The Syrian Front Waiting to Die in Aleppo

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By Christoph Reuter

Bashar Assad’s troops have control of western Aleppo and drop barrel bombs on the eastern half every day. Death is ever present. SPIEGEL recently spent a week in what has become a ghost town.

Driving through the outer districts of the city, a ghostly wasteland begins. The streets and the half-destroyed residential buildings are empty and the only sounds come from shredded metal signs moving in the wind — and the occasional thunder of distant artillery.

Eastern Aleppo has been virtually abandoned, as have most residential districts located away from the front. Those left in the city prefer to crowd into housing right up against the battle lines, which have remained virtually static in the last two years. Paradoxically, people feel safest living within range of enemy tank and sniper fire. Such are the rules of Aleppo.

The reasons are pragmatic. For one, the lower floors of the buildings along the front still offer some protection from artillery shells. More important, however, is the fact that no “baramil” fall here, those half-ton barrel bombs dropped from helicopters flying high overhead. The bombs are murderously effective, but they are so imprecise that the Syrian Air Force refrains from using them too close to its own troops.

The rest of eastern Aleppo, though, is fair game. Filled with explosives and shrapnel, the bombs can destroy entire buildings and the Syrian army has tried out various designs in the city. Some even have tanks of gasoline attached so as to start fires when they detonate; others are so heavy that they are rolled out of the helicopters on small gun carriages.

The helicopters appear in the mornings and late afternoons, usually at the same times each day, and circle for a while at altitudes of 4,000 to 5,000 meters (13,000-16,000 feet), little more than tiny dots in the sky, before dropping their payloads. The sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impact — enough time to know that you are about to die, but not enough time to flee.

Even if there were, effective shelter is at a premium. And there is no one left shooting at the helicopters from the ground. Doing so would be largely pointless anyway because the helicopters fly too high for the Syrian rebels’ old Russian anti-aircraft guns.

Stay Put and Wait

The rules of Aleppo are matter-of-fact and unsettling. It’s as if someone had devised a murderous experiment: What do people do when death can rain down from the sky at any moment? Almost 90 percent of residents have fled since late 2013, when the systematic bombing began. Since then, the explosives have claimed the lives of some 2,500 people. Nevertheless, 200,000 to 300,000 people still live in the eastern half of the city.

Some say that they don’t want to leave, while others say that they can’t. There are also those who claim that trying to escape would be pointless. If death has an appointment with them, he will find them, they say. If he doesn’t, he won’t. So they stay put and wait.

Three-and-a-half years after the uprising against the Assad family dictatorship began, and two years after fighting erupted around Aleppo, the city is divided in two. The Syrian regime controls the more affluent neighborhoods in the west, along with the intelligence and military headquarters there. Some 2 million people are crowded into that half of the city. Many of those now there fled from the east to the west, desperate to escape the prospect of death from the skies.

In the east, it is more difficult to say who controls what is left of the middle-class and poor neighborhoods there, in addition to a large section of the historic city center. There were only a few rebel brigades at first. Then there were more than 400 small rebel groups. And now there are half a dozen large brigades. The radical Islamist group known as Islamic State came as well, but was driven away again. There is no central government in the eastern part of the city, but there is a city council, and there are police units and civil defense volunteers who respond after bombing attacks to recover the dead and rescue the trapped.

This month, rebels stopped Islamic State militants shortly before they reached the town of Maraa, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Aleppo. Assad’s troops, for their part, would only have to advance a few kilometers, repel the rebels and close their circle around Aleppo. Then they would be in a position to starve out the eastern part of the city.

The situation is dramatic, but it’s been that way for months. The constant news of battles, territory gained and withdrawals made reaches the ghost town, but it seems muted and far away. When there is no shooting, the city is eerily quiet, as residents silently go about their daily lives. Normal sounds are missing entirely: traffic, voices, music, birds.

Woman in Black

It’s early in the first week of September and everyone is still alive: store owner Abu Abdu Zakarias, his young neighbor Samar Hiyasi, Muhsin the electrician, an old woman dressed in black and 12 day laborers from the working class neighborhood of Haidariya. They are 16 people from various parts of the city who, on this Monday morning, have nothing else in common aside from the fact that they are still in Aleppo.

On Monday afternoon, rebel police and civil defense radios begin crackling. These are the institutions that maintain a rudimentary order in the midst of the inferno. A woman is walking on the Sachur Bridge, a deserted highway onramp. Walking up it is potentially deadly. “My God, what is she doing there?” someone says over the radio. “She must be crazy!”

Underneath the bridge, it is still safe and its thick concrete provides shelter to one of the city’s last remaining taxi stands as well as to fruit vendors. Snipers, though, have the topside of the bridge securely in their sights. Barricades of burned out buses and debris have been set up to deter people from attempting the route. But the woman in black sidesteps the barricades and begins walking across the bridge.

