The dying city
The courtyard of a house on the fringes of a small town in the Syrian province of Idlib. The year is 2012, it is summertime, and a group of men has gathered here wearing camouflage fatigues. Assault rifles hang from their shoulders, grenades from their belts. Painstakingly, they inventory the contents of the sacks piled in front of them. There are brand new sharpshooters’ rifles, huge quantities of ammunition, grenade launchers, Belgian assault rifles, dozens of night-vision binoculars still in their original packaging. When the commander holds up one of them, the men begin to dance. “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” God is great, they shout, holding their AK-47s over their heads. Then they repack everything into the burlap sacks, tie them closed, and load them into the trunks of cars, taxis, and minivans. They change from military garb into jeans and buttoned shirts. Around 30 fighters jam into half a dozen vehicles. Under cover of night, they follow dirt roads and detours that bypass Syrian army checkpoints. Scouts on motorcycles precede them, doing reconnaissance, whether the army has set up new roadblocks, maintaining constant radio contact with the fighters who follow several kilometers behind. Destination: Aleppo.
It was my first visit to Syria’s largest city, and opposition members and armed rebels were conspiring in private apartments to overthrow the government. The insurgents spent weeks planning their attack on Aleppo. As of late July 2012, the city had largely been spared the effects of the uprising. Only a few neighborhoods like Salah Eddine had seen daily demonstrations or open conflict between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime. The group that met at 24-hour intervals was a strange mix of fighters, lawyers, journalists, students, and businessmen. By day they slept. The night belonged to the revolution. All of them were wanted by the authorities and none could stay more than a few hours in any given place. To reduce the risk to their families, they avoided their homes and slept in different places every day. Meanwhile, thousands of additional fighters were oozing into Aleppo unnoticed by government soldiers and spies. On the outskirts of town, rebels took delivery of weapons for distribution in the inner city.
At that time, the Assad regime’s supporters and opponents in Aleppo were still sharing blocks and even buildings. Assad may be unpopular, but the city of two million has enough room for numerous friends of the regime, many of them wealthy businessmen who have historically profited from it and continue to give it their support.
The rebels drive me in a zigzag course from hiding place to hiding place, adding long detours to avoid checkpoints, frequently changing cars. On the roof terrace of an unassuming apartment building on a thoroughfare in Salah Eddine, a dozen FSA activists and fighters assemble on an evening in mid-July. “We will soon liberate Aleppo,” Abu Hamid says – a lawyer, 36, with receding strawberry blond curls and a pistol in his waistband. Like all those here, he has lost close friends when the police fired into crowds and knows people who were tortured to death in police custody. Cell phones travel from hand to hand, sharing pictures of the dead. The FSA fighter Abu Kassim, 19, displays a cell-phone video of a beheading. Rebels hack the heads off two men, still alive. They are said to have been members of the Shabiha, guilty of murder. They lay the heads on the corpses’ chests. The rebels are judges, juries, executioners. Another video shows 25 mutilated corpses. They, too, were allegedly members of the Shabiha militia. “We killed them. I was there. They deserved death,” Abu Kassim says, lighting a cigarette. “But we shouldn’t cut off their heads. That’s al-Qaeda style, and we want nothing to do with those people.”
A fighter sitting next to him shakes his head and objects, “Cartridges cost money. Beheading is cheap. As long as no one will help us, all methods are justified.”
The group discusses for hours how to smuggle additional weapons and fighters into the city and which neighborhoods to liberate first. They argue about whether to kill Assad or put him on trial, and what to do with supporters of the regime. Some favor making short work of them. Others say mass executions will make it harder to build a new nation where all Syrians can live together in peace. “We need to reduce the hatred. We have always lived peacefully with Christians and Alevites. They belong to Syria as we do. Those who have committed crimes will be tried and punished, God willing,” the lawyer Abu Tarb sums up.
As they debate, smoking and fighting their weariness with endless coffee, dull reports of artillery can be heard from the city’s military bases – mortar fire into the liberated villages of the periphery. The men huddle closer together. “Fear is our constant companion,” Abu Hamid says.
Shortly after midnight, there is gunfire nearby. Armed with AK-47s, the FSA members take their battle stations around the edges of the roof. The apartment’s owner escorts his wife and five children to stay with a neighbor. Abu Hamid, the lawyer, releases the safety on his pistol and positions himself next to the front door in case the army or police plans to storm the apartment. By the time the exhausted men fall asleep, a new day is dawning. The war has not reached the city yet. But its blend of anxiety, suspicion, and mounting fear has the people of Aleppo already paralyzed.
