December 30, 2016 at 1:03 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Aleppo resident says Syrian army ‘saved’ city

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad celebrate his army's recapture of the city of Aleppo on Dec. 22, 2016. (Photo submitted)

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad celebrate his army’s recapture of the city of Aleppo on Dec. 22, 2016. (Photo submitted)

A resident of the Syrian city of Aleppo says his country’s army has “saved” his hometown.

“Now we are safe,” Jack told the Washington Blade on Dec. 23 during an interview from Aleppo on WhatsApp.

Jack, who asked the Blade not to publish his last name, lives in western Aleppo, which is a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Jack spoke with the Blade a day after the Russia-backed Syrian army announced it had recaptured the last remnants of eastern Aleppo that had been under rebel control. Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, and other Iran-backed militant groups bolstered pro-Assad forces.

He provided the Blade with a picture that he said showed people “celebrating” in western Aleppo. A large picture of Assad and several large banners with the Syrian flag are clearly visible.

Jack showed the Blade a video of a Mass that took place inside St. Elias Cathedral, a Maronite Catholic church in Aleppo’s Old City that sustained significant damage during the war. He said nobody “was able to reach” the cathedral for more than four years until the Syrian “army saved Aleppo from terrorist groups.”

Jack also pointed the Blade to another video that shows a man dressed as Santa Claus handing out presents to children on an Aleppo street on Christmas Eve.

“We are safe after the Syrian army saved the city,” he said.

Eastern Aleppo was ‘very bad’ for LGBT community

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, Jordan and other countries. More than 6 million people have been displaced within Syria.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Aleppo since fighting began in the city in July 2012. The U.S. in recent weeks increased its criticism of Assad, Russia and Iran over the months-long siege of eastern Aleppo that sparked a humanitarian crisis.

A ceasefire that Russia and Turkey brokered without the U.S. took effect across Syria at midnight on Friday.

Jack told the Blade he is thankful that there are “no more areas of Aleppo under control of ISIS or terrorist groups.”

The Syrian government describes rebel groups as terrorists. Jack pointed out to the Blade that portions of the country remain under opposition control.

“We hope very soon that all of Syria will be free of that,” he said.

A lesbian from western Aleppo who now lives in Canada told the Blade earlier this month from Toronto that Assad’s supporters “think they kicked out ISIS, but there are a shitload of people who are dying.”

A gay man from Aleppo who asked the Blade to remain anonymous offered a different view.

“West Aleppo is very happy,” he said earlier this month, noting ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra are among the extremist groups that are fighting against pro-Assad forces. “The government kicked out the rebels from Aleppo.”

ISIS has publicly executed dozens of men in Syria and Iraq who have been accused of committing sodomy.

Bertho Makso, a gay Lebanese man who founded Proud Lebanon, a Beirut-based group that provides support and other services to LGBT Syrian refugees, told the Blade in 2014 that ISIS militants hanged a transgender Syrian woman by her breasts.

Syrian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations, but sources with whom the Blade has previously spoken said LGBT people in Aleppo were able to meet at coffee shops or private parties before the war. They also said public parks and bathhouses were popular cruising areas for gay and bisexual men.

Jack told the Blade the “situation for the LGBT community” in eastern Aleppo was “very bad” because of ISIS and other anti-Assad groups.

“If they know you are LGBT they will be killed in a very bad way,” he said.

“Here the Syrian government is in control,” added Jack. “No one will kill you. No one will harm you, but (in eastern Aleppo) it was a very, very bad situation. You will be killed.”

Western Aleppo residents enjoy ‘normal life’

Jack told the Blade that residents of western Aleppo “have a very normal life” that includes schools, restaurants, churches, mosques and Christmas parties. He said rebels frequently launched rockets into government-controlled areas of the city.

“Every single day before the Syrian army saved Aleppo we had bombs falling on our heads,” Jack told the Blade.

He added there were daily bombings before the Syrian army recaptured Aleppo. Jack told the Blade that families died inside collapsed buildings because of “ISIS and terrorist groups.”

“No one’s showing the pictures of that because it’s framed,” he said, criticizing the way he feels the Western media has covered Aleppo. “No one knows that we exist.”

“During the war we were like ghosts,” added Jack. “People only see eastern Aleppo, it’s only rubble.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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