In key Syrian city, snipers and bombing tear at fabric of daily life

As rebels and the Syrian government battle for control of Aleppo, residents tap caution – and dark humor – to survive.

Introduction

A Syrian records the devastation along a sniper alley in Aleppo's Al Shaab district, as the intense human and material cost grows from three months of intense fighting against rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday. (Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

His assault rifle propped beside him and a pistol in a shoulder holster, the rebel commander races his car through war-ravaged Aleppo districts like he owns them.

At street corners and roundabouts, he brakes hard as fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) call out his name, reach their hands across the passenger seat, and squeeze themselves across to kiss Abu Haidar’s bristly cheeks.

Rebels claim to “control” more than half of Aleppo in their fight to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But that is a misleading term that does little to explain the spectacle of Aleppo’s human suffering.

“Bashar al-Assad doesn’t have an army, only snipers, artillery, and airplanes,” says Abu Haidar.

Yet with these tools of war, Assad has defined lives of misery for those who remain in this contested city.

Weeping has become a fact of life in Aleppo. So has the constant sound of explosions, which reverberate deeply through the psyche of Syria’s second city, an economic hub, control of which is critical to the final direction of this 20-month uprising against Assad’s rule.

Trash piles ever higher on every street, as quickly as the nationwide death toll, which the UN estimates to be 20,000; activists number more than 35,000 dead. Yet in this crucible of a population under extreme stress, life goes on: vegetables are bought and sold, coffee is boiled and served slow, kebabs are roasted over coals, children play games in narrow alleys. While dodging snipers, citizens also walk and shop, take taxis, and pray that the water, the electricity, the phones won’t be cut to their neighborhoods. And there can be dark humor – something that Iraqis perfected in the past decade – that helps people here cope.

Every day, the vast majority of Aleppo’s 2.5 million citizens who remain live to see the next sunrise. How do they do it?

The front line

A Syrian rebel with an Islamic headband holds his gun at a frontline post, 75 feet from government snipers in Aleppo, Syria. In this critical battleground of Syria's 20-month uprising, FSA commanders say they control more than half of Syria's second city and commercial hub. (Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

The rebel fighter kneels down at the corner of the building, takes a smudged shard of mirror in his hand, and gingerly holds it up to peer with relative safety at the Syrian government sniper just 25 yards away.

On this front line in southwest Aleppo, it doesn’t take much to rouse the snipers, as this correspondent found during visits to four separate front lines.

At this spot, where rebels with bayonets affixed to their rifles are burrowed into the honeycomb of an apartment complex, the sniper would have seen through his scope a bearded rebel with a black headband with an Islamic saying – someone who was ready to “play” with him.

The rebel tosses a bit of trash into the sniper lane, then jumps across the gap itself. Silence, though the walls behind are scored with dozens of previous shots fired here. A few more run past, raising the stakes.

At the next sniper lane, a rebel adds a plastic tube to the end of his Kalashnikov, making it look more like a long-barreled anti-aircraft gun.

“They are just playing with the sniper,” explain an FSA commander Abu Issam, as he watches the antics. Then the sniper shoots once, and again, with no result, and there is laughter among the rebels, for whom this is a familiar ritual.

Tea is brought, and stories told. “Soldiers of Assad defect from the Army because they are forced to kill their neighbors, and are ordered to kill anything alive,” states Abu Issam. Two who defected the day before confirmed that, they said – even cats were to die. But the officer corps are well trained and “very professional,” they acknowledge.

“Assad can’t ever, ever take this city, but maybe he attacks hard,” says Abu Issam, a computer engineer who sports a scar between his eyes. “Aleppo can’t fall in our hands until we have anti-aircraft missiles. Even when we take control of any neighborhood, [government] artillery is killing us.”

As if on cue, the regime sniper fires another round, this time its impact causing splinters to enter one rebel’s hand. It is quickly bandaged.   

“We will keep fighting because we have a cause: We want freedom and dignity, we don’t want to pray to Assad,” says Abu Issam. “We take our strength from the people, and will give our souls for freedom. I may die, but if I do there will be five more to replace me.”

The performer

Syrian singer Ahmad Habush of the Al Kindi group shows a photo from a 2011 concert in New York. His home has been damaged by air and artillery bombardment. (Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

In Aleppo’s ancient district of Bab al-Hadid, the basalt stone alleyways and aged limestone buildings speak to a history that has long transcended the fluctuations of war. Yet the violence today has not spared the mosques of this quarter, or people’s lives.

“Five people died in this house,” says Sheikh Ahmad Habush, taking a visitor on a walk. Up one alley, an entire house has been destroyed by a single barrel bomb – a barrel full of TNT dropped from a helicopter. “Three people died there,” he says, pointing. Then he issues a warning: “Watch out for snipers, they are in that high building.”

Several shots ring out, striking the area harmlessly. Mr. Habush says sarcastically: “This president loves his own people, he gives them presents.”

He received his own “gift” some time ago. Habush shows where shells landed on his centuries-old house; shrapnel cut through the walls and upstairs rooms, a toppled child’s bicycle nearby. In the courtyard below four parakeet cages sit empty in a corner.

