Behind Perdition’s Eyelid: To Live and Die in Aleppo

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A Syrian man in clutches makes his way through debris following an alleged air strike by Syrian government forces on January 30, 2014 in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed al-Khatieb)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Thursday, January 30, 2014

Long before the initiative for a ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria, the city was already in the headlines. For many months, there has been a constant stream of news about the city’s deaths and suffering. But how do the residents of the capital of the Syrian north go about their lives? Or more aptly, how exactly are they coexisting with death?

“It’s getting dark and we still need two hours to get there,” said our co-passenger in the taxi, addressing the driver. After a few moments of silence, the driver answered in muted anger, “But what can I do? Do you want me to fly?” before uttering obscenities of the strongest kind.

Our car had embarked nearly eight hours earlier from Latakia, on the Syrian coast. We still had the two last and most difficult hours in our journey left, amid the pitch-black darkness and the sound of bullets and shells in the distance, close enough to smell. Before the war, the 185-kilometer journey between Latakia and Aleppo, through the scenic countryside of Idlib, did not take more than two and a half hours.

First, we set off southward from Latakia in the direction of Tartus, 90 kilometers away, and from there, we traveled around 95 kilometers eastward to Homs. Our next stop was Silmiyah, 45 kilometers northeast.

After that, we had another 200 kilometers to Aleppo, taking a route that winded eastward to Sheikh Hilal and Athraya, and then northward to Khanasser. We traveled through the southeastern countryside of Aleppo in the direction of Sheikh Said, Aleppo’s southern approach.

After nine hours of traveling and dozens of checkpoints, we finally arrived in the city. The road was deserted.

This area was once the gateway for travelers from west and south Syria, and would have been teeming with people way past midnight. But at 8 pm, it was almost completely abandoned, save for some cars moving hurriedly. Most roads leading to the Baghdad Station, a district that was once seen as part of the city center, were bustling, yet today they are on the edge of the “demarcation lines.”

Life – and Business – Goes On

The city has become accustomed to sleeping early and waking up early. Shops now open at 7 am, when, before the war, they sometimes did not open until noon.

More than half of the city’s inhabitants live in the so-called western districts, which are still under the control of the Syrian government. Most government departments that were concentrated in areas like Sabeh Bahrat, Bab Jenin, and Bab al-Faraj – now all demarcation lines with opposition-held territories – have established alternative offices in the western districts.

Now, neighborhoods like Jamilieh and al-Fayd have become the new city center. Public transport routes originate in them and follow amended paths to accommodate the fact that many major roads are now closed.

Mortars and rockets threaten everyone, and hardly a day passes without casualties. Nevertheless, trading continues around the clock, as usual for the country’s erstwhile economic capital.

Stalls are now the most prominent feature of the markets, having sprung up everywhere, even in the “posh” neighborhoods like al-Furqan and New Aleppo, selling everything one can imagine. But while the continuation of commercial activity in war is to be expected, what is extraordinary is that the city has continued exporting goods.

Despite the damage sustained by some of Aleppo’s major factories, operations continue in others, especially textile factories, albeit at a slower pace. Abu Ibrahim, who agreed to speak to us on the condition that we do not mention the district to which he relocated his factory, “to avoid unwanted attention,” said, “We stopped working for three months. When we realized that the crisis was going to last for a long time, we had no choice but to resume operations.”

He continued, “We rented a large basement in a relatively secure area. With difficulty, we were able to transfer part of the machinery. We resumed work, but we now relied on ourselves – my brother, our children, and I. We cannot afford to hire anyone.”

Most of his output is exported through Turkey. But naturally, there are great hurdles facing Abu Ibrahim and others like him. Power outages are nearly permanent, so they have to rely on generators, but fuel is scarce and expensive.

Furthermore, moving goods, both before and after the manufacturing process, is not easy and involves great costs – both to cover transport fees but also “tolls” paid to the checkpoints along their route. There is also the risk of the goods being confiscated by any one of the parties to the conflict.

Different people have been affected in different ways, and in varying degrees. Amjad, for instance, owned a prominent imported garments boutique, but today, he runs a small shop selling vegetables and groceries.

