Geopolitics

An Aspiring 14-Year-Old Architect: My Vision Of Syria After The War

Making touch to his model (post-war) city of the future.
Making touch to his model (post-war) city of the future.
Tamer Osman

ALEPPO â€" Like many boys his age, Muhammad loves to draw.

Already known for his artistic talents in his hometown of Aleppo, the largest and probably hardest-hit city in Syria, the 14-year-old boy now has something to show the world.

When the armed conflict intensified in Aleppo in 2012, Muhammad, then a sixth-grader, was forced to quit school. After the Syrian government began to bomb his neighborhood in the city's Salah al-Din district, Muhammad and his family moved into the cramped student dorms of Aleppo University. Seven months later they were able to return home, but unfortunately for children like Muhammad schools would remain closed in the area for another year. It just wasn’t safe to leave the house.

Cloistered inside as the war raged around him, Muhammad fill his spare time building a model of Aleppo, his stricken city. He started his project using normal paper, but when his father saw his work, he went out and brought him cardboard and paint. Muhammad’s imagination soared. He designed and built a full model of Aleppo as he would like it to be in the future.

“I’ve loved to draw ever since I was little. My father would get me a new sketchbook and colors every week. When the revolution started, and because all the toy stores closed, I designed and built my own toys from paper,” Muhammad told Syria Deeply in his family’s cramped three-room apartment.

As soon as school reopened in 2013, Muhammad was eager to show his teachers the projects he’d been working on at home. The staff at the al-Rajaa school in Aleppo were thoroughly impressed with Muhammad’s talent.

Rising from the ashes and imagination. Photo: Tamer Osman

“They and my father really encouraged me to continue,” said Muhammad.

Later that year, the school his mother taught at nearby was hit by shelling. Although she managed to escape with only minor injuries, the trauma surrounding the incident drove Muhammad further into his creative pursuits.

“I spent three to four months working on my first model. I designed and built what I believe modern Aleppo will look like after the fall of the regime. After we rebuild our city. There are tall buildings, beautiful streets, cars and trees,” Muhammad says. “I also collected pieces of shrapnel and added them to the model and added words like "This killed my friend," or "This killed my relative.""

With so many positive responses to his hopeful portrayal of the war-torn city, the young architect has said he’s decided to begin a new project â€" this time, incorporating the entire province of Aleppo.

He said the latest model â€" complete with streets, bridges, schools and mosques, in addition to neighboring towns and villages â€" is the culmination of a month’s worth of work.

“The second exhibition was a turning point for me,” said Muhammad. “An organization in the city of Aleppo was very impressed with my work. They asked to show my work in an exhibition in Gaziantep, Turkey â€" so now I’m preparing for the trip. Hopefully my new models will be even better than my last ones.”

Muhammad’s father Wael is determined to prevent the war from killing his son’s talent. The boy’s talents have always far surpassed his age, he says, and he vows not to let them go to waste.

But Muhammad’s dreams go beyond the building of mere models â€" he hopes that one day he’ll be able to help rebuild Syria anew â€" a vision and skill he’s already been practicing with his models, wanting to see Aleppo at the level of top cities in the developed world. “I want to be an architect," he declares. "I want to help build my city." This designer's vision will require more than bricks and mortar to bring it to life.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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