words francesca borri | images stanley greene
Ed Note: Francesca's "...to the end of Aleppo" was first published in [wherever] 2014.1 and a preview can be seen here. Aleppo Continues is a look back on how the destruction perseveres. It was penned in April 2014, and the images on this webpage were submitted with the original article back in September 2013. Due to conditions in Aleppo, no photos were provided with this piece. Francesca was recently awarded the prestigious Prix Bayeux for war correspondents in the written press category.
Since the start of the fighting here in August 2012, since the first assault by the rebels of the Free Army, only one thing has not changed. The only anti-aircraft defense is bad weather. Fortune is the only shelter.
We have been telling the story of a city in ruins, over the last few months. We have been writing about hailstorms of shrapnel, streets littered with snipers, missiles and tank fire. We have been telling the story of a city disfigured by typhus, by leishmaniosis, by starvation. The story of kids who resemble the images we see from Ethiopia, from Somalia: their skin covering their bones like wax, grass and rainwater for dinner. Rivers throwing up corpses, a mist of insects swarming over the remains of bowels, livers, lungs, grenades, rockets, planes, beheaded activists, executed fifteen-year-olds. We have been writing about hospitals being bombed, surgeries being carried out with kitchen knives, the best painkiller one can hope for being a nurse’s stroke. We have been seeing maimed bodies, on chairs, heads, hands, and chunks of skull.
Known casualties are at 150,000, but the estimate goes up to as many as 220,000. We have been recounting the horror, the brutality, the sheer ferocity of this all, over the last months. And the sorrow of it all. We have used up any possible word. We have run out of adjectives.
Sorry. We haven’t quite figured out what war is like.
Because in Aleppo today there is only one front: the sky. That’s how you die, here: without notice. A blast, from nowhere, a flare, a slap of wind, and the air that gets scalding hot with flames, blood, shrapnel—and amid the dust, amid the screaming, only these shreds of flesh, these children of coal. There is no shelter: Buildings have no basements. No cellars. Nothing. And insurgents, poorly equipped by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have only these old Russian machine guns, the doshka, these pieces of rust. Against a jet, they are as powerful as a peashooter. In Aleppo suddenly, simply, you die. People dig with bare hands; there are no bulldozers, there are no pickaxes, and there is no fuel. There isn’t even electricity anymore: People dig under the faint glimmer of mobile phones, of lighters, the corpses that stare at you nested at the bases of pillars.
Bashar al-Assad’s counteroffensive started in December. You get into the city through nine miles of frontline now, from the Sheik Najjar industrial area—an area once held so firmly by the rebels that it housed the HQ of the Revolutionary Council, the provisional administration of Aleppo that was optimistically busying itself with restoring pipes, reopening schools, even replanting trees. Now, instead, that’s the way you get in, amid mortar fire, RPGs, kalashnikov bullets, a jet overhead at full throttle, to take cover as fast as you can. That is, under barrel bombs. Barrels. Barrels filled with oil and explosives, dropped from helicopters, two, three, four at a time. They rain down by the dozen, every day, every night, every hour, everywhere, really everywhere, an average of fifty a day. There is no distinction at all between civilians and combatants. The only difference is that the frontline is targeted by more accurate jets. As usual, rebels and loyalists are so close that they exchange fire while cursing at one another. Barrel bombs might hit the loyalists, too. But that’s the only difference. Because for everything else, in Aleppo there is only one other distinction in the selection of targets: clockwise or anti-clockwise.
That’s what we keep calling it. Aleppo. But it is Dresden, now.
Miles and miles—Aleppo doesn’t exist anymore. It shrinks by the day.
Yet, it isn’t empty as it looks. As we are told. Because as my driver points out, “becoming a refugee is a luxury not everybody can afford.” He doesn’t have the $150 to pay for a car to Turkey, plus the $100 each, for his wife and three sons, to bribe a policeman and cross the border illegally. Only a few still have a passport—and at any rate, Turkey now hosts 700,000 refugees; UN camps are at capacity. Aleppo looks ghostly, and yet Syrians are still here, in their hundreds, in their thousands. Exhausted.
