It was a death-defying rescue that took months to execute – 13 gaunt, ailing and injured zoo animals (lions, tigers, Asian black bears, hyenas and two huskies) were in desperate need of being saved from an abandoned zoo, the well-known Aalim-al-Sahar (Magic World) in the war-torn city of Aleppo, Syria.
Once home to approximately 300 animals before the onset of the civil war, the zoo, now flattened and destroyed after being pounded with bombs, bullets and missiles, stood as a shadow of its once glorious former self. Images and clips of the last remaining animals, which had been circulating online for weeks, were painful to look at – the animals were literally starving to death.
I first read about the incredible rescue in a BBC video report (titled, ‘The animals rescued from war zones’) by journalist Sahar Zand. The story moved me so much that I reached out to Zand (through social media), who then put me in touch with an international NGO’s veterinarian, Amir Khalil, who led the rescue mission from Syria to an animal sanctuary, Al Ma’wa, in Amman, Jordan, where the animals are now permanently being rehabilitated and cared for.
“During our rescue mission in Iraq at the Mosul Zoo [where we rescued a lion and a bear] in March-April this year, we were flooded by messages on our Facebook page by people alerting us about the animals in Magic World,” states Khalil.
Born in Egypt, Khalil has been working with Four Paws International (located in Austria, Vienna), since 1994. Having studied in Austria, South Africa and the United States, Khalil’s role at the not-for-profit is as the Director of Project Development, in addition to the Mission Leader of the Rapid Response Unit where Khalil and his team undertake dangerous assignments to rescue animals from conflict areas and war zones.
“Six years ago, Magic World had hundreds of animals,” Khalil tells me, “But they died due to the war. The zoo keeper [Omar Khalifa] wasn’t able to save the animals and requested us many times for help, but it was impossible to send funds to Syria because any money transfers to the country are considered to be in support of terrorists.”
While some animals died of dehydration and a lack of food, others contracted viruses such as Parvo and Distemper, Khalil says. Some were also immediately poisoned after licking the powder from the missiles.
“The animals were not only unwell physically, but even psychologically, they were traumatised. They didn’t understand what was going on while being locked up in their cages as they heard bombs and missiles going off. Magic World was a target – it was bombed twice.”
Khalil’s rescue mission was overrun with challenges; the groundwork was long and laborious. To prepare himself and his team, and to make certain no stone was left unturned, the veterinarian mentions that the months of March and April (this year) were focused on researching, evaluating and chalking out their colossal, complicated game plan.
During this time, Khalil states that they were lucky to find a local vet and volunteers in Syria who were feeding the animals and keeping a check on them for a little over a month.
A memory etched in his mind during the rescue operation was how everyone at the border put their weapons down to help Khalil’s team safely move the animals across
“We discovered how difficult the situation was on the ground,” he says, speaking about the planning stage, “We had to deal with a number of countries to consult with them and obtain permits to transport the animals. Apart from that we needed security companies and experts to guide us in carrying out this rescue mission, most importantly; we needed their advice on how to make a convoy. Then we had a group of team members help us survey our route – we had to consider how to transport the animals…it wasn’t just the military conflict on the roads, but also the threat of airstrikes – because such a huge convoy could’ve easily been mistaken for one transporting weapons. Syria was very precarious because you have to deal with different rebel groups which are very dangerous.”
Furthermore, Khalil mentions that his team had to have a battalion of team members stationed in Turkey to receive the animals and immediately conduct medical examinations on them.
To secure themselves and the 13 animals, the veterinarian reveals that the team had to prepare two separate convoys; one, an empty convoy, and the other, a “secret convoy” which carried the animals.
“On the day that we’d planned to finally make the rescue mission, the military conflict escalated between two groups which were linked to Al Qaeda.”
After waiting it out for 48 hours, on the 21st of July, at the break of dawn, the secret convoy finally made its long journey to Jordan.
“This rescue mission stands as a message of kindness; you cannot say you’re a kind person if you’re only kind to animals – a good person is empathetic to both human beings and animals. Humans have the options to escape and be evacuated,” Khalil states, “Animals don’t.”
A memory etched in his mind during the rescue operation was how everyone at the border put their weapons down to help Khalil’s team safely move the animals across. “It was an incredible experience,” he says.
“Without politics, religion and conflict, animals can bring people together, they can build relations between countries because they don’t have a political agenda.”
Now safe and secure at the expansive Al Ma’wa sanctuary, Khalil mentions that the animals’ health has improved considerably. However, the veterinarian states that the emotional and psychological healing will have to take its course.
Once at the sanctuary in Jordan, one of the Asian black bears was alarmed when he heard a helicopter flying overhead. “He remembered the bombing in Syria,” Khalil says. But the veterinarian is hopeful – with enough love, care and nutrition, the animals will recover.
“It was a hard mission,” Khalil states, reminiscing about the days and weeks of sleepless nights, “Our team called it mission impossible, but I believe this message of humanity and hope is very important for me and the team, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing such rescue missions. It proves that with one team and one dream, nothing is impossible…as long as we can have a little candle in the darkness, that’s all we need.”
Images courtesy of Four Paws International
The author is a journalist based in Lahore. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org