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Andrew Hussey recalls the tragedy that changed football and made it seem as if an obscure curse was

The new quarter of Liverpool One, the second phase of which was unveiled in October 2008, and which connects the old city centre of Liverpool to its shiny new waterfront, is a triumph of design and urban planning. The shops themselves are something of an irrelevance – it’s just a standard British high street – but the witty and clever shapes of the buildings and streets are breathtaking in their ambition. Most crucially, they show the true grandeur of Liverpudlian history.

Its new vistas link the river to the Welsh mountains and then the sea beyond – all the elements that have made this city what it is. Like Antony Gormley’s life-size statues, which stare out to sea from Crosby Beach a few miles to the north, Liverpool One is about turning outwards to the world beyond. Liverpudlians have often been accused of introspection and self-pity; so it seems appropriate, at the end of the city’s “Year of Culture”, that Liverpool is looking forward in the 21st century with a new-found confidence and pride.

All of this is, however, a long way from some of the dark memories of the city’s recent past. Throughout the 1980s, Liverpool seemed to be fighting a war with the rest of Britain. Its decade began with the Toxteth riots, in 1981. These were an outburst of anger and despair at the way in which Liverpool seemed to be slipping quickly into poverty and isolation and out of the mainstream of British society. From there on, it felt as if the Thatcher government was fighting a civil war against the city. It is this that explains the strange politics of the period – these were the Militant years, when, with a combination of Trotskyism and thuggery, the narcissistic Derek Hatton and his cronies held the city to ransom.

In retrospect, one of the most incomprehen­sible aspects of this decade was the widespread support that Hatton and his mates enjoyed. But on closer inspection it seems hardly surprising, when you recall that unemployment rates in the city were the highest in Europe. By 1989, Liverpool was exhausted and battered. This was all the more painful because, at the same time, Manchester – Liverpool’s great rival only 30 minutes down the M62 – stood ready to steal the cultural agenda with a fashion and rock-music renaissance led by the E-fuelled scallies of Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

But we in Liverpool still had football. Merseyside teams had dominated the English League through the 1980s; Manchester United were then no more than a confused shambles. The London teams were not much better. Liverpool may have been a wrecked post-industrial wasteland, but football offered a source of local loyalty and pride. The Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, in which 39 fans had been killed by a falling wall during a riot just before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, had dealt a blow to the city’s footballing culture. Liverpool fans were soon heartily sick of the chant “Murd-er-ers!” which regularly met them at hostile grounds. But by 1989, even those scars were beginning to fade.

The atmosphere on 15 April, as Liverpool supporters set out for an FA Cup semi-final clash with Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, was festive. The Reds, under Kenny Dalglish, were at another peak and if they could beat Forest – not a problem, everyone assumed – the stage might be set for a classic all-Merseyside FA Cup final (Everton were playing in the other semi-final). Spring was just breaking through, and it was a spectacular two-hour drive or rail journey from Liverpool to Sheffield through the finest scenery of the Peak District.

No one could have predicted the horror that was waiting at the other end of the trip. The facts of the afternoon are as brutal as they are simple. At 3.06pm precisely the referee, Ray Lewis, blew his whistle and called a halt to the match. He was compelled to do this by the police, who were signalling to him that people at the Leppings Lane end, where the Liverpool fans were clustered, were spilling on to the pitch. Overcrowding outside the ground had forced the police to open an exit gate and fans had surged on to the already congested standing terrace.

The obvious reaction from bystanders was that violence had broken out and that this was a pitch invasion. Yet it quickly became clear that this was not the case, from the high-pitched screaming of fans being crushed to death against the stark blue security fences that kept them penned in. On the pitch, some of those who had scrambled over the fence lay dying on the grass, gasping for breath. Others lay dead, their faces blue and bloated. Those who could walk or stand rushed to carry bodies to safety on advertising hoardings. The final death toll was 96.

This was a catastrophe unprecedented in football memory. But what came next for Liverpool fans was, if anything, worse. First was the long journey home. Lime Street Station and the surrounding streets were stilled into silence. Those who trudged back were grey and ashen, as if returning from a distant massacre. In this most Catholic of cities, there was an unvoiced and obscure belief that some dark vengeance was being wreaked on Liverpool fans for their role in the Heysel disaster. There was, also, anger at the evident incompetence and callousness of the police, whose actions had created the deadly situation in the first place and who left people dying on the field. At an untouchable level, beyond understanding or articulation, there was also survivors’ guilt. This would go on to be one of the deepest psychic wounds left by Hillsborough.

The long civil war conducted against Liverpool and Liverpudlians from the south was not yet over. The next assault came from the Sun newspaper, whose editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, decided that Liverpool fans had not suffered enough. On the Wednesday following the disaster, as families arranged funerals, the Sun devoted its front page to the headline “The truth” and went on to describe how the Liverpool fans had urinated on corpses, robbed the dead and attacked the police. Nobody had seen any of this, least of all a Sun reporter, because it did not happen, as was later established. Yet this was not simply an insult to the dead and their families. It also opened up a new sense of anger and doubt in the city’s collective identity: Who are we that people should believe such things of us? Why are we so hated? These were the questions that Liverpudlians began to ask themselves. To this day, the Sun is despised in Liverpool.

The official inquiry into what had happened at Hillsborough was conducted by Lord Chief Justice Taylor. His report returned a verdict of accidental death, even though evidence of neglect by the police had been established. A private prosecution brought by bereaved families against the senior police officer in charge of the match, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, failed to reach a verdict. To the trauma of bereavement were added the frustration and humiliation of injustice.

Hillsborough was about the individual families that suffered. Their agony is captured perfectly in one of Adrian Henri’s late poems, “The Bell”, which describes the poignant sound of the bells of Liverpool Cathedral tolling for each of the victims. But Hillsborough is also an integral part of the story of Liverpool. It is the story of a crowd being killed live on television in front of your eyes. These people were little different from the working-class Liverpudlians of the 1960s who had inspired Bill Shankly’s greatest teams with their passion and collective sense of belief. The scenes of singing and scarf-waving on the Kop had been shown in black-and-white newsreels across the world.

This was the mob, the crowd, the working class in a group and in action, but it was nothing to be feared. The humour and dignity of this crowd were iconic. These images announced to the world the cultural vibrancy of ordinary people and their pleasures. To this extent, Liverpool fans were as crucial a component of 1960s pop culture as the Beatles.

By the end of the Thatcherite 1980s this same crowd had become the object of scorn and derision. To be working class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed and northern was to be scum. It is hard to write about the 1980s without feeling this way, no matter how primitive such emotions may seem to the present-day sophisticates of the post-Blair left. The year 1989 was when everything changed – music, football, politics. For the people of Liverpool, literally and metaphorically crushed by the blue fences of Hillsborough, it would still be a long, uphill road to Liverpool One and the 21st century.

Andrew Hussey’s most recent book is “Paris: the Secret History” (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood