Worn out, and soul of dust, you twist and turn amid the piled sandbags to escape the never ending snipers. How long does it take? You ask, your nerves crumbling, how far is it? Only now you do understand this war; when in the middle of nowhere, Alaa says: It’s here.
Because of the ancient souk of Aleppo, the most charming 4,000 m2 of the Middle East, the most famous postcard of Syria, a vertigo of voices, and tales colors, an overflow of life, now this is all that remains: rubble. Your feet that you walk in and sink until the ankles, bented spikes of rusty iron bars, shattered glasses, metal sheets, bullet-ridden blown up shutters. Powder and stones. Nothing else. But really nothing else. Rebels drag you around alley by alley, shop by shop as if you were a tourist; this is the cotton market, they explain you, this is the gold market, on your right you find the spices, down there is the silver. And they are but rubble. Here is where brides come to buy their gowns, and they point out the butt of something, here their wedding band – verbs in present tense: and you see but nothing. There’s not even a rat, here.
Iyad is 32 years old, a broken expression nestled in strong muscles, he was a carpenter – “my workshop is at the end of the corner,” he tells you, even if at the corner there’s but a collapsed ceiling, a remnant of a wall, and even if he now is a sniper, two hours per day, every day, he sleeps here, a mattress and a blanket next to a door’s slice, his brother died, his father died, his best friend died, everybody died, his two-year-old daughter died, in his Nokia the photo of her body covered in blood, and now he is a sniper, that’s all, two hours per day shielded by sandbags, you look through the hole where he shoots from and the helmets of the last soldiers he hit are still there, in the streets. Whatever your question is, the answer is the same. But how do you feel, you ask him, the first time? He shows you his daughter’s body, while a man wheezes, in your gun-sight, what do you think? He shows you his daughter’s body, you ask him: but once all this will be over, what will you do? What kind of Syria will come? Only his daughter’s body, only blood that trickles – until he tells you: anything else to know? He puts his mobile away, and he goes back to shooting.
They are often just in their teens, and they have these eyes so transparent, so empty that you can look through them, and see the rubble that is behind. They have been fighting here for eight months, the clock, on a wall, is stuck at 17:47. It was September 25 and Aleppo was a pure hell, a blast every few seconds when the old city, a UNESCO world heritage site, was overwhelmed by fire. They roam around the storm’s spoils in T-shirt and Kalashnikov, a pair of Bart Simpson socks under their military boots; they are the new lords of Aleppo, kids who barely have a diploma, barely have a job – and yet they have a Kalashnikov, now, now they have experienced power: and they won’t be insignificant again as they were under Assad. They squat here with their camping stove, a teapot their sleeping bag, and it looks like their inter-rail holiday, talking with them is pointless, you cannot extract any word, any emotion. They oversee every corner, every mark of wall here has its own checkpoint, its bodyguards; they patrol the streets of an imaginary city – “this is the best tailor of Aleppo,” and it is but a stack of sharp metal sheets under sniper fire: because when you happen to bump into a fog of flies, then, you who know Aleppo, by now, you know: underneath, lies human remains.
The silence scratched by the water that drips from a broken pipe, the only light that seeps from bullet holes. They are ghostly aisles, sinister shadows waiting in ambush. Amar is 17 years old, he is a welder, Hassan is 20 he is a mechanic, they sit in front of a TV. An energy drink in their hands and their legs on a table’s crooked stump. And you think they stay tuned on Al-Jazeera, then you get closer, absentmindedly, you gasp: it’s the monitor of a video surveillance network. Because you believe the only danger, here, is behind those sandbags: you are wrong: somebody is watching you, right now, examining you, somebody is communicating your arrival to somebody else: somebody is hunting you – it’s the systematization of death, here, it’s Taylorism applied to war: the passage from killing to elimination. Sometimes a cloth roll floats amid the dust, amid the debris, clandestine, a chunk of soap, the heel of a shoe, a box of business cards – sometimes waves return to the shore fragments of the life that once was. From these streets, its a matter of method, nobody must surface alive.
And in a burst of mortar, at some point, something golden still shines. It’s a chandelier. You lower your head, curious, you slip into the sandbags – you slide in: and you find yourself amid dozens of bullet-pierced copies of the Koran: it’s the Great Mosque. It’s its remnants.
The walls defaced by artillery fire, the candle-holders teared off. Engravings, decorations planed away, the shades of red, on the carpet are now shades of blood. From one pillar to next, dark plastic sheets: regime’s snipers are on the other side of the courtyard. For it is a war of the last century, the war of Aleppo, it is a trench warfare of rifle shots: rebels and loyalists are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other – on the front-line, the first time you cannot believe it: with these bayonets that you have seen only in history books, and you thought they hadn’t been used any longer since Napoleon’s time. Today that war is a war of drones: and here, instead, they fight meter by meter, with that blade tied to the barrel, and decayed of blood, and for it’s really a war street by street, a hand-to-hand combat, the alley cats, out there, that contend for a shinbone. Even though they are but Praetorian guards of an empire of death, by now, they are ready to offer you a tea and cigarette under the sun and fire while they welcome you with the V of victory sign as in front of the Colosseum for a photo souvenir. Instead they are but in front of smashed minarets, briers of metal sheets while they take off their shoes, as in any mosque, or they stop you: you cannot enter here: it’s the women area, and instead they are but the charred remains of objects you don’t even understand what objects are – while they keep guard pink elephants: but everything, here, amid the ghosts of the brides, is more sacred than life.
They seem roads, they are The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Even the muezzin, now, calls no longer to prayer: he calls for blood donors for the wounded of the last missile, dropped one hour ago. And only a rain of Kalashnikov fire, suddenly, wakes you up – out there shooting starts again. It is the only sign of life – out there, somebody dies. Somebody hasn’t died, yet.
Text by: ©Francesca Borri