This part of Syria, a scant 20 kilometers from the Turkish border, stayed quiet for a long time. The news from the rebel strongholds of Homs, Hama, Damascus and Daraa arrived here as horror stories, nothing more. The revolution came late. But in the wake of the many tales of gruesome violence, northern towns where the rebellion began with demonstrations increasingly chose to take the next step: liberation. At first only a few dozen people had the nerve to oppose Assad openly. Then hundreds took to the streets. Then thousands demanded reforms and new freedoms. In time they drove the government officials away – the mayors, the police officers, the Shabiha militia members, the spies, the torturers. The way to Aleppo was open. Many believed the regime would fall as soon as Aleppo fell. But their belief in a speedy victory proved to be mistaken.
In late October 2012, I visited Aleppo a second time. The war had sunk its teeth into the city like a pit bull, and its life was waning. The merchants were gone from the bazaars. No spices, no sweets, no dates, no fabric. The old city’s labyrinth of alleyways instead offered urban warfare in all its cruelest forms – its people surrounded on all sides by a seamless cocoon of bullets, missiles, grenades. I wait with other civilians to sprint across a street where snipers wait to wound or kill anyone daring to try for the other side. I creep from house to house through holes battered through the walls. Many of them are rebel redoubts. I watch as a rebel sniper is struck in the head by a bullet from a government sniper’s rifle.
Since the rebels took the war to Aleppo, the city has become a center of the resistance movement, and the government has besieged neighborhoods in rebel hands with a nonstop barrage of explosives shot from tanks, jets, and helicopters. The civilians have nowhere to go, pawns in a brutal game that seems stuck in a stalemate with no way out. Death comes at random and everywhere. Leave the house to buy bread, drive one neighborhood over: The risks are incalculable. And once you are dead, your family will be too scared to bury you. Anyone free to flee the city flees the city. Those with jobs continue to work. The unemployed alternate sleep with the exchange of potentially lifesaving gossip: Where are there snipers? What streets are safe? Who has bread for sale?
But it takes more than courage; it takes foolhardiness to go out for bread. Since the siege began, food has been hard to find. The rebels have delegated units to run the bakeries and feed the populace, but there is not enough bread to go around. Long lines form every day outside the few remaining bakeries in Aleppo.
As I do every day, I wander through the city for hours, visiting hospitals, morgues, bakeries, doctors. Strangers invite me in for tea and tell me their stories. Walking one afternoon in the Shaar neighborhood, I am surprised by a jet plane that fills the street with thunder and fires rockets into a residential building. The world turns black. The sun returns only slowly – a faint ghost of a sun through a thick cloud of dust. Bits of masonry and furniture rain from the sky. Bent steel reinforcing rods jut out from facades. Stillness blankets the street, and coughing forms stagger from the cloud. No one speaks. Their facial expressions combine terror and astonishment. Their eyes are wide open. They are amazed to be alive. Dust mixed with sweat glues their hair to clumps and encrusts their skin. They are gray.
But not everyone is still alive. Many died in the time it takes to blink your eyes. The two missiles from the Syrian fighter struck the sixth floor. You can tell because flames are shooting out of it. All around are broken windows, balconies ripped off, shattered walls. The Syrians’ struggle for justice and freedom is now a civil war that grows harsher and more merciless every day. Like the capital Damascus, Aleppo was once a cultural and commercial center. But last October and November, this large city – a UNESCO world heritage site with gems of medieval architecture – became an epicenter of violence and destruction, under siege by both sides. Where snipers set the rhythm of daily life and there is no means of tallying the dead.
As the dust settles and the extent of the damage becomes apparent, people begin to approach the ruins. What can they salvage of their lives? They peer out from holes that flying rubble ripped in the walls of their homes, shaking the dust from their hair. They call to each other, asking if anyone is injured or dead. They yell for help or throw their ruined belongings from upper floors into the street. A one-legged man hops across piles of rubble and pauses leaning on the fender of a car buried under the remains of a wall. At every step blood dribbles from his forehead onto the ground. He leaves a trail of blood. When another jet appears in the sky like a hawk scanning the ground for prey, people scatter in panic. “Yes, people died,” a man says, indicating a smoking apartment.
Ibrahim was standing in the hallway when the missile struck the living room where his parents were watching TV. The explosion hurled him against the wall, but he was unhurt. He stands on the sixth floor of the burning building. Smoke rises from the stairwell where friends and neighbors dash up and down, in their hands buckets and other containers of water, trying in vain to quench the flames. The roof beams are glowing. The heat slaps you in the face. Singes your hair and skin. Next door, in the living room, the parents are roasting. The smell of burning flesh looms in the air. “Was my father a terrorist? Was my mother a terrrorist?” Ibrahim cries out, sobbing. “Bashar el-Assad killed my parents, and why? What for?” He leans against the sooty wall, covers his face with his hands, slides down into a squat. Friends kneel next to him. Comfort him. Stroke his hair. Hug him. Swear revenge.
