March is also March in Syria, light, it’s slightly wavy hills, embroidered with primroses and violets, the whites of the flowering almond branches, the orange of tulips and then this temperate, kind wind, full of light and jasmine. Then, in the house on your left, yesterday, just before sunset, Asma committed suicide. A bullet in the head – March isn’t March, in Syria. She was 13.
The Idlib province, in the north, was the first place the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, who have their headquarters in Turkey, conquered. But “liberated area”, here, doesn’t mean safe area. Because this is a land of missiles – they fall randomly, every single day: the only anti-aircraft systems, here, are poor weather and mist. Missiles and Islamists: they came from Libya, from Iraq from Afghanistan, without them the regime would have already tamed every revolt. But nobody knows what their real objectives are. They are feared and invisible. A few AK47s, not many checkpoints – it feels like everyday life, but everywhere is in anarchy: it is a dry wind: dense with light and fear.
Jabal al-Zawiya is a natural resort constellated with Roman and Byzantine tombs, it’s strips of grass between clear and barren rocks. Then you catch a glimpse, in the dark, under a stone arch hidden by the bushes, and it’s the metal of a teapot, a sodden book in the grass, a strip of a shirt, you catch a reflection of silver. And it’s not one of the many rocks, but a plastic cloth. It’s a door.
They pop from under the earth, by the dozens. Skinny, barefoot, their eyes exhausted and torn. They have found refuge here and await the end of the war in this damp and rancid air, with the tomb vaults blackened by the wooden stoves’ carbon monoxide. They sleep on sepulchres. And they cough, cough without interruptions. Tuberculosis coughs, like the one Nader Khaled al-Badwy, 26 years old, has, as well as his wife, Sanaa, 22, who has Omar in her arms, he is only one year and seven months old. He plays with a box of medicines; they are the only ones he could find, in the pharmacy. The drug facts sheet is in English – “it’s better than nothing”, he says: they are medicines for meningitis. They only have bread and tea, the water is rainwater, and in Turkey they have another seven-month-old daughter. Every so often they try to send her a bottle of mother’s milk with a smuggler. They have been here since September, and since September nobody has passed by, here. No NGOs, no Red Crescent. No medecins sans frontiers: nobody. They have no kind of assistance. Nor any kind of expectations. I ask what they would ask, if they could, the National Coalition, the coordination of the forces of opposition that has its headquarters in Istanbul and which has recently nominated a prime minister and a provisional government: they answer simply: sugar.
It looks like the same countryside that it has always been, then you look at these trees, tall, emaciated and as if they were stuck into the ground, with regular distances between each other, and you don’t understand; these strange trees – then you realize they are only trunks, there are no branches. To warm up, they have sawed away all of the fronds. “But not the trees. This is a protected park.” They live here, compressed, in twenty-two, in these two tombs. The youngest is Malaki, she is two months old and he barely manages to peer out of his rocking cradle among the moths. They are the families of Ahmad Omar al-Yahya, 45 years old, and Basam al-Amnou, 42. The bones were still there, when they arrived, in that hollow where now there are piles of blankets. They have buried everything under an olive tree. And they have moved here: with bent heads, the vaults that are too low, the light that is a lighter, the only latrine is marked not by a wall of bricks and a stream of liquids, but by a fog of insects. The shells of cockroaches, and when it rains, the tombs flood; they stay outside. One boy has a black and blue face and a broken wrist; to get inside the tombs, you need to go through uneven tunnels, openings in the mud, he slipped a week ago. Their homes, in the close by al-Bara, were swept away by an air strike, eleven families were incinerated. Up to now 6 missiles and 275 mortar shells have fallen on al-Bara, which has a population of 5000. The blast we hear now is number 276. We look at each other for a moment, raise our eyebrows, we say: a mortar shell – and we keep on speaking.
The refugees caused by the war in Syria, which had its second birthday on the 15th March, are more than a million. But the UN statistics refer to the camps set up in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. They don’t count the displaced that have remained here. They are estimated to be 4 million people. Without anything: not even water. International NGOs are still setting in, the local ones are often simply improvised initials set up by Syrians who have returned here to rake up money after years abroad. And the UN, as their statute states, operates through the Damascus government: their aid, therefore, is only distributed in regime-held areas. “But reaching Turkey costs money”, Mariam al-Mohamad, 57, explains. Another explosion. “On the one hand, we don’t want to leave, because this is our country. And because we are scared of looting. On the other, the truth is that a car to the border costs 300 dollars: two times an average salary. And for an average family, three cars are necessary. The truth is that becoming refugees, here, is a luxury we cannot afford.”
Ahmad Haj Hammoud is 31 and every day, at eight in the morning on the dot, he punches his time card in Idlib. He is a civil servant. Only the province is under rebel control: in the city everything works as it always has, shops, offices. Schools. And many people are like Ahmad: by day part of the regime, by night one of its victims. “But I need my salary”, he says laconically. “And I simply want this war to end”. Because a lot of people, here, are neither with Assad, nor with the rebels. They only see a ferocious regime and a Free Army that has reacted with a war it was not trained for, nor equipped for, with twenty year olds with AK47s and flip flops, Messi t-shirts and improvised grenades made with tuna tins. They await the passing of the storm, and nothing else, as if they were dazed: they look at you, thunderstruck, from the side of the street, like an apocalyptic nativity scene. Another explosion, in the meantime. “They are fighting close by, in Maraat al-Numan. It’s on the road between Aleppo and Damascus: a strategic position for the conquest of Hama”, Ahmad explains. The advance is from north to south: the order, geographically, is Aleppo, Idlib Hama, Homs: Damascus. “And after two years and 70 thousand deaths, Aleppo reduced to a typhus epidemic, we are still in Idlib. Still forty kilometres from the Turkish frontier. Damascus is 400 kilometres away.”