It takes a few seconds for the first bullet to zip through the air. The voices on the radio become increasingly agitated as the shots continue. “What should we do? Shoot back? No, that would only goad them on. My God…” The woman bends over and then keeps walking. There is a seventh shot and then an eighth shot. The woman falls to the ground.

No one knows what she was doing up there. Gathering used plastic bags to sell? Or perhaps she was trying to get killed? Or had she simply lost her mind? People shrug their shoulders. No one knows her name. They recover her body in the darkness, and then her trail is lost.

“We are still alive, but for how long? A day, a week? We are the living dead, like those creatures in the movies, zombies!” says a civil defense volunteer on guard duty. “Yes, zombies! Would you like your coffee with or without sugar?” Eastern Aleppo is a city of polite zombies, an eerie place that seems too exhausted for despair.

On Monday, Zakarias had been drinking his coffee in the garden, as he does every morning. The 60-year-old tailor lives alone in his centuries-old house. He used to run a shop, which he had rented out, but unfortunately the tenant is now dead. Zakarias tends to the plants surrounding the well in the inner courtyard. He usually goes to visit his old friend Johannes in the morning and brings him a jug of cold water from the refrigerator.

An Unusual Way to Die

On Tuesday morning at nine, Zakarias is once again drinking his coffee in the courtyard. When he suddenly hears the hissing of a bomb, he runs into his room, hoping he will be safe there. But it’s the wrong direction. The bomb isn’t big, but it hits the 60-year-old man, and it destroys half of his house and that of his neighbor Samar Hiyasi, the 38-year-old widow of a stock market employee. He died five years ago, say the neighbors. Of natural causes, they add, as if it were an unusual way to die.

Zakarias might have survived had he jumped into his cellar on the other side of the courtyard as his neighbor did. The civil defense volunteers, who arrive with a generator, a jackhammer and wire cutters, find him quickly. But it takes them two hours of sawing through a mountain of debris to reach Hiyasi’s body. Two steel balls, one the size of a cherry and the other as big as a walnut, are embedded in what is left of her skull. They had been stuffed into the bomb to increase its destructive power.

As the men continue to dig, Zakarias’ old friend Johannes shows up. Someone tells him what has happened. He nods. No screaming, no eyes wide open in horror, no astonishment, nothing. Just a nod. He buys some bread and returns to his house, the last Catholic old age home in eastern Aleppo, the Maison de Repos Saint-Elie.

“I have to sweep the courtyard,” he says as he walks away, and adds, in the same gentle singsong voice, that he had already guessed what had happened. First there was the explosion, and then Zakarias didn’t show up with the water. “Now he’s dead, too,” he thought.

There are still seven residents in the Saint-Elie home. The others have left or have died, and at 75 Johannes is now one of the two youngest. Magi Anastos, sitting in the dappled shade of trees in the courtyard in front of a sky-blue statue of Jesus, is 80. The residents, some of whom have lived here for 20 years or more, had thought these last few years of their lives would be quiet.

 

Navigating the “Cold Front”

And they do their best to cling to that hope. But it’s not easy. Their building, with its idyllic inner courtyard, where Johannes picks up every stray leaf, is directly on the front line. No-man’s land begins just behind it. “No one really has anything against us,” says Joseph Chidiac, also 75, who once studied theology for a couple of years and now holds improvised religious services every Sunday and cares for the two bedridden residents. “But when I climbed up on the roof in the winter to repair the water tank, the army sniper from over there started to shoot right away. I shouted at him to stop. Things improved with him after that, and after a while we even knew his name, Abu Jafir.” But now the residents are concerned, “because Abu Jafir was shot, and we don’t know the new one yet.”

Johannes and Joseph tied the first of the dead to a dolly and pushed him through the battle lines to where his family lived in the other part of Aleppo, “but that’s no longer possible.” Any of the residents who die now will be buried in the garden in the inner courtyard.

“There’s enough space there for us all. But we hope for God’s mercy, and that he will give us some more time,” says Joseph. His sons, like most Christians, live in the west, also near the front. His youngest son Fadi was killed two months ago by a mortar shell fired by the same rebels who occasionally bring bread and tea to the residents of the Saint-Elie. “What can I say?” says Joseph, looking up at the sky.

Johannes gets up to gather a few branches that have fallen onto the shiny tiles. There is an explosion nearby. No one looks up. Joseph unlocks the living room and points to a hole in the ceiling, where a mortar shell struck in the winter. “We had been sitting there half an hour earlier. We only heat the living room in the winter. It’s where we drink our afternoon coffee.”

