Life and death in Aleppo, a city recently under siege

For the past month I haven’t needed to set a morning alarm – the regime jets do that job for me. Every single day we have been woken at 7am by a missile or by a barrel bomb. I can’t tell if there are mortars, because I am so used to the sound of their explosions that they no longer disturb my sleep.

I miss the luxury of waking up slowly, starting the day looking at a picture of my wife and daughter, which I have taped up on the wall. I miss my Zara, who is only six months old, more than anything else, but for now I have to jump out of bed and race to the latest attack site to help with rescue work.

I have become an expert in pulling people out from wreckage, in distinguishing how deeply buried under rubble the screaming victims are, how to spot them in the chaos – they look very much like statues covered in dust.

Those tight, shocked hugs that I get from the kids I carry out of the ruins of their homes won’t ever be erased from my memory. Nor can I clean their blood from my T-shirts.

My wife wonders why I buy 10 T-shirts on every trip I make to Turkey. I tell her “I lost the old ones”, so she won’t be frightened. Especially because since she gave birth to Zara my wife has become so sensitive about children.

I come back home at around 9am to clean myself up and absorb what has happened, what I have done, the etched features of the bodies I recovered, the terror of those waiting to see if their loved ones will be rescued alive, or at least if their bodies can be recovered in one piece. Many bodies are badly shattered and burned.

After one of the latest air force attacks inside the city, I found a mother hugging a young girl’s leg, just a leg, and shouting: “I found it. It’s my daughter’s leg. I won’t lose it, it’s hers.”

Trying to get the sense of horror out of my head, I look at the empty coffee mug that my wife Zaina bought me and imagine it full of black coffee. I don’t have any coffee, and even if I did there is no gas to prepare it, but that just reminds me that I miss the smell too.

To overcome the desperation seeping out into the flat, I videocall my Zara. She is only 90km away, but I can only see her through this small flat screen, and I’m sure she can’t tell the difference between watching me and watching the “five little monkeys jumbling on the bed” song. For her I am just a flickering shape that she watches on her mum’s computer for a couple of minutes before losing interest and looking away.

She is rolling over now. I missed that. I also missed her first meal and, if the siege had continued, I would have missed her first everything – crawl, step, word. Ah, that would have killed even me, has who survived everything in the past five years.

I was injured again last month when a Russian missile hit about 20 metres away from my car. I felt nothing, but suddenly the world turned white from the blast and the dust, so white that my hearing and vision faded and it took me a couple of minutes to realise where I was and what had happened.

Finally someone came and broke the door of the car to get me out, the rescuer needing to be rescued. I couldn’t save myself, partly because I was in shock, but also because I still suffer from an old shoulder injury.

It has been five years now, but it seems like a few days ago. In the other side of the city, where I actually belong, the security forces arrested me, beat the hell out of me and then shot my legs a couple of times.

I was lying helpless on the ground when an officer named Alaa put his boot on my head and started grinding it into the ground, cursing every member of my family, accusing me of being a traitor for participating in peaceful demonstrations against the regime.

Then I heard someone say: “Alaa, don’t kill him. We are having fun torturing him.” That man saved my life.

It’s time now for the daily check-up on my friends. I post to our messaging group: “Who’s still in the competition to stay alive? Who has beaten death for another day?”

Once I have made sure we didn’t lose anyone in the morning attacks, I head out of the house on my motorbike. I bought it after the siege started because I couldn’t afford petrol for the car any more. Sometimes I offer a kind of free public taxi service to people stuck in the streets, because fuel shortages have shut down so much of our transport network.

I’ve been working recently on some projects to help besieged civilians to survive for longer, particularly small household farming. We consulted friends who have become “siege experts” after years cut off in Darayaand Eastern Ghouta and growing food was their top advice, so we did it. We bought a lot of farming containers and planted tomato, aubergine and squash, which we got from the local council. We have handed them out across different neighbourhoods now and encouraged some aid organisations to do the same.

Even after just a week under siege, markets had already run out of fuel and most basic foods, and if you can find supplies, prices are so high. A kilogram of potatoes has gone up four times in price, from 125 Syrian pounds (45p) to 600 Syrian pounds.

I now eat only one meal a day, usually boiled beans or pasta, in the middle of the night. I can’t sleep when I’m too hungry, so I delay my meal until then so that I can get some rest afterwards.

It was strange hearing about Russian suggestions of “humanitarian corridors” to get us civilians out of the siege, because the areas they were bombing hard were the areas chosen for the supposed escape passages.

After two weeks, when the revolutionaries declared an assault to break the siege of Aleppo, we couldn’t believe it and every single person I know went to the street asking around how he or she could help.

Some people started gathering tyres to burn on rooftops, and in the streets, to try to create enough smoke to blind the killing jets. The children made it into a game, and raced around the streets begging people for more, happy to be outside again after days of heavy bombing when parents and teachers had ordered them to stay underground.

I’d been out distributing the boxes of seedling plants with my friend, Samar, who works with the aid group Space of Hope. Like me she has left her daughters in Turkey and hasn’t seen them for months, because she chose to come back to help Aleppo. Everyone knows her, and she knows everyone, but the siege is particularly difficult for her. The lack of fuel means she can’t drive her car any more, but unlike men she can’t drive a motorbike.

When we got back to our neighbourhood, I gave the children two tyres out of excitement before I remembered I had bought them for my car and had paid $300 for them.

For a whole week during the battle to break the siege, people didn’t sleep and the streets were always full of people at night, like they are for Eid. Then, finally, the moment came when they declared the siege broken. I felt as thrilled as when the jailer opened the door of my cell five years ago and said: “You are free.”

An article by Mahmoud Rashwani published in the Guardian on the 14th of August 2016


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