Musicians once gathered every Wednesday night inside the meeting hall here, its red velvet cushions now dusty. In the cool dark, a table is littered with remains of old coffee, cigarette butts. Amid the silence, Habush holds a photo of him performing a year ago in New York, one of 100 countries where he says he has played.

“Many people outside Syria hate the Syrian people, because they think they are just like the government, but they are simple and lovely,” says Habush. “For 40 years, the regime taught people lies and told them: ‘You must love the regime, or we will imprison you, or kill you.’”

Awards stand on one shelf, one from the “Culture Administration of Aleppo.” Habush wipes away tears when asked about the future.

“The end is not so close, because the Iranians support [Assad], the Russians and Hezbollah,” says Habush. “Yet everything has an end, and finally this revolution will win. The Assad family are killers … everyone knows it. For Syrians, Bashar is finished in their hearts and their minds. But it will take time.”

The bread line

Syrians buy bread from a Free Syrian Army delivery after three months of intense fighting against government forces in Aleppo, Syria, October 23, 2012. (Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

Among the most dangerous places in Aleppo are breadlines – the point where critical necessity meets highest risk, since breadlines have been regularly targeted by regime forces.

One strike this week killed 20 people in a northeast district. Violent scuffles are routine; on Thursday morning, during an intense bout of shelling, those in line at one bakery repeatedly chanted: "Open the window!"

So a mobile bread distribution organized by the FSA in the shadow of the walls of Aleppo's ancient citadel – which remains under government control – comes four days a week like a breath of fresh air. Bread is bought in Turkey, then in Aleppo it is delivered by truck and sold at cost to people living far from actual bakeries.

"This is safer because in neighborhood bakeries, people wait, and are bombed every day," says Mohamed, a taxi driver and father of five who has not worked for three months because of the fighting.

Relief and fun are palpable in this line, despite the backdrop of conflict. One older man jokes with another, his friend, by pulling at his long mustache. Smiles wreathe the faces of those jostling for a spot to collect three sacks per family. A pair of sisters, no more than 5 years old, are sent to buy their family's share.

Then word goes out to move to one side of the street to avoid snipers. Instead of stepping out of range, one man steps further into it, to make a point.

"It's normal," says Mohamed Halaby, of the sniper risk. A father of four, the clothesmaker has also been out of work for months.

"I was thinking about a good future for my children, but now the situation is different and I just think about how they can eat," says Mr. Halaby, holding his family's bread. "We are disappointed, we see blood every day, and bombs. How can we think about the future?

"At first, we thought this revolution would be short, but now it goes on and on. As people, we can't do anything ... the answer will come from outside," he continues. The US and EU, he says, "can do something, but they don't. They watch people die here, and they talk. They are waiting until all Syrians are killed before they come."

The emergency room

A 10-year-old Syrian boy with a severe shrapnel wound arrives at an Aleppo hospital on Oct. 24, 2012. The hospital receives 150 cases a day, severely stressing the staff's capabilities. (Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

The city street outside an Aleppo hospital comes alive every time casualties arrive, carried to this nondescript facility in charging vehicles from wherever government artillery and aircraft bombs have hit their mark.

These are the gory results that have traumatized Aleppo and created no-go zones so damaged they resemble the 1990s Russian destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny. This hospital is frequently attacked; upper floors are wrecked, and almost every building around has taken direct hits.

One truck arrives, bearing a 10-year-old boy and an older woman, both with serious shrapnel wounds to their thighs. The brother of the boy is so distraught he shouts himself hoarse and butts his head inconsolably against the unforgiving metal railing of the truck. The father holds his head in horror as his son is loaded onto a gurney and wheeled inside.

Quickly moving to the boy’s side as the doctors begin their painful work is an older nurse wearing a black head scarf. She comforts the boy, holding his head and kissing it, when the reassuring touch of her fingers alone are not enough.

When the boy calls out for his mother, the nurse is there.

“This war, the civilians are paying for it, the women, the children,” says Abu Mohamed, a hospital staffer. “If we had Stinger [anti-aircraft missiles], this war would be over in a month. We are so angry, because most of the injured are women and children. It breaks our heart.”

Such sentiments are often heard in Aleppo – that the US and Europe could do more to help the rebels fight, to more quickly end the war. Abu Mohamed pleads: “I hope the government of the United States will protect the civilians here, at least, because she raises the flag of democracy and it is her duty.”

This hospital receives 150 cases a day; after one especially lethal attack a month ago, the wards were overwhelmed with 40 dead and 70 seriously wounded. (An earlier Monitor story reported on the risks for volunteer medics.)

“There is one attack on a hospital every two days. We could die at any moment, but we must continue,” says Abu Mohamed. “In our religion, we believe nothing happens to us that isn’t fate. God wrote every moment [of our lives]…”

Outside, a man has reached breaking point. “I will kill Bashar and cut his head! I want him dead!” he shouts, as gunmen guarding the hospital try to calm him.

