The ancient city of Aleppo became a key battleground of the Syrian war for over four years. Some of the most devastating bombing and fiercest fighting took place there. Amidst the chaos, one of its citizens, Alaa Aljaleel, began to feed increasing numbers of abandoned and stray cats left to roam the war-torn streets.
The vicious fighting in Aleppo was subject to extensive international media coverage and the efforts to help the abandoned cats of Aleppo started to attract some media interest. Through this and social media groups, donations to the ‘Catman of Aleppo’ began to flow in from around the world. They enabled Alaa to create a makeshift shelter in the city where over 100 deserted cats came to be fed. Many decided to take up residence there.
In 2016, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo, the city was subjected to almost continuous aerial bombardment. Sadly, Alaa’s cat sanctuary did not escape and most of the cats there were lost or killed. When the city fell in December 2016, Alaa left in a convoy bound for Turkey, his van carrying six surviving cats from the destroyed sanctuary and with his own cat, Ernesto, perched on the dashboard.
Ultimately, Alaa returned to Syria and using the same crowdfunding model, ‘Ernesto’s Paradise’ animal sanctuary was established in a village west of Aleppo. Today, it has a resident vet and cares for over 200 cats as well as monkeys, a horse, rabbits and dogs. It even provides pet therapy sessions for child refugees.
Parts of Syria are still in the grip of a violent conflict but amidst the barbarity and destruction there are pockets of kindness and hope. For the surviving cats of Aleppo, one can only hope that Ernesto’s paradise is not lost.