After an hour, the fire is well enough under control that a couple of men can climb over the remains of the balcony balustrade into the living room. They pull a charred body from under a table, wrap it in a plush blanket and call, “Allahu akbar!” Through gaps in the blanket, smoke curls up from the still burning corpse. Ibrahim is expected to identify the dead, but he cannot tell his father from his mother. “Baba? Mama?” he whispers helplessly.
Death with dignity has no place in this war. Less than two hours later, the bodies of Ibrahim’s parents are lying in a small truck that races, honking, through the streets of Aleppo. At the Cemetery of the Martyrs on the edge of the city, gravediggers work around the clock to prepare sites for the corpses to come. Things have to go fast. Funerals have too often been interrupted by mortar fire. In the distance, helicopters and fighter jets circle over Aleppo and black columns of smoke rise to the sky. Ibrahim’s parents are laid in a nameless tomb made of brick. A relative speaks a short prayer. “I have given up hope that anyone will help us. America, Europe, Turkey, the Arab League, they are all watching and doing nothing,” Ibrahim says after bidding his parents goodbye. Then he returns to the city, to the bombs and snipers. A city like himself: orphaned, homeless.
Meanwhile, the killing continues. The war’s victims are taken to a bombed-out hospital on the front lines. Here Dr. Osman rushes back and forth between life and death. He is one of six physicians who have not yet fled the city. Assad’s tanks are positioned 200 yards away. New patients arrive at brief intervals, carried on benches, loaded in trucks or in the trunks of cars. Aides lead wounded civilians and rebels into a waiting room and drag the dead over the tile floor, leaving long, wide puddles of blood. In a corner of the ground floor, a doctor removes shrapnel from a little girl’s hip. Her father stands next to her, staring up at the ceiling so she will not see his tears. A male nurse massages the heart of an old woman who was pulled from under the rubble of her apartment. People with detached arms, hands, feet, thighs lie on gurneys or in the hallways, waiting for help. But the hospital’s staff is too few for so many. A woman mourns her dead husband. A man mourns his brother. A little boy stares impassively at a pool of blood on the floor and calls for his father, who lies near him on a plastic lounge chair because there are not enough beds. A female nurse kneels on the floor, apathetically wiping up blood with a towel until nothing is left but a pink stain. People mourn friends, mothers, brothers, sons. The dead lie outside the front entrance under white sheets, their hands and feet neatly tied together.
In the midst of this chaos, Dr. Osman hastens from body to body. A stethoscope hangs from his neck. His lab coat is smeared with red. He approaches a man in uniform lying on a stretcher. The dripping blood dripping has formed a large puddle on the floor. He is a government soldier. The bullet wound in his thigh seeps dark, black blood. Dr. Osman prepares an injection of adrenaline and places IVs while an aide digs the bullet from the entrance wound. Then he turns to the next patient. Shrapnel has removed part of the back of her head. She is dead. Dr. Osman closes her eyes, and the aides carry her to the front door for pickup by her relatives. He is amazed, he says, “just how much the human soul can bear.” He says he must recalibrate his soul every morning or he would just give up. Back then, three months ago, when the first bombs fell and the first victims arrived in his emergency room, his hands trembled so much that he would let his scalpel fall. But every day he learns to endure a little more, and in the occasional breaks he rewinds to erase the images that would burn themselves into his brain and trouble his sleep. The dull thudding of tank rounds has become the soundtrack of his life.
The hospital has six times been the direct target of aerial attacks. Mortar fire has landed nearby more than 20 times. The upper stories have been destroyed. No one goes up there anymore. The wards are empty. The neonatal ward with the incubators: gone. The machines, the equipment: gone. The Syrian government regards hospitals as legitimate targets, just like clinics, bakeries, and doctors’ offices.
Dr. Osman is a slender man in a green lab coat. The fluorescent overhead lighting emphasizes the dark rings under his eyes. His skin seems waxy as milk. As one of only six doctors remaining in Aleppo, he is always tired, overworked, terrified. For days now, he has hardly slept. Just a few hours in the basement, all around him screaming, dying, moaning patients. “We have up to 150 patients a day here. Around 80 percent are civilians. The rest are soldiers or FSA rebels.” He leans against the wall in exhaustion. Even speaking is hard for him. He struggles to keep his eyes open. Or maybe he is taking time to choose his words carefully. “Most of the wounded need amputations,” he says at last. “We need more personnel.” He rubs his eyes. “Yesterday we had a lot of dead children,” he says. A jet attacked a bakery where hundreds of people were standing in line. “I am sick and tired of the war. So much suffering. So many dead. We are being shot, bombed, killed. But we will hold out until Bashar el-Assad is gone.” He shrugs his shoulders as a machine gun stutters from the street outside. The rebels are trying to shoot down a helicopter that is circling over the hospital. Shortly thereafter, its strikes its target, and the next wave of wounded pours into Dr. Osman’s improvised operating room.
