The Remnants of Life in Syria's Hotbed

Stanley Greene ©Noorimages April 2013 Babal Nayrab Neighborhood It sounds like a jet approaching, and everybody, it's a matter of instants, stare at each other, your words that choke in your mouth; Assad jets are so inaccurate that they never bomb around the front line - they might miss the rebels, and hit the loyalists.

Francesca Borri is a journalist. She has covered Kosovo, Israel, Palestine and Syria. Places of peril. Places of misery. She has been in these kinds of places for ten years and has reported on these places with a lyrical proficiency worthy of praise, reflection and trust. She has written books on these places. She has vocalized her contempt for naïve and blood-thirsty editors. She believes these places deserve better than that: they deserve truth. She believes in readers, too; that they deserve not to simply know these places, but to understand them. Best of all, she has eternalized these places, these Hells-on-Earth, with a haunting radiance that is perhaps no better showcased than in her following words on Aleppo.

It sounds like a jet approaching, and all of you, for a matter of instants, stare at one another, your words stifled in your mouths; but it’s only a gate that slides and shuts. A hatchet chopping firewood is a burst from a Kalashnikov; the step of a woman’s heel, a sniper shot. We look normal, in Aleppo. Fear is a cancer that wears us out only from within.

One year and a half after the beginning of the battle, only one thing hasn’t changed here: Assad jets are so inaccurate that they never bomb the front line—they might miss the rebels, and hit the loyalists. And if the favorite target had once been Shifa Hospital — now that its walls are reduced to dust, its medical staff to bouquets of flowers and framed photos — the most dangerous places are the bread lines. Today, they are made up of only women and children. Two hundred, competing for a bunch of boxes with some olive oil, some rice, chickpeas. Sugar. They are missing fingers, missing ears; their eyes are red and wrinkled, and amid the wind needles of this winter’s remains, they are haggard and emaciated. They are barely covered in threadbare shirts and little else, their bones sculpting their skin like a bas-relief. Mothers notice you, notice a stranger, and try to give you their baby: “Take him with you,” they beg. “Save him.”

Aleppo is starving, swept away by a typhoid epidemic. In the streets people sell everything. It seems as if they have scattered their entire living rooms on the ground: teapots, TVs, phones, tablecloths, light switches, everything — to be precise: bits of everything — for Aleppo is only ruins, now. Someone sells you the stroller, someone else its wheels.

Ibtisam Ramdan is 25. She lives with her three children and tuberculosis in a slide of sewage under the riverbank. The door is made of chicken wire, the fireplace a can of paint. Three children, in the dark of a rancid corner, crying and coughing; they cough so loudly and they cry so desperately that they wheeze. On a scrap of cardboard, amid worms and some leftover rice, they don’t even have dishes. And anyway, here there is nothing edible. Like them are dozens of other families.

The entire riverbank is dotted with faults and hovels; they aren’t sheds, they aren’t caves, they are only bits of things—metal sheets, planks, plastic scraps—piles, piles of bits of things. At some point, you realize that you are in the midst of it, amid women, kids, old men, maimed and mute, these mouths empty of teeth. You walk, only one centimeter between you and them, and they don’t even look at you, blackened from the stove’s coal, their feet in the mud. They have only rainwater to drink, their skin dotted with infections. Even the cats, here, are sick.

The breadlines in Aleppo
The breadlines in Aleppo

A jet, suddenly, snarls over your head. You move a shutter and you find a man who is dying from leukemia. You move another shutter and you find a man skinning a rat; another one, and only a girl, still and absent, empty, wearing on her body, unmistakable, the marks of rape. You try asking a question and your translator bursts into tears and says, “Excuse me, but I no longer have words, I no longer have words for all this.”

It’s so starving, Aleppo, it’s so exhausted, that missiles strike, and people continue to live amid the rubble. Like in Ard al-Hamra, 117 dead — seventeen of whom are still here, scattered under you. The living pop out from collapsed stairwells, collapsed ceilings, one by one, from crumbled pavements, pillar stumps, a carpet that hangs from the blades of a fan: their only possessions are the clothes on their backs. In the Nokia belonging to Fouad Zytoon, 36, is the picture of a head on a shelf; it is his daughter’s.

