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How an Aleppo clown's mourners see the loss of a potent symbol

Anas Al-Basha, a clown and mental health professional, was killed earlier this week in an airstrike in eastern Aleppo.

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This undated photo courtesy of Ahmad al-Khatib, a media activist in Aleppo, shows Syrian social worker Anas al-Basha dressed as a clown, while posing for a photograph in Aleppo, Syria.

Courtesy of Ahmad al-Khatib/AP

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Anas al-Basha, a Syrian man who worked as a clown and counselor at a network of social services centers in rebel-held Aleppo, was killed earlier this week by a missile strike on the besieged neighborhood of Mashhad.

Mahmoud Al-Basha, who identified himself as Anas’s brother, confirmed the death in a Facebook post on Tuesday, blaming “the Russians and Assad regime,” which human rights groups are accusing of war crimes during the bombardment of opposition-held Aleppo in recent months. 

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"All what [sic] Anas wanted is to bring happiness to the children of Aleppo," he wrote. "Anas is not a terrorist! He is an active member of the civil society who worked days and nights to bring a smile to the syrian [sic] children."

"He lived to make children laugh and happy in the darkest most dangerous place on this world," he added.

The story’s popularity among readers – on Friday morning, it was featured among Bing.com’s trending news articles – might reveal the public’s appetite for stories about people who preserve a peacetime dignity by attending to customs and emotional needs that can seem like luxuries in wartime.

"The Aleppo clown who helped cheer up kids was killed in an airstrike. An innocent man who helped even more innocent children. I feel sick," another Twitter user wrote. 

For many outside Syria, Mr. Basha’s death also seems to stand as a symbol of the West’s diplomatic failures in the country's five-year civil war, and of the mounting desperation of civilians in opposition-held areas, as the regime of Bashar al-Assad sits on the verge of regaining all of Aleppo – and perhaps other parts of the country.

Starting in 2014, another Aleppo resident, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, made headlines as the city’s "cat man" after his home gradually became a refuge for a hundred-some felines whose owners chose to flee. That shelter was also a kind of emotional preserve for their human owners.

"The reality is that people do not want to evacuate without their pets," Gerardo Huertas, the director of disaster management operations at the animal-welfare group World Animal Protection, told Newsweek in 2015. "In questionnaires we’ve carried out asking people what they would take with them if they had to leave their homes, cats and dogs are always on the top of the list."

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In mid-November, that shelter was bombed. Mr. Al-Jaleel survived. But the bombing came during a week in which airstrikes on rebel neighborhoods killed 32 people in Aleppo.

“[A]mid the horror and carnage of the city, the destruction of the building and deaths of two cats and a dog would not be worth a mention except for the symbolism of what they represented: one of the last remaining symbols of pre-war life in the city," Euronews wrote at the time.

Basha was one of 34 staff members with Space for Hope, which hosted counseling at a dozen schools and four centers for children who had lost one or both parents. His supervisor, Samar Hijazi, told the Associated Press that he would be remembered as a friend who loved working with children.

"He would act out skits for the children to break the walls between them," she told the wire service.

Basha is also survived by his wife, who remains in eastern Aleppo, and his parents, who have left the city.