Samer, who lost his plastics factory, earns his living as a taxi driver with his small Suzuki car, which is all that is left of the four cars that once belonged to his business. Cases like Amjad’s and Samer’s abound.

The Deadly Crossing

Nothing has changed since our last visit to the infamous Bustan al-Qasr crossing, which is adjacent to the Aleppo district of Masharqa. This is the only point where people can move between the government-controlled western districts and the opposition-controlled eastern ones.

Thousands cross every day between the two sides. It is possible to rent wheelchairs for senior citizens and people with disabilities, and carts to move goods, but only after the appropriate fees are paid to the Sharia Commission.

Recently, the commission hiked crossing fees from less than 25 cents to about $16. The commission strictly prohibits transferring any foodstuffs from the eastern districts where they are relatively cheaper, whether as goods or even in the hands of the civilians. Militants often arrest civilians at the crossing for concealing food, and charge them with “smuggling to regime areas.”

Death permanently hangs over the crossing, with snipers encircling it from all directions. The crossing extends over an exposed, kilometer-long no man’s land, which the residents have to run across to dodge bullets.

Some have to cross twice a day or more, like Mustafa. He said, “I am a resident of Sukkari and work at a confectionery in al-Fayd. I have to cross in the morning and again in the evening. But it no longer scares me. Death is everywhere. In my home, I am at risk from a barrel bomb that could fall at any moment. At work, I am at risk from mortar shells. So why should I be afraid of a sniper’s bullet at the crossing?”

Residents of the Eastern Districts: Two Choices, Both Bitter

Most of the eastern districts that fell under armed opposition control more than a year ago are mired by poverty. When the militants took over, stationing themselves in schools and even homes, many residents decided to move to the western districts.

Initially, the city was not partitioned like this, and there was no crossing. Those who left their homes in the eastern districts stayed with their relatives or sought shelter in the university campus, schools, or mosques.

As months passed without the crisis abating, a number of families moved to rented accommodations, but many could not afford it. Those families found themselves forced to return, especially with reports that militants were looting abandoned homes. “We could not bear the humiliation. It would be more honorable to die in our homes,” said Um Ibrahim.

The returnees found themselves living side by side with militants, few of whom were original residents of their districts. Soon, they also found themselves permanent targets for artillery shells and explosive barrels, which fall on their districts from time to time.

Electricity, meanwhile, is a distant memory. Repairs are no longer feasible since the militants have stolen most of the cables and sold them as molten copper.

Private generators are everywhere, with power sold in monthly subscriptions. In effect, this has turned into a lucrative business, with backing from the armed factions. Firas, a resident, said, “Most of the generators were sent by foreign NGOs as aid but were sold for profit.”

The same thing applies to most aid being sent from abroad. Instead of distributing it to civilians, the armed groups and the Sharia Commission sell the aid for money. Abu Safwan, another resident, said, “If the saying ‘the protector is the thief’ were true, we would have accepted our fate. But they rob us without even giving us any protection.”

Aleppo sleeps today behind perdition’s eyelid, to borrow from a famous line by Mutannabi, the city’s most celebrated poet.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Not to disparage Middle Easterners, especially Lebanese who live in the Paris of the Orient, but this story demonstrates the weakness in the US/UK/Israel battle plan. That plan, just like the battle plan for the bygone US war on southeast Asia, has its foundations in the concept of strategic firepower. Israel can knock down a highrise apartment block reportedly housing a Palestinian militant group: so it does so.
The problem with this plan is, once you have reduced the highrise to rubble, your bombs become counter-effective. Your public wants you to drop more of them yet they are expensive, and the less results they bring, the more your public resents you; and, on the other side, the targets (indigenous people) see that a pile of rubble is a better protection against bombs than a highrise apartment block.
You cannoty defeat a population by use of strategic firepower once you have, to quote US Air Force General Curtis Lemay from the Vietnam War era, "bombed them back into the Stone Age." Once you've reached that stage of de-development, human forces come to the fore, and those forces are stronger than the mighty B-52.
A wonderful article today!

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