First Person

Aleppo Under Bombardment

Eyewitness account of life under constant aerial attack.

It is Friday, January 31, 2014. Three helicopters hover above the city, and several fighter jets fly over as well.

I couldn’t find a place to rent last night, so I stayed with a friend at a military base in the Mashhad neighbourhood. The area is next to two active front lines, the Salaheddin and Saif al-Dawla neighbourhoods.

The military base begins to shake. Seconds later I am outside, running towards the destruction.

Fridays in Aleppo are no longer tranquil days for family visits. Like every other day, they have become imbued with terror and the expectation of death unleashed from the sky by Bashar al-Assad.

I walk down the stairs thinking that the shelling is very close. It might be in my friend’s neighbourhood. I rush there to check on him, anticipating a day full of death.

It is 8:30 in the morning. No friends have been hurt. Then the Mashhad neighbourhood where I had been staying is hit by two airstrikes. Minutes later, fighter jets swoop down again, and the street where I spent the night is hit.

Plans continue a relentless bombardment of the city for hours. Aleppo residents suffer a torrent of death from above, not knowing whether to ask God for help or to wait for death, or both.

People gather in alleyways. Everyone is preoccupied with some aspect of the fighter jet’s tactics, as if death were a mere distraction. Some discuss how much ammunition the plane carries, while others ponder its next target. Some curse the pilot and ask him to bomb them, while others challenge him to come down to the ground if he is a real man.

You can hear the mumbling of prayers mixed in with conversations about the Geneva conference. Some curse the peace conference for not stopping the bombing, while others mock the whole situation. You don’t know what prayer to invoke. If you escape death it means someone else didn’t. That is the final equation.

You don’t know what to feel - anger or sadness, pain or terror.

You walk through the city and look around to see smoke billowing from several places as if in a cheap Hollywood movie. After a while, you realise what you see is actually happening – the city is burning.

People stay close to buildings and shops and avoid open spaces in an attempt to thwart death.

Anxiety is overtaken by terror. When the planes pass overhead. everyone rushes to the nearest building, gathering their hopes and dreams, reciting what prayers or curses they know, and trying to keep their children alive. Children cry hanging on to their mothers. Mothers cry.

Rebels fire intermittently at the helicopters with 14.5 mm and 23 mm machine guns. They are shots of resistance and anger, but also of helplessness.

News of deaths spreads with alarming speed. Any driver or merchant can give you a detailed run-down of who has been killed.

You know that those with more powerful weapons can wear you out and end your life. Shops and schools close. Cars disappear from the streets along with the people.

You know that your city will never be what it was an hour ago; its face changes day by day. Entire neighbourhoods are empty, whole streets are destroyed. The marks of the regime’s destruction are on every building, planting sadness in every heart. The loss encompasses everyone. Every family has a martyr, a prisoner or a refugee.

After every shelling, hospitals turn into morgues. Bodies are lined up on the pavements so that people can come and identity them.

Charred bodies and bodies that are no more than small pieces of flesh are put in bags and buried. No one knows whether the victims’ families will find out they are dead. It’s a terrifying thought. You are not afraid of death, but you are scared that your loved ones will continue hoping that you are alive and that you will return to them.

I cross the street with my friend. Minutes later, a plane shells it. I hear the explosion and I do not want to run. It would be silly if I ran and still died. I want a dignified death. I want to at least die standing up. I hope for an enemy with a shred of honour who will fight me face to face.

A plane drops another bomb. The world is giving Assad the green light to destroy the city and no one is doing a thing, even to save face. What a miserable, shameful and ignorant world.

At sunset near the Jisr al-Hajj roundabout, filled to the brim with rubbish, a barrel bomb rolls out of a helicopter. You can follow it with the naked eye as it reflects the sun’s fading light. The barrel sparkles in the sky. You know that it brings inescapable death and injury. You know it targets your soul and your memories.

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.