They insist on telling you everything in detail. “Do you want the names of the victims?” they ask you, “I have the complete list,” and you feel ashamed to say it, but no, you don’t need the names, the number is enough. And then it’s late, and Aleppo is thousands of stories and this is just a single line in your article, it’s late, really, and then you are tired, and dusty, and you are scared of this jet over your head that keeps on circling, circling and circling…the pilot who is selecting his target, who is perhaps selecting you and no: you really only need the number, thank you it’s enough, 117, seventeen never recovered from under your feet. And the guy who stares at you point-blank, says, “You see? Nothing remains, of our lives, not even a name.”

It looks normal, Aleppo. And the journalists have all left. War has become such a part and parcel of this city, so embedded in its flesh, that grass has grown amid the rubble. Taxi drivers notice the Nikon around your neck and they stop you, ask if you are a tourist, they ask you, “Want to go to the front line?” But then you bump into a child, and she salutes you, standing at attention. You bump into a garbage collector, in the street, into an electrician who is fixing an antenna, and you hear a whip crack. Suddenly, the body falling down; shot down: a sniper.

Then at the hospital entrance — while the jet disappears, appears, glides, gains altitude again — at the hospital entrance lie the corpses with no ID. People pass by. They lift the white sheet slightly, they make sure he isn’t a brother, a cousin. Then you walk into a playground, while perhaps he is selecting you, and there is a sleeping bag amid the swings, while perhaps it’s your turn, and in the sleeping bag there is a black-and-blue young man, a hole in his temple. Then you open a gate, and the walls that are all blood, while you listen to the fiercest minutes of the fighter jets circling overhead, you look around, and everywhere, worn out by artillery fire, these buildings stand that are one floor inhabited, one floor destroyed. A charred tricycle hangs upside down, a lamp swings in the wind. In the wait, a curtain, fossils of normal lives. Because it looks normal, Aleppo; then you enter a school, a classroom, and at mortar fire, the children don’t even turn their heads: only at the rain of Kalashnikov fire do they start to quarrel. “It’s a Doshka,” Ahmed, 6, says. “No it’s a Kalashnikov,” Omar, also 6, says, “You see? It’s lighter than a Draganov,” while perhaps it’s your turn, now, and you can only hug yourself, together with everything you didn’t say, in your life, the times you weren’t able to love, the times you weren’t able to dare, the words that got caught on your fingers, the times that now are late, now that it’s late for everything, and life shines with a raging beauty: now that perhaps your turn has come.

Until a man comes in the street, short of breath, announces: “Airstrike on Sheik Said.” And because it’s rough to admit it, but—it’s wild: it’s an infinite relief. Sheik Said: not you. An infinite relief. To know that somebody is dead. And because it’s like this war has robbed you not of your humanity exactly, but all of a sudden, and even more violently, that it has left you naked in front of the mirror, naked as you really are. Because you are the only one that matters, in your life. To admit it bleeds you, but this war hasn’t robbed you of anything; it is simply that your humanity, your diversity—they have never existed. You are the only one that matters. And what a life is that to live?

Old Aleppo in ruins
Old Aleppo in ruins

They have all left, the journalists—it looks normal, Aleppo. But the front line is still here; you realize it’s close when in the opposite direction, you start to see the line of Syrians fleeing away. Dozens of vans stand out against a sky burning with explosions, loaded with everything, and it isn’t exactly the image you’d associate with the word “liberation.” But because that’s the way the front line advances; town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, it moves forward like a tsunami, and after its passage nothing is left standing; only children playing football amid the dust while the regime bombs elsewhere. They play as if nothing has happened. And on the other hand; to reassure people, the rebels roam around in pick-up trucks decorated with Doshkas: but it’s a placebo machine-gun. Its effect, against a jet, is tantamount to a peashooter. As Wael says, “The only anti-aircraft system, here, is rain. The only shelter is luck.” He is 8.

