Large swaths of the Syrian city of Aleppo had already been reduced to rubble by the time Ahmad decided to leave his hometown in the summer of 2015.
The 26-year-old who lived in western Aleppo, which is a stronghold of President Bashar Assad, traveled to the Syrian capital of Damascus. Ahmad then took a bus to Lebanon before flying from Beirut to Istanbul.
The Washington Blade first spoke with Ahmad last month on an app that is popular among gay and bisexual men.
He said on Dec. 17 during a Skype interview from Istanbul that it took two days to travel from Syria to Turkey. His parents, sister and brother and their children are still in Aleppo.
“I cry a lot,” said Ahmad, who asked the Blade not to publish his last name.
Russia, Iran back Syrian government
Ahmad spoke to the Blade as the Russia-backed Syrian army sought to recapture the last areas of eastern Aleppo that had been under rebel control. Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, and other Iran-backed militant groups, have also deployed fighters to the city in order to bolster pro-Assad forces.
More than an estimated 400,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011.
The U.N. Refugee Agency says more than 4.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and other countries. An estimated 6.5 million people have also been displaced within Syria.
Fighting began in Aleppo in July 2012 when rebels and the Syrian army exchanged gunfire in the city’s Salaheddine neighborhood.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Aleppo since then.
The International Committee for the Red Cross on Tuesday said more than 25,000 people have been evacuated from the city since Dec. 15.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are among those who have sharply criticized Assad, Russia and Iran over the months-long siege of eastern Aleppo that has sparked a humanitarian crisis. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power referenced the chemical attack against civilians in the town Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988 that left more than 5,000 people dead, the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica in 1995 in a speech to the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 13.
“To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes,” said Power, referring to the siege of eastern Aleppo. “Your barrel bombs and mortars and airstrikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever-tightening noose. It is your noose.”
An off-duty police officer who assassinated Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov at an art gallery in the Turkish capital of Ankara on Monday shouted, “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria!” after he shot him. Kerry in a statement condemned Karlov’s death, describing it as “an assault on the right of all diplomats to safely and securely advance and represent their nations around the world.”
‘There are a shitload of people who are dying’
A lesbian from western Aleppo who asked the Blade to remain anonymous has lived in Toronto since February. She is among the more than 37,000 Syrians who the Canadian government has allowed to resettle in the country since November 2015.
She said she fled to Lebanon shortly after the fighting began in Aleppo in 2012.
Her uncle still lives in western Aleppo. She told the Blade that Assad’s supporters are “celebrating what they called the victory.”
“They think they kicked out ISIS, but there are a shitload of people who are dying,” she said.
Nizar Alouf of the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health, a group that advocates for LGBT Lebanese and other marginalized groups in Lebanon, told the Blade on Dec. 13 during a telephone interview from New York that his aunts, uncles and cousins live in Sabeel, a neighborhood that is located near Aleppo’s Old City.
He said his relatives have electricity for up to five hours a day and are able to speak with him through WhatsApp. Alouf told the Blade he sends his aunts $1,200 a month because their husbands are only able to work a couple of hours a day because of the fighting.
“They never knew it was going to be this kind of war in Syria,” he said. “They started selling jewelry. They started selling cars.”
Ahmad worked at his father’s shop in downtown Aleppo before the war. He said snipers, bombings and other “bad things” prevented people from entering the area.
“All the fathers and parents are afraid for their sons,” Ahmad told the Blade.
He enrolled in a local university.
Ahmad told the Blade that he was unable to complete his degree in English literature because of the fighting. He then decided to leave Aleppo.
“I left everything,” said Ahmad.
A gay man from Aleppo who asked to remain anonymous told the Blade last week from New York that he left the city three years ago.
He said rebels had not entered Aleppo, but they launched rockets into the city and carried out bombings. The man’s aunts and cousins who remain in western Aleppo said the situation is “much better” since the Syrian army regained control.
“West Aleppo is very happy,” he told the Blade. “The government kicked out the rebels from Aleppo.”
The man further noted the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat Al-Nusra are among the extremist groups that are fighting against forces who are loyal to Assad.
“It wasn’t safe on both sides,” he said. “I’m happy now that they kicked out the rebels.”
Fighting made Aleppo ‘unbearable’
Aleppo, which is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited places, was at the end of the ancient Silk Road. It was Syria’s most populated and industrialized city before the war began.
Aleppo has traditionally had large Christian and Armenian communities. The city is also among the most conservative in Syria.
Syrian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations, but Aleppo’s LGBT residents were able to meet at coffee shops or private parties. Public parks and bathhouses were also popular cruising areas for gay and bisexual men.
The lesbian Syrian refugee who lives in Toronto told the Blade that she came out at 22.
She said she met her small group of LGBT friends from Aleppo in Damascus because they were “too scared” to come out in their hometown. She told the Blade they went to coffee shops together and drove around Aleppo.
“People left you alone,” she said.
She told the Blade that all of her friends left the city less than two weeks after fighting broke out between pro-government forces and rebels in 2012. She said only one of them has returned to Aleppo.
“Everyone had to get out because it got so unbearable,” she said.
Hayat Akkad is a transgender woman from Salaheddine. She fled Aleppo in July 2013 and entered Turkey through the rebel-controlled Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing.
Switzerland later granted Akkad asylum because of her gender identity. She is currently studying fashion design.
“I can never go back to Syria because I am a transsexual,” Akkad told the Blade, noting her family has threatened to kill her if she were to return to Aleppo.
The Blade asked Akkad in an email to Hasan Kilani, an LGBT rights advocate who lives in the Jordanian capital of Amman, whether she had any pictures of herself in Aleppo. She wrote in Arabic that she does not “want to remember the past.”
“What I experienced there was very difficult,” said Akkad.
Efforts to reach people who remain in Aleppo were unsuccessful.
Syrian civil war ‘not a game’
The U.N. Security Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution that would allow monitors to oversee the evacuation of civilians and rebels from eastern Aleppo. Those with whom the Blade spoke said the international community has done little to help the Syrian people or end the war.
The Obama administration last year pledged to allow 10,000 Syrians to resettle in the U.S. during the 2016 fiscal year and another 85,000 during the 2017 fiscal year.
U.S. Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are among those who voted for a bill in November 2015 that sought to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from resettling in the U.S. The vote took place less than a week after ISIS claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Paris that left more than 100 people dead.
President-elect Trump in the wake of the June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., reiterated his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
“It’s not a game,” Ahmad told the Blade.
The Syrian lesbian in Toronto said countries are making money from the war through arm sales to pro-Assad forces, rebels and ISIS and human trafficking. LGBT Syrians who have sought refuge in other countries also face discrimination and violence.
Emirhan Deniz Celebi of the Istanbul-based Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association told the Blade that friends of a trans Syrian refugee who was a sex worker found her mutilated body in her home earlier this week in the city’s Cihangir neighborhood .
Initial reports indicate a client who she met on the street killed her. Celebi told the Blade that she had a Chihuahua.
“Her family was all killed in the civil war in Syria,” wrote Celebi on his group’s Facebook page.
Ahmad on Wednesday sent a follow-up email to the Blade.
“Please don’t turn your TV to another channel when you see some Syrian suffering or injured or dead,” he wrote. “They are really human like you and they really wish and dream every second for a peaceful life like you.”
“I ask (you) to keep watching not because we need compassion,” added Ahmad. “No, no. I ask this because we need all people to feel us.”