He says it was a sign from God that the shell missed them. Like most in this city who have barely survived an attack, he sees God’s work in the tiny differences, measured in minutes and meters, that saved his life.

Now, in the summer, Joseph, Johannes, Magi and the two others who are still able to walk sit in their meticulously swept courtyard every evening, listening to the chants being shouted over their heads by both sides. “Allahu akbar,” the rebels shout; “Bashar akbar,” the soldiers respond. It seems like a never-ending dispute over who is more powerful, God or President Bashar Assad.

A Skewed Balcony

The five old people have become good at recognizing the dialects of the fighters from the other side. “Until a month ago, you could constantly hear Iraqis over there,” says Johannes. “Yes, but now they’re gone,” says Magi. “And the Lebanese, too,” Joseph adds.

It would be misleading to say that the fighting around Aleppo has quieted down after two years. Still, the number of fighters on the front lines has declined. Until a few months ago, the regime still had more than 1,000 Iraqi militants on its side, along with battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and mercenaries from Afghanistan, a Shiite alliance that has since almost completely disappeared. The Iraqis have gone home, now that Islamic State is threatening Baghdad while Hezbollah has ordered its soldiers to Damascus. On the other side, the rebels in August sent thousands of fighters from Aleppo to the north to stop the advances of Islamic State militants. The front lines have frozen and neither side is moving anymore. Local residents refer to it as a “cold front.”

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, there is the sound of rotors followed by an explosion, causing walls to shake hundreds of meters away. A light wind carries a giant cloud of dust across the sky. On the empty street, a woman carrying two plastic bags walks calmly in the direction of the impact, not even slowing her steps.

It isn’t far to the site, down wide Akjul Street and then to the left. Most of the buildings are riddled with bullet holes and curtains flutter out of broken windows. The buildings are still standing, but almost all are empty. On one skewed balcony, a man is watering his plants. He looks down without saying a word.

A light coating of dust has settled in the area. Only minutes after the impact, a man covered in white dust goes to get some water, singing quietly, and washes his motorcycle, which is miraculously undamaged. “I heard it!” says Muhsin, an electrician who has joined the rebels. He is referring to the brief hissing noise before impact. At the last minute, he jumped into the doorway of a concrete building. He was lucky, because the bomb landed in the crater formed by an earlier bomb, depriving it of some of its explosive force. Muhsin walks over to the wreckage, takes a right turn, counts the bodies in the adjacent courtyard and, looking regretful, says: “Three are dead.”

Managing the Power Supply

He is referring to the chickens; the other ones survived the blast. Minutes later, after cleaning his motorcycle, Muhsin is sitting with the other men in the basement as they divide up their shifts. Some take up positions in the tangle of bombed-out buildings along the front. The others put on long-sleeved jackets despite the heat and go dig tunnels. Using chisels, hammers and spoons — and steel rods to remove large rocks — they dig slowly and, most importantly, quietly to avoid detection. They are digging the tunnels to circumvent the army positions or to blow them up. They are also digging tunnels to prevent the other side from digging tunnels.

It isn’t as if the rebels were treating Aleppo’s incomparable historic structures any differently than Assad’s soldiers. But it takes them a long time to do what takes the Syrian army only minutes. “In the last four months, we have blown up and taken a building, and we haven’t lost any. Assad’s helicopters control the air, but we control the underground,” says Commander Abu Arab, a former boutique owner. His men have called him the living martyr ever since a bullet became lodged in his neck and a piece of shrapnel above his eye.

The militias and troops fighting on behalf of the regime are increasingly nervous as they listen to the sounds coming from below. Both sides have installed cameras ahead of their front lines, “but Assad’s people only have electricity two or three hours a day,” says Abu Arab. “We have 24 hours. The cameras don’t work without power. They’d have to start up their generators for that. But then they couldn’t hear what was going on anymore.”

The ongoing depopulation of the eastern half of Aleppo can at least partially be avenged by way of the power supply. The most important power line for the entire city comes from Hama in the south and passes across eastern Aleppo on its way to the west. That means the rebels could shut off power to the west entirely. Were they to do so, though, there would be no reason for the regime not to cut power to the city entirely.

Each side can blackmail the other, so go-betweens have worked out a compromise: Both sides receive roughly the same amount of electricity. It’s just that there are 2.2 million people living in the western half, 10 times as many as on the other side, which means the supply situation is radically different. In fact, some of the rebel-held neighborhoods have had electricity around the clock since engineers working for the city council repaired the distribution station in early September.

‘Not My Time’

When we walk back, the old man is still looking down from his balcony. Rahmu Hussein Abdullah, 77, a papermaker, is the last one left on his street. And it can stay that way, as far as he is concerned. “Leave me alone with my books!” he says. His library fills an entire room and he says he spends his days reading and caring for the building. But wouldn’t it make more sense for him to care of himself and flee before a barrel bomb explodes?