There are still about 80,000 people in Aleppo, according to estimates. Chewing cardboard to dampen hunger. Worn out, with these ragged eyes, standing tattered on the sidewalk, watching the sky—because in the past, the jets came and bombed: twice, three times a week, they bombed and disappeared. Now the helicopter twirls, and suddenly, it drops bombs: twice, three times an hour. Suddenly you die. There’s nothing else, in Aleppo. There’s nothing else. You wait and die, in this nest of wasps, this nest of rubble. There is nothing else, only the buzz that intensifies, at some point, and only this shout, suddenly: tayyara! tayyara! “A jet!” and everybody diving underneath a chair, behind a closet, a pot, a bucket, whatever. Aleppo looks empty, and yet in their hundreds, in their thousands, frightened Syrians spring from amid the ruins. That’s the way they live; amid the corpses that were never recovered, in the hope that perhaps a place that’s already been hit is less likely to be hit again. Amid the rubble, the concrete plates, the floating clothes, the books, a clock, a child’s shoe with a foot still inside. “We are only a number to you,” a young man complains in Sayf al-Dawla, while insisting on listing to me the victims from the last airstrike. Name by name. But the UN in January stopped counting the dead: It’s too messy to keep up-to-date, sources are unreliable, they explained. So, rather than stopping the war, the UN has stopped counting the dead. The young man complains, he insists on telling me their story, one by one: He doesn’t know that in Syria the dead, to us, are not even a number anymore.
Yet in Aleppo talking, asking questions, is not easy. And not only because journalists are still under the threat of al-Qaeda, forced to move around undercover, as invisible as they can—more than twenty of us are still missing. They try their best to answer, men, women, the young, the elderly, everybody. They start, a sentence, a sentence and a half—but then they fall on your shoulder, desperate, and cry. They cry, and they are the ones who ask you questions, who ask—“Why? Why?” They ask you, and they cannot say anything else, desperate. They hug you and cry.
They cry until the next blast. Until a doshka coughs these four, five bangs—not to shield you, nor to shoot anything down, only to warn you that a helicopter is just a heartbeat away. A heartbeat and it arrives, and perhaps you die. Immediately, again, you hear the noise, stronger and stronger, closer, in this endless heartbeat, and again everybody screams, everybody runs away—and again, violently, the blast. The apnoea. Al-Ansari, 4:40 PM. The first to resurface is the silhouette of woman. She pierces the fog of dust and gunpowder, she totters toward you. Then a man, another, one more. One who faints, in their arms, frayed. These indecipherable bodies, these ripped bodies, that drip, drain on the ground. The kid you’ve just met who is now there, gray, still gripping his teddy bear.
A carpet, and scattered around it, a fan, a chest. A tricycle.
And for days at dawn, like shell diggers, you’ll see women down on their knees on this foreshore of human remains. Between their fingers, a scrap of fabric, a scrap of son.
You die, in Aleppo. Nothing else. You wait and you die.
Syrians are alone, completely alone on this side of the red line—where you don’t die of gas, but of everything else, and so nobody cares. Nine million are displaced: almost half the overall population. And 3.5 million are in “hard-to-reach areas,” according to the UN’s wording.
Last November, the imams allowed the cooking of stray cats.
The UN Security Council’s Resolution 2139, passed on February 22, calls for unhindered access to humanitarian aid. But the UN, which by its own statute works only through recognized governments, that is, Assad’s government, has for now decided not to push. And to adapt. Assad prevents aid trucks from entering from the border with Turkey, under rebel control, and instead forces them to cross down south, a waste of time and money, facing risks up to ten times higher, which Human Rights Watch denounces. And most of all, with such a range of restrictions on movement, the majority of aid, about 90%, is ultimately allocated to regime-held areas. The regime claims this is for the safety of aid workers. What we are told by the volunteers of the Red Cross, a folder with names and photos in their hands, sounds a bit different: The regime jailed and tortured those who dared to reach rebel-held areas.
Those who finally were able to reach them, on the other hand, were kidnapped by al-Qaeda.
Some trucks are actually getting in these days: but in Aleppo nobody seems to have received anything. Rice, sugar. You never come across anything with a foreign logo on it, here. Not a bottle of milk: nothing. The only certainty is that for those who are embedded with the fighters, no matter the brigade they belong to out of the thousands and more they are fragmented into, there is always food. Jihadists, especially the guys who land here from European suburbs with beards and iPads, extol Syria on their Facebook pages as a “five-star jihad,” promising potential recruits that they won't find another Mali—all sand and hunger.
Because that’s the only other certainty here. Only one place in Aleppo has never been targeted so far: the al-Qaeda compound. Strictly speaking, its rather isolated location makes it the only lawful military target in town—the only one that might be hit without causing a degree of collateral damage considered disproportionate to the anticipated military advantage. Yet, it is still there. Still standing. And Assad is likely to know its GSM coordinates: Over the last few years, he has been housing, training, funding, and backing various cohorts of jihadists, who later headed to Iraq to drive out the American invaders.
Because Assad is also likely to know what actually keeps the US from stepping in and toppling him: the nightmarish prospect of a Syria led by al-Qaeda. And right on the border with Israel.
To stay safe in other areas, war journalists are usually advised to stay close to refugee camps, hospitals. Bread lines. Here you are advised: Stay close to al-Qaeda.