Exiting the hospital, another man carries a dead 7-year-old girl wrapped in a sheet. This is a dangerous spot, so he quickly opens the door of a waiting taxi, laying the young body gently in the back seat for her final ride home.

A mother's struggles

An ancient doorway is damaged from government air and artillery bombardment after three months of intense fighting against rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, Syria, on October 23, 2012. (Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

A few doors down from the hospital, sitting on a low chair on a broken sidewalk, a Syrian mother is lost in confusion, feeling the dangers of this war without understanding why they have torn apart her life.

Umm Mohamed’s distress reaches through the black chador that covers her completely. Her left hand clutches a fistful of bread; her curly-haired 3-year-old daughter – one of seven children – sucks her thumb and stays close, her evident curiosity at the street scene in sharp contrast to her mother’s fear.

The family lived in Salaheddin, a rebel enclave in southwest Aleppo pummeled since government forces launched an assault there in late July.

“The regime sent papers saying, ‘Get out, we will attack, run for your lives,’ so we got out,” recalls Umm Mohamed.

As she speaks, the wounded 10-year-old boy, his leg now bandaged, is wheeled out of the hospital to a safer, underground operating theater – this stark reminder of the daily danger barely eliciting a glance from those on the street. A medical orderly runs after them, carrying two units of blood.

The woman’s family, fleeing explosions and gunfire, and escaping unharmed from two close blasts, now lives in a basement in a “safer” district: “If my girl comes and says ‘I am hungry,’ it breaks my heart. We survive by the force of God.”

And also by the benevolence of the Free Syrian Army, says this mother. The rebels have provided money, food, and milk since Umm Mohamed’s husband disappeared two months ago. He was a taxi driver, arrested for taking wounded anti-regime protesters to the hospital.

“Why is the world keeping Assad at the head of his people? He is killing his people!” says Umm Mohamed. “In our hand there is nothing we can do. Maybe we will die.”

The daughter pulls her thumb from her mouth and waves when she spots a friend. The other little girl races over and they embrace. Yet Umm Mohamed’s mind focuses not on their playfulness, but on the number of snipers in their neighborhood.

“Yes, it’s full of snipers. When the dark is coming, we can’t go outside because they shoot immediately,” says the mother. “I am so afraid.”

Searching for a father

Two Syrian men search for remains of their father, killed in a mosque blast in Aleppo, Syria, on Oct. 24, 2012. They finally found his wallet after several days of searching. (Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

The fingers of two young men are gray with dust as they claw through the rubble of a downtown Aleppo mosque, brothers on a grim mission to find any last remains of their father. For four days they have searched, finally unearthing remains that will allow them to complete their father's burial.

But even surprised passersby are skeptical that the two have found what they were searching for, telling them to give it up, to let it go.

Abu Imad, the older brother, doesn’t blame Bashar al-Assad as much as those he sees as responsible for not stopping the carnage. Echoing the views of many in Aleppo, he pauses at this peak moment of his personal tragedy to accuse the US and Europe of speaking about human rights and democracy, but not acting to end the war.

He says digging for his father is “sending a message” to the United States. (An earlier story reported on rebels' bitter assessment of an international community that they say is doing nothing.)

“We don’t deserve that people are killed in Syria; it is all caused by the mistakes of Europe and Obama,” asserts Abu Imad, as curious onlookers interject similar sentiments. “Don’t even speak about the Syrian situation. Just send weapons [to the rebels] and make a no-fly zone [to stop regime air attacks], or shut up.” 

Then the younger brother shouts: He has found his father’s wallet. He extracts it from the rubble, blows off the dust, and the two men open it for all to see this artifact of a life spent working humbly at the mosque. Here is their father’s identity card, and proof of a poor man's devotion – a single currency note for 100 Syrian Pounds, the equivalent of just $1.33.

Watching for snipers

The path to one Aleppo front line snakes through two shops, to a main avenue west of the old city. Rebels have taken over, sitting inside at the office desk, making coffee. Outside, as darkness falls, a wall of white sandbags extends a couple of yards into the street.

Two worn barbershop chairs, placed upon the sidewalk for guards, grate and fall backward disconcertingly as men try to sit on them. Words spray-painted on canvas read: "Free Syria: The Shield of Islam."

A small firing hole in the sandbags is marked by the black powder of bullets fired often upon Syrian government positions farther west.

"Careful, the snipers are watching," warns rebel commander Abu Shaker. Indeed, a sniper lets off three rounds within 30 seconds of a visitor putting a camera to the gap to take a photograph. Farther down the street, undeterred, two women are getting out of a taxi. This correspondent and the rebels step back inside, through a facade of plate glass, for an interview.

"We think he's Iranian – he shoots exactly," says Abu Shaker. "We try to snipe him, and can't get him."

More sniper rounds, and a shard of glass from the cracked glass door pops inside and slides across the floor. Most of the victims on this street are civilians, with 13 or 14 every week – more citizens from Aleppo to add to the death toll, from a battle to oust President Bashar al-Assad that has no end in sight.

Says Abu Shaker: "We try to tell people not to cross this street."