The unit of the Free Army we are embedded in is composed of thirteen men, two of whom are wearing flip-flops, while the others do not always have matching shoes. There used to be seventeen of them; three of them died while trying to recover the body of a fourth who still lies there, at the end of the street. Behind the corner, some of the regime’s snipers. They sit with a glass of tea in what once would have been a shop, engaged for over an hour in a lively debate about the best strategy to win Damascus. A woman, in the meantime, cautiously looks over; she needs to reach the other side. But nobody cares, and after a while, resigned, she simply crosses, alone, whispering verses from the Qur’an. Yet, even Wikipedia recommends it; it’s called “covering fire.” It’s two dollars per bullet and Fahdi looks scathingly at me, “Are you mad?”, and he goes back to planning the storming of Damascus. Reinforcements arrive in the afternoon jumping out of a jeep in the form of Ayman Haj Jaeed, 18. It’s his second day on the front line. “Write,” he says to me, “that Bashar is coming to an end.” And he runs across the street with his Kalashnikov, firing as fast as he can. “Write, write,” he shouts to me from the other side, “Another two months, and Aleppo will be free.” Only, he had been firing leftward. And the sniper, actually, was on his right.

Many Syrians oppose the regime, but also, more and more, they oppose the rebels. Charged of having dragged Aleppo into a war they weren’t ready to engage in, with their tuna cans turned into makeshift grenades. But now, charged with looting and extortion, too, and most of all, of consigning the country to al-Qaeda fighters. Coming from Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan. From Marseille, London; from the outskirts, the dumps of globalization. With their experience and their advanced weapons, they shifted the war’s balance and avoided a defeat that seemed certain: but they also shifted the balance of Syria, a secular state, in favor of their Islam.

Syrians speak again in low voices, in Aleppo. Again they walk with heads bowed. While again activists vanish. Because the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been merely replaced by a new regime. Even fiercer. At the beginning, there were the brigades of the Ahrar al-Sham, the Free Men of the Levant. Then Jabhat al-Nusra, the Support Front, appeared. And compared to them, the Ahrar al- Sham look like the good guys. Now it is the turn of ISIS, the initials for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and it’s pure terror. In an Aleppo forgotten by the world, Islamists take root day by day, by providing food and medicine — take root with bread, as usual, rather than with the Qur’an. But at their checkpoints, now, whoever happens to be deemed an infidel is simply executed. We distinguish between liberated and occupied streets, that is, regime-held streets; but it only means we choose between them and the snipers.

Old Aleppo

“We didn’t just lose the revolution,” Abu Maryam, the Friday demonstrations’ leader sums up, “We lost Syria.” He has been persecuted by the regime, beaten by the rebels, put on trial by the Islamists. Because jihadists, according to estimates, are only a minority, just ten percent: but they are the most highly-trained, the most organized — they are the ones who decide. In the streets under their control, it’s not uncommon to run into loyalists dragged by their hair, drenched in blood, their skin a map of tortures. “But Syria will be a democracy,” they assure you. Until the moment a mortar rains, suddenly. “We will respect everyone.” A second, a third blast; I slide into the first door I see. Only, they are all men, inside, and under the helmet, I wear no veil. “It will be a Syria of freedom and equality,” they repeat. For now, however, they leave me outside.

Worn out, soul reduced to dust, you twist and turn amid the piled sandbags to escape the neverending snipers. “How long will it take?” you ask, your nerves crumbling, “How far is it?” and only now do you really realize what this war is, when, in the middle of nowhere, Alaa says: “It’s here.”

You are in the ancient souk of Aleppo. Once the most charming 4,000 square meters of the Middle East, the most famous postcard of Syria, a vertigo of voices and tales and colors, an overabundance of life—now this is all that remains: rubble. Powder and stones. Nothing else. But really nothing else. Rebels drag you around alley by alley, shop by shop; this is the cotton market, they explain to you, “…this is the gold market, on your right you find the spices, down there is the silver…” And they are only rubble. “…here is where brides come to buy their gowns,” and they point out the butt of something, “…here their wedding band—verbs,” in present tense, though you see only nothing. There’s not even a rat, here.