The name, Maraat al-Numan, is a patchwork of the Greek name, Arra, the Christian name, Marre, and that of the first Muslim governor, an-Numan ibn Bashir. “A synthesis from the Syria of yesteryear, in which we all lived side by side”, says Habib al-Hallaq, 26. He is a Sunni deserter who had a house in an Alawite quarter of Damascus, and the only thing that has remained from his old life, while another mortar explodes, is a pair of shoes that are the same as mine. “A synthesis of today’s Syria”, Noura Nassouh, 47, his tomb neighbour, corrects him. “In which we are all killed, without distinctions.”
Because March is not March, in Syria, and in this Spring deceit, punctuated by blossoms and mortars, this is how people live, with tea and bread and rainwater, searching through the grass for edible herbs. Suad is 15 days old and her eyes are already red and wrinkled. She was born here, in a tomb, in a dawn of missiles. Her mother is called Adlalh Ziady, 19, and she stares at me in silence. Her skin is yellow. In the meanwhile a mortar explodes – somebody, in the meantime, dies, and while I think of what to ask her, she keeps on staring at me in silence. What is it like? Becoming a mother in a tomb? Were you scared? And when this revolution started, would you ever have imagined that it would have kept on like this? while she keeps on staring at me, in silence, and I keep on thinking, and another mortar explodes, can you tell me what it was like when they bombarded your home? and it’s only a moment of inanity: what do you need most here? Milk? Medicines? Can you tell me about your typical day? a moment of shame, the children around that when you exit the tomb and have collected all the flowers they could find and grab at your arm, as if you were precious, as if you were here to save them and instead they don’t know that we are here for the umpteenth photo, the umpteenth article that will touch no consciences, not even our own, while they grasp at your arm, but it’s late, and but they don’t know that they don’t count for anything, because what is there still to understand here, in Syria, what is there to ask, what is there to write about? while Adlalh stares at me in silence and has nothing to say and another mortar explodes and a woman, in the corner, in the grip of her fifty years that seem seventy, three children of which not even the corpses remain, covers her face with her hands, immobile and she, as well, stays silent: because if Syrian men have ended up in tombs, Syrian women have ended up in the corners of tombs.
Because this is an upside down Spoon River, in which the living, from their tombs, speak to the dead that look on, and don’t hear. Amen al-Yassin is 37 and with his wife, mother and eleven children, the smallest of which is 5 months old, lives in a stable, amidst the goats and chickens, with dirty tins of olives and spices, a sack of potatoes, stale bread on a shelf. Nothing else. The laundry is hung on a chain for dogs, rags that you can’t understand whether they were shirts, jumpers, or of which colour they were. Their home, in Kafr Kouma, is in rubble and they haven’t found anything else. But this stable, which could be hit by a missile at any time, like their old home, costs 5 thousand lira a month, compared to the 4 thousand they paid before – but for a real home. Because war and poverty are only solidarity in the novels: in reality it’s speculation, a frontier populated by traffickers and shady operators. Everything costs something, here, be it a car to Turkey or a bottle of mother’s milk. Or sleeping in a roost. And it costs three times more than it normally does. Another mortar shell. “I’m looking for a tomb. They are all taken, by now. And the ones that aren’t, in private grounds, cost even more.”
They are factory workers, a greengrocer, a painter, a policeman, but also graduates, biologists, an engineer who plunged here with a phd. And you need to see, at least once, the beauty of Damascus, of Aleppo, the elegance of a Syrian home, its carpets, the wrought-iron lamps, the courtyards of climbing vines and pastel colored tiles, you need to have seen all those things that only exist in mobile phone photos now, to understand the heartbreak, the subversion, the desperation for this regression to the stone age, in which you warm yourself around a camp fire, exhausted, wrapped up like tramps in everything you’ve managed to recover, with your son trembling and filthy, with hair like stubble, with a nappy made up of bin bags, a sunken gaze, hunger and not even a toilet, with the humiliation of crouching down in the fields like beasts grazing. They speak in bits and bobs, their eyes low, like Shadi Ziadi, while with bare hands he moulds a tank of paint in the stove and cuts himself and the blood barely manages to drip down his muddy fingers: “Just write that I am ashamed.”
Ismail Khodor al-Yosef is 75 and has a heart that has been worn out by a heart attack, bones that sculpt his skin like a bas-relief, he is lying down on the ground and is waiting to die. His wheezes break the stale early afternoon air, they are like shards of bottles. It’s not one of those deaths you grow used to during wars: concise, dry, a bullet and that’s it, no – it’s a long death, coarse, in agony, the death of a man that clings to life, his gaze tenaciously held towards the light. He was the park’s guardian. He doesn’t know anything about his children, who are all refugees. And he stares at the light, nothing else, with his wife at his back, like a Pietà that won’t have its Michelangelo, in the tomb of a man whose name lies forgotten, while slowly, he as well, simply, disappears.
© Francesca Borri