Watching my beloved Aleppo burn

Amid looming uncertainty, collective memory - the foundation of every Aleppian's identity - remains

In June 2011, the last time I was in Aleppo, I visited my grandmother's home every day. I obsessively photographed the apartment where my father grew up and where I spent much of my youth. I snapped shots of her wooden doors and balcony, our family's antiques arranged in the glass vitrine, her organised kitchen cabinets and my grandfather's proud portrait in the dining room. I took only a few sentimental pieces with me when I left to go back to my home in the US. I wish I had taken everything.

My grandmother's apartment is on a tiny street tucked between parallel one-way boulevards, one travelling south-east towards the heart of old Aleppo, and the other running north-west to the city's expansive outlying neighbourhoods. This diverse part of the Syrian city, in the west, has largely avoided the destruction of the war swirling around it - so far.

Aleppo, where I spent my adolescent years, where I went to college and became an adult before returning to the United States, where I was born, has been split in two since 2012. The west side is in the clutches of the government, and the east is held by rebel forces. Over the past four years, brutal territorial battles tore through the city, dividing neighbourhoods that had been interwoven for centuries. Some two million people (including thousands of displaced Syrians) live in relative safety in the west, while more than 250,000 live in the east, which has been subjected to years of aerial bombardment by the government's barrel bombs and, since last year, Russian air strikes.

Aleppo is the last major city where the rebels control significant territory, and President Bashar Assad thinks that capturing it could bring him close to so-called victory. In July, his forces tightened the noose around eastern Aleppo to wage yet another brutal "kneel or starve" campaign. Supplies of food and medicine were choked off; hundreds of civilians died.

At the beginning of August, the power struggle on the ground shifted unexpectedly. Activists set thousands of tyres alight, creating huge clouds of black smoke, a weak attempt at a homemade no-fly zone to hide the east side from Russian airplanes. The rebel groups forged a fragile coalition and joined forces with the Levant Conquest Front, an Islamist group that recently was called the Nusra Front and was previously al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. Together, they battled Assad's troops and their Hizbollah militia allies. On Aug 6, they broke the siege. Trucks from nearby Idlib brought the trapped civilians fresh food for the first time in weeks. Meanwhile, Russian jets struck nearby towns with incendiary bombs in retaliation. The bodies of fighters piled up in trucks like dead cattle.

As the battle unfolded, analysts on social media discussed events in real time with a zeal that comes only with detachment. Some said this battle would (again) tip the scales of the war. Others claimed that the rebels' victory meant the bloody end was (again) near.

A favourite tool of the dispassionate Syria analyst is a map: red and green blobs showing a shifting front line, which streets are held by rebels, which by the government. These wretched maps rudely superimpose their lines over the landmarks of my life: On the east are the people I grew to love through the revolution - men, women and children who defied all odds and stood chanting in the face of one of the most ruthless regimes in history. On the west are my streets, my school, my university, my home.

I study these maps and calculate how far my home sits from the moving front line. As my neighbourhood shifts sides from west to east, from red to green, will it be the next target of Assad's barrel bombs? Or will it be left to the mercy of the rebels, who promised not to loot or destroy private property or kill civilians? Why should my home be spared when millions of others' weren't? This is what it feels like to watch your city rip itself apart: a constant oscillation between guilt and relief, fear and pride.

When I watch footage from Ramouseh, the south-western district where the siege was broken, I turn my eyes away from the bearded men with guns and instead marvel at the rich red soil, which for centuries has nurtured Aleppo's olives, pistachios and sour cherries. In videos of people in eastern Aleppo celebrating their relief from the siege, I scan the row of limestone buildings and count the undamaged facades, finding hope in each one.

On the map, the fault line inches towards the Hamdaniyeh, the western gateway to the city, which is the neighbourhood of my best friend's home. I remember standing with her on her balcony in 2011, looking over her mother's gardens filled with flowering trees, statues and fountains. The hot afternoon wind from the west was strong that day and carried the scent of jasmine. She said her father had told her to say goodbye to this place. I shielded my tearing eyes from the sun and my friend. I didn't believe her. I believed in the revolution that would give everyone a chance to reach their potential - not just those of us who had lived in a bubble of privilege - and for freedom, dignity and a life without fear that Syrians had been denied for decades.

I didn't photograph my home the way I did my grandmother's. Even then, even when the war was still far from Aleppo, I feared that to do so would be to admit the unthinkable: I would never return. Since then, my undocumented home has been ravaged and looted by security forces. Return seems as impossible as rewinding time.

The fighting in Aleppo continues. The map could shift again if the rebels cut off regime-held parts of the city, the besieged besieging. As uncertainty looms, our collective memory - the foundation of every Aleppian's identity - remains. We cannot forget the past. We can't erase the memory of our Umayyad Mosque's bombed minaret, our Queiq River where tortured corpses were dumped by security forces and fished out by the victims' families; our ancient buildings reduced to rubble. We will never forget what Aleppo was like before there was a west or east side, before there were sieges and barrel bombs, before there was a single refugee.

Since March 2011, the definition of "victory" has shifted for Syrians. For the forces fighting on the ground, victory is waged in battles for land, inch by inch, checkpoint by checkpoint, constantly drawing new maps and leaving destruction in their aftermath. For the world powers, victory is containing and combating the terrorist extremists within Syria's borders and forsaking everyone else.

For Syrians like me, who believed in a just revolution, who wanted an end to the oppressive Assad dynasty, the meaning of victory has changed. Victory now includes things we had never imagined five years ago: to not mourn the death of yet another friend; to take a Syrian beggar child off a Turkish, Lebanese or Jordanian street and send her back to school; to end the forced starvation of Syrians living under siege; to root for our Olympic swimmer who swam across the Aegean and competed not as a Syrian but as a refugee. Victory will be when we weld Syria's broken map together and our country becomes recognisable again.

Victory will be to wake up at home in Aleppo.

NEW YORK TIMES

• The writer is a founder and the CEO of the Karam Foundation, which provides humanitarian aid to Syrians. She frequently travels to the Syrian border in southern Turkey.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'Watching my beloved Aleppo burn'. Print Edition | Subscribe