Iyad is 32, with a broken expression nestled in strong muscles. He was a carpenter. “My workshop is at the end of the corner,” he tells you, even though at the corner there is nothing but a fallen ceiling and the stump of a wall. Even though he is now a sniper, two hours a day, every day. He sleeps here, a mattress and a blanket next to the skeleton of a door. His brother died, his father died, his best friend died, everybody died; his two-year-old daughter died. In his Nokia he has a photo of her body covered in blood. And now he is a sniper, that’s all; two hours a day, shielded by sandbags. You look through the hole he shoots from, and the helmets of the last soldiers he hit are still there, in the street. Whatever your question is, the answer is the same. “But how did you feel,” you ask him, “the first time?” He shows you his daughter’s body, while a man wheezes, in your gun’s sights. He shows you his daughter’s body. You ask him: “But once all this is over, what will you do? And what kind of Syria will come?” But only his daughter’s body, only blood that trickles — until he says, “Anything else to know?” He puts his mobile away, and he goes back to shooting.

They are often just in their teens, and they have eyes so transparent, so empty, that you can look through them and see the rubble that is behind. They have been fighting here for eight months, the clock, on a wall, is stuck at 17:47. It was September 25th, and Aleppo was a pure Hell, a blast every few seconds when the old city, an UNESCO world heritage site, was overwhelmed by fire.

During and air strike / During an air strike in Aleppo

They roam around the storm’s spoils in t-shirts and Kalashnikovs, Bart Simpson socks under the military boots of one. They are the new lords of Aleppo, kids who barely have a diploma, barely have a job. And yet they have a Kalashnikov, now they have experienced power, and they won’t again be insignificant as they were under Assad. They squat here with their camping stove, their sleeping bags, as if on an InterRail holiday. Talking with them is pointless; you cannot extract any word, any emotion. They oversee every corner; every bit of wall here has its own checkpoint, its own bodyguard; they patrol the streets of an imaginary city. This is the best tailor in Aleppo, but it is only a stack of sharp metal sheets fallen under sniper fire. When you happen to bump into a swarm of flies, then, you who know Aleppo, you know: underneath, lie human remains.

And in a burst of mortar, at some point, something golden still shines. It’s a chandelier. You lower your head, curious, you slip into the sandbags. You slide in: and you find yourself amid dozens of bullet-pierced copies of the Qur’an: it is the Great Mosque. Its remnants.

The walls have been defaced by artillery fire, the candleholders torn off. Engravings, decorations have been planed away. The shades of red on the carpet are now shades of blood. And from one pillar to the next, dark plastic sheets; the regime’s snipers are on the other side of the courtyard. For it is a war of the last century, this war of Aleppo; it is a trench war of rifle shots. Rebels and loyalists are so close that they scream at one another while they shoot. On the front line for the first time, you cannot believe it: the bayonets that you had once only seen in history books, and which you thought hadn’t been used since Napoleon’s time. Today, wars are now drone wars; here, instead, they fight meter by meter, with the blade tied to the barrel of the gun, covered in decaying blood. This war is fought street by street, in hand-to-hand combat, alley cats contending for a shinbone. Even though they are only praetorian guards of an empire of death. They are ready to offer you tea and cigarettes under the sun and fire while they welcome you with the victory sign, as if in front of the Colosseum for a photo souvenir. But instead they are in front of smashed minarets, briers of metal sheets where they take off their shoes, as in any mosque, where they stop the photographer, saying, “You cannot enter; this is the women’s area.” The women’s area is nothing more than a collection of the charred remains of objects. You no longer understand what objects are, while they keep their guard over pink elephants. Everything, here, amid the ghosts of brides, is more sacred than life.

They seem like roads, the roads of Aleppo, though they more closely now resemble The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Even the muezzin, now, no longer calls to prayer. He calls, instead, for blood donors for the wounded from the last missile. And only a rain of Kalashnikov fire, suddenly, wakes you up — out there the shooting starts again. It is the only sign of life — out there, somebody dies. Somebody hasn’t died, yet.

“Journey To The End Of Aleppo” originally appeared in [wherever] magazine in the fall of 2013. All photos by Stanley Green.