey this tyrant! Free, free, freedom.

ABOUDE: I will protest here and I will die here. We were raised in Syria. We were born here. We stayed here. The regime killed us here. We lost people here. We lost dear ones here. It is us who defend our town.

Massacre of El Salvador
Massacre in El Salvador
FRONTLINE, Retro Report and ProPublica examine the ongoing fight for justice for the horrific 1981 attack on the village of El Mozote and surrounding areas.
November 9, 2021