“No, why? It already struck here, three months ago, right in front of the building,” he says. There, where the bakery was. Dozens were waiting in line when the helicopter appeared above them. Perhaps they didn’t want to lose their place in line, or maybe they didn’t stand a chance, anyway. Abdullah wasn’t waiting in line that day. He was buried in a book and wasn’t hungry. The bomb knocked his balcony off kilter and it also ripped a hole into the living room wall, a gap which has now been filled with rocks. But he insists it wasn’t luck. “It just wasn’t my time yet.”

With his last neighbors dead, he bought a zebra finch to stave off the loneliness. He teaches the bird songs that he plays on an old cassette recorder. One of the oddities about eastern Aleppo is that there are still quite a few pet stores, even though most other shops have closed or disappeared completely along with the buildings that housed them.

Shots can be heard nearby, but Abdullah doesn’t even flinch. Instead, he tells stories from his books, about Solomon and King Nimrod, Isaac and Joseph. He talks about the presumption of people who aim to be masters of life and death, about God’s punishments and the mosquito sent by God to kill Nimrod for his insolence. “Do not flee from death,” says Abdullah.

God, though, isn’t sending mosquitoes to Aleppo. Instead, Assad’s military is dropping heavy barrel bombs. “But it doesn’t matter,” he says. It isn’t the bombs that are “the problem, but the time of my death, and it’s already been determined.” Is it lunacy to think this way? Or is it merely an attempt to make the lunacy around him seem normal?

A Unifying Force

Stoic tunnel diggers and world-weary retirees, in eastern Aleppo, two disparate groups are thrown together: those who believe that, no matter the costs, have a say in their own fates and those who don’t believe that anyone is making decisions. They have become companions in hell. They may have different answers to the question of what keeps them there, but they are still there, and that is a unifying force.

Rarely does anyone express animosity toward the other half of the city. He and his men are fighting the regime, says Abu Arab, the rebel commander, “not the people over there.” Of course, this doesn’t stop the rebels from firing shells and explosive-filled gas canisters into the other part of the city. Their range is short, but they kill indiscriminately.

Almost everyone has acquaintances or relatives on the other side. There are even travel agencies in Salahuddin, directly on the front, that offer bus trips “from Aleppo to Aleppo.” The trip, 600 meters as the crow flies, takes 12 hours as the bus winds its way through a large section of northern Syria. Only those who are not on the lists of those wanted by Assad’s all-powerful intelligence services dare to make the trip. Still, seats are apparently in great demand.

One person who made the trip several weeks ago counted “46 checkpoints.” “The rebels didn’t care where we were sitting in the bus, but then came the ISIS caliphate. All the women had to be fully veiled and sit in the back, while the men were told to sit in the front. Every woman had to have a husband, father or brother with her on the bus or else she wasn’t allowed to be traveling at all!” To solve the problem, the bus driver created fictitious married couples: “You two, you two, you two.”

Then came the zone held by regime forces. “Everyone had to move again, with men and women sitting together, no head scarfs and preferably a bottle of vodka in hand.” It’s hard to imagine that someone living in a part of a city that troops in the other part are trying to destroy would go on excursions there and then return to the inferno. But it happens.

On Friday, the day laborers from the largely abandoned Haidariya neighborhood gather at the only roundabout in the area, as they do every morning. Anyone in Aleppo who needs craftsmen or laborers for a few hours comes to the circle. It’s the only place in Haidariya where people still congregate. Otherwise, the streets are empty and the mosque abandoned, even on Fridays. On this morning, at 8 p.m., there are about 15 men waiting at the circle, while a few drivers are sitting in their small trucks on the side of the road with their engines idling. One of the survivors will later say that they heard nothing coming. A distressed fighter from the neighborhood will murmur that he had always warned the men against gathering at the same time every day. One of the injured will say that he was always afraid, of course, but “I still have to feed my family.”

At 8:03 a.m., a barrel bomb rips apart three buildings, the small trucks and 11 of the men. When the paramedics arrive at the scene, they find body parts on the roofs of the wrecked buildings. A 12th victim dies in the hospital. The doctors ask us not to mention the name and location of the hospital, “or else they’ll bomb us more often.”

The only one of the 16 people still alive at the end of the week is Muhsin, the electrician who sang while washing his motorcycle.

Three of the injured from Haidariya are in the hospital. Doctors have amputated the leg of one of the patients, the second is moaning quietly and the third, with a bandaged lump where his hand used to be, is constantly saying: “Where am I?” He says it again and again, senselessly and without hope: “Where am I?”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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