On Valentine's Day, Syrian lovers torn apart by war

A girl carries a balloon ahead of Valentine's Day in al-Hamidiyah Souq, in Damascus, Syria on Feb 11, 2016.
A girl carries a balloon ahead of Valentine's Day in al-Hamidiyah Souq, in Damascus, Syria on Feb 11, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syrian Amir al-Halabi is once again alone this Valentine's Day, separated from his sweetheart by the war that has left the lovers on opposite sides of the divided city of Aleppo.

Halabi, 20, is a photojournalist living in the rebel-held east of Aleppo city, a once-thriving economic hub that has been devastated by Syria's conflict that began in March 2011.

His sweetheart Ranim lives in the government-controlled west of the city, which has been divided between regime and opposition control since mid-2012.

"We've been in love for six years," he told AFP.

"We celebrated Valentine's Day together in 2010 and 2011 before the city was divided.

"Since then, we communicate via Skype but we haven't been able to see each other in person or to celebrate Valentine's together."

The city and the rebel-held area north of Aleppo province have recently been the target of a major government offensive backed by Russian air power and allied militias.

The fighting has seen government troops virtually encircle the east of the city, and seize key territory to the north, displacing tens of thousands of people.

The operation is just the latest chapter in Syria's bloody conflict, which began with anti-government protests but spiralled into a war that has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced more than half the population.

Despite the turmoil, Halabi's mind is still on Ranim.

"This year I decided to prepare a simple surprise for her and send it with a friend who was able to travel to the west a few days ago," he said, keeping the surprise a secret.

"I hope the Internet connection will be good," he added sadly, "so I can at least contact her via Skype to celebrate Valentine's Day."

Elsewhere in the country, Syrian government soldier Jihad al-Ashqar said he will spend the holiday manning an army post outside the besieged rebel stronghold of Douma in eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

He has carved the name of his wife Hiyam into the wooden part of his firearm and plans to send her a photo of it for his Valentine's Day gift.

"I never celebrated Valentine's in the past, but being away from my wife makes me feel the beauty of this holiday," he said.

"All I can do is try to find a way to make her happy, so I'm going to take this picture and send it to her."

In an adjacent room at the outpost, 24-year-old soldier Abdel Rahman has set aside the casing of a mortar shell that landed outside Douma, which he plans to turn into a present for his girlfriend.

"I saw a foreign film once in which the hero filled a mortar shell with flowers and gave it to his lover like a vase and I'm planning to do the same," he said.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Abdel Rahman will be able to present his gift in person, having arranged to take leave this Valentine's Day after spending the last two on the frontline.

"I'm going to surprise her by going back to Homs" in central Syria, he said.

While the war has torn many couples apart, it was while training as a field paramedic in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo city that 21-year-old Nureddin Othman met his love, Yasmine.

But the new couple was unable to celebrate Valentine's Day together last year, after Othman was wounded by a government helicopter raid, forcing him to go to Turkey for treatment.

He had to have his foot amputated, but was eventually able to return to Syria, where he hoped to be reunited with Yasmine.

"I came back three months ago, and I was hoping that we would be together this Valentine's Day, but her family rejected me," he said.

"I know very well that it's because I'm now permanently disabled." He is still holding out hope that the pair will eventually be together.

"I won't be able to celebrate Valentine's with her this year, but I won't give in to despair, and I'll continue trying to convince her family."