February, 2013: The Arab Spring has become a Syrian Winter. Euphoria is nearly extinct. The hopes for a new beginning have given way to despair. For weeks now, there has been neither water nor electricity in Aleppo. Hungry people wander the streets, begging, rummaging through trash looking for edibles. Human flotsam of the war, wanted by no one, washed up here from embattled sections of Aleppo and other parts of Syria: Azaz, Marea, Idlib, Atarib. Bakeries frequently close for lack of flour. A kilo of bread costs five times what it did six months ago. Unattainable for many in a city without work or pay. The temperature falls below freezing every night. People with nowhere to go freeze in their homes. To spite the cold, they burn trash or fell the city’s last trees. The hospital where Dr. Osman once tended to the war’s victims is gone. A missile in late November. Nothing is as it was. The old life has sunk beneath the gray veil of nostalgia. The suffering continues, and there is no end in sight.
On the day when the rebels and the Free Syrian Army attack air force positions and Aleppo’s international airport, forcing the government soldiers to retreat, the regime quickly strikes back with helicopters and jets. They swarm the sky like raging insects, shooting at rebels and hitting the homes of noncombatants. In the morning a mortar round lands in a street where children are playing, killing nine. In the afternoon a missile hits a kebab stand in Tarik. At night the tank gunners thunder through the city without a break. And the inner city is in the grip of a snipers’ feud.
The neighborhood of Karm el Jebel, not far from the historic old city, has stubbornly been held for months by young rebels armed with little more than a few cartridges for their AK-47s. “We can’t go on the offensive because we barely have any more ammunition,” Ahmed explains. The 22-year-old marksman, holed up on the sixth floor of a ruined building, spends his time shooting at government positions less than a hundred feet away. “We need to save ammunition in case they attack.” After six months of house-to-house combat, Karm el Jebel is a landscape of ruins where snipers on both sides determine the rhythms of daily life – trench warfare without trenches, where sometimes rebels and sometimes soldiers succeed in advancing or retreating a few feet. Pockmarked facades riddled with bullet holes. Entire floors of buildings collapsed, hills of rubble, burned-out businesses, a no-man’s-land, empty of life. Constant detonations of grenades. In the streets disabled tanks, standing next to corpses no one can or will retrieve. The rebel ranks are steadily replenished by deserting Syrian soldiers. As a young man in uniform runs across a street, a bullet strikes him in the calf. He curls up on the ground and a rebel pulls him out of the line of fire. “Allahu akbar,” he says, visibly in shock. “If that had hit me in the head, it would all be over.”
A routine occurrence in Aleppo. Syria itself has long become a pawn in a larger game, an arm-wrestling match among competing interests. On one side Russia, China, Iran, the Lebanese Hisbollah on one side; on the other Europe, the U.S., Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. The daily struggle for survival is wringing the last remaining energy from its people. With haggard faces they rush through the streets and alleys of the metropolis, watching the sky in constant fear, asking at every corner whether it is safe to cross the street. Government sharpshooters could be anywhere. The people feel abandoned, and their desperation is mixed with hopelessness and anger at the world’s indifference. “The Arab world has betrayed us, the West doesn’t care in the first place, and the world has forgotten us,” Dr. Abdul says. Another of the six physicians who have not yet fled Aleppo, a weary young pediatrician with tired eyes and a bushy red beard. He stands on the ground floor of a small shopping center now doing service as a field hospital. Next to him on a litter, a dead man lies with an open skull and a missing leg. Dr. Abdul, his jeans bloodstained, stands in a pool of blood. “Why doesn’t anyone help us?” he asks in despair, cursing the regime and accusing Europe and America of being indifferent accessories to murder. Then he curses the jihadists and islamists – to Western eyes, the war’s only terrorists – whose influence is growing every day. With their supply of weapons and their unbroken will to fight, they quickly fill the gaps left by others’ deaths. “They’re lunatics, and traitors to both the revolution and Islam. We don’t agree with their view of Islam. But we can’t afford to be choosy. We have to accept anyone who wants to help us, because no one else is doing it.” He adds that the Syrian people has no desire to trade one dictatorship for another. “That’s not what we’re fighting and dying for.” While he is speaking, a mortar round lands in the neighborhood of Hanao. Soon the victims, limbs torn off and wounds gaping, begin arriving on stretchers. At a shopping center. Here, there is nothing for the people of Aleppo to do but die.