Because except for al-Qaeda facilities, everything else is under attack. “It is no longer a matter of humanitarian aid,” I am told by X, a driver for the Red Cross. “An extra kilo of rice makes no difference. You are going to die anyway.” And often enough, you die anyway even if you survive the bombing: Nobody will come to pull you out from under the rubble. The newly established Civil Defense, men equipped with lamps, gloves, hard hats, and tractors, acts as a sort of fire brigade. There are about 30 of them, but their number changes by the day, by the hour—because corpses, in Aleppo, always come in pairs. The second being the one who ventured to the rescue, hit by the second barrel. And even if you are finally pulled out from under the rubble, nobody here has anything to treat you. There are two hospitals left—actually, one: The other was targeted while this piece was being written. “And even though they treat you, you return to the mercy of the helicopters,” a child says. Her left arm is all scars. She is about to show me her right arm when a mortar falls at the end of the road, and she runs away.
Because you wait and die, in Aleppo. Nothing else.
And nothing is sharper than the first strike. When somebody is still alive, under there, and you hear the voices, the screaming, amid the dust, while you cannot see anything. Saa’idni! Saaa’idni!, they beg. "Help! Help!" Like this woman now, we are in Soukkari, facing the screaming of her two nephews, seventeen and eighteen years old, and relatives who hold her back, while she strives to shrug them off, and slips, stands up again, shouts, Saa’idini! Saa’idni!, and it’s the most ferocious moment. Brothers, fathers, friends, everybody holding them back, while they strive to shrug them off, desperately rush into the rubble, their hands bare, and immediately, another helicopter comes, promptly. It hovers, and hovers, sadistically, while everybody runs, again, nobody knowing to where, now, all of those who had tried to shrug them off, stand up again, amid the screaming, the din of the blades, the dust, the blood—the blast.
Because you die, in Aleppo. Nothing else.
The city is split in two: one side under rebel control, one side under regime control. And last September in the eastern slice, in the then-rebel-held slice, a new al-Qaeda regime replaced the old one. It no longer makes any sense to refer to a regime, be it the rebels’ or Assad’s: because Aleppo is simply a no man’s land, in the grip of warlords. Checkpoints have basically vanished: Rebels are all on the frontline, barricaded in battle. After having focused themselves more on looting than governance, and most of all, after having slain each other over the course of weeks of infighting, paving the way for Assad’s counteroffensive, they are now busy with cutting the supply lines to Damascus, and with a diversionary attack in the Latakia province. Our analysts follow the developments on the ground step by step, a map in their hands, hour by hour: who is advancing, who is retreating. But no matter who advances and who withdraws, nobody actually rules anything anymore—it’s life in the wild. Nobody controls anyone anymore.
They both take over but rubble.
The only visible sign of authority is at the entrance of the Karaj al-Hajez, commonly referred to as the death alley. It is the crossing point between the two sides of Aleppo and is under constant sniper fire from Assad’s gunmen. For those living in the eastern side, it’s crucial. For many, the only source of income is their salary as state officers, which can only be received on the western side. Or trade in fruit, meat, and vegetables. On the western side, prices are higher: you sell one kilo there and buy with it two kilos here. But most of all, on the western side you are not under bombing. And you get humanitarian aid. Displaced families all fled there. And so the only visible sign of power is here, at the Karaj al-Hajez. The al-Qaeda-linked Islamists had first prohibited the carrying of food and medicines. Now they have built a concrete blockade.
Syrians do not talk anymore of politics, of negotiations. The bulk of the war is now the prerogative of foreign fighters; jihadists on one side, Hezbollah and Iranians and a range of soldiers of fortune on the other. It seems not to catch the Syrians’ attention anymore. Nobody refers to “liberated areas” anymore. Now it’s simply West and East Aleppo.
“The Free Army moves forward, forward, it looks like it’s going to win—and suddenly, it no longer gets weapons. And so the regime strikes back. It moves forward, forward, it looks like it’s going to win—suddenly, the Free Army gets new weapons,” sums up Z, one of the few activists who still live here. And who are still alive. “And it’s been like that for months. You are all mulling the opportunity of an external intervention. But the external intervention here is ongoing. We need an internal intervention instead: We need to give Syria back to the Syrians.”
Because the only priority here, is survival. Helicopters, jets, jets, helicopters: There is no break. And at sunset, you can only curl yourself up in a corner. Terrified. On Aleppo Today, the local TV station, the deaths report scrolls like closing credits, on the bottom, while through the window, in the dark, every ten, twenty, thirty minutes the ghost of Aleppo reappears in the flash of a blast. I keep on nervously watching the clock. Waiting for dawn. But I am the only one; it’s a habit belonging to another life. Because the only difference between night and day, here, is that during the night you cannot even run away. During the night, war, in Aleppo, turns into murder. There is no fighting: There is only death. Random death.
Because it’s about getting bombed, here. Bombed, bombed, bombed. Nothing else.