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'What Is Aleppo?' There's No Easy Answer

In this photo taken February 2016, children peer from a partially destroyed home in Aleppo, Syria.
Alexander Kots
In this photo taken February 2016, children peer from a partially destroyed home in Aleppo, Syria.

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, was chagrined and embarrassed this week after he asked, "What is Aleppo?" in reply to a question on MSNBC. Mr. Johnson made no excuses and said later he simply "blanked" — his word — when asked what he would do about the besieged Syrian city in which hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped, many starving and defenseless against artillery, bombs and alleged chemical weapons.

But it's not as if the major party candidates for president have brimmed with new ideas about Aleppo, or what the U.S. should do about the conflict that began five years ago, after the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad brutally repressed Syrians calling for democratic reforms.

Talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to find a political settlement, or at least actions that could ease the humanitarian crisis, have been held, off and on, since February 2013. That's three and a half years of talking, and just Saturday morning they announced a plan for a cease-fire.

But the suffering has grown in ways that strain the imagination and the heart.

The aid group Save the Children says there has been an increase of Syrians who have tried to take their own lives.

The humanitarian group says that at least six children and seven young adults have attempted suicide in the past 2 months alone in the town of Madaya, which is also besieged, like Aleppo.

"The children are psychologically crushed and tired," a teacher in Madaya told Save the Children. "When we do activities like singing with them, they don't react at all, they don't laugh like they would normally."

Those of us who have covered wars may be especially staggered to know this. Usually in war, you are amazed to hear the laughter of children rise above the rubble and sorrow.

This follows a report from refugee camps by Sulome Anderson in Foreign Policy magazine of Syrian children, like a 12-year-old girl named Khowla, who swallowed rat poison. She survived, but said, "All I could think about was that we have nothing, our lives will never improve, and I could relieve my mother of another burden."

You can hear her words and wonder: Under what category of casualties of war do we put the suicide of a child?

Syria has been savaged while the world has looked on, then looked away. Before we ask political candidates, maybe we should ask ourselves what Aleppo and the rest of Syria mean for us?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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