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Aleppo Diary: Syria's Once Vibrant Business Capital Besieged By War

A rebel fighter after unloading his shoulder-fired missile toward Assad loyalists
A rebel fighter after unloading his shoulder-fired missile toward Assad loyalists
Florence Aubenas

ALEPPO - As a man cleans his Kalashnikov, another next to him is peeling garlic for supper. At his feet, the assigned cook has left his pistol and his knitting, with the needles stuck inside – it is a striped scarf with the colors of the rebellion. A small fire is lighting up the walls of the abandoned building, which was a "Western and traditional souvenir store" in Aleppo's old city until a few months ago.

Just a few hundred meters from here, the front line zigzags through the narrow market streets of the souk.

A plane flies by overhead. The guy with the Kalashnikov looks surprised – the bombing runs have slowed in recent days. What's changed? Everyone has an explanation. Major regime assaults may be preparing to mobilize in Damascus and Hama. Perhaps the anti-aircraft defenses, which the rebel army has finally managed to get hold of, are preventing planes from taking off.

The other man, who has since turned back to his knitting, explains that two rockets recently killed 18 people near Aleppo's airport. The regime will fall. People have no doubt about it around here. But sometimes the feeling spreads that the fighting is bound to go on forever. Other times, it feels like the end is only a minute away.

It has been six months that the rebels of the Free Syrian Army entered Aleppo – the FSA now controls slightly more than half of the city. Nowadays, people live and die here during these hours of uncertainty, while alliances are established and dismantled and convictions sway with the wind.

"In this souk, we would sell all sort of goods, rugs, diamonds, antiques," recalls an electrician. "You are in the heart of the beautiful Aleppo, the economic capital of Syria!" The man is sitting on his sofa in the dark, with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. He keeps apologizing: "I don't like humidity." Like everywhere else in the city, power was cut two months ago. There is no longer heating, and running water is rare. We hear the sound of a mortar shell fall in the background. The electrician no longer dares walking around his own apartment since the two rooms located in the back were devastated during the fights.

Through the window, one can read on the opposite wall: "Bashar is my God." The man explains: it's not that they really like President Bashar al-Assad in the neighborhood, but many resented the arrival of the troubles brought by the rebellion.

The man himself was arrested by the regime's security forces. It happened eight years ago as he had gone to buy underwear. He was beaten repeatedly over several days, freed only after he was forced to confess he was a terrorist and had paid a $50 bribe. This event had convinced him that in the land of Assad, one had to be foolish to start minding somebody else's business.

Flip flops and second-hand Kalashnikovs

On July 20, the whole neighborhood watched the rebels enter the city with a sort of astonishment. Who were these people from the countryside, wearing flip flops and touting second-hand Kalashnikovs, who claimed they had come to free them, the proud and light-skinned people of Aleppo? The electrician fled, like everybody else, thinking that it would only last a week. After two months of exile in Egypt, he was broke. He therefore headed back to his deserted spot in the souk where only seven families are still staying operating under rebel control.

On the other side of the front line, regime snipers send them messages: "If you cross over, we kill you." The electrician once tried to go through a checkpoint. "People stared at me like an animal because I live on this side: I was no longer one of them." So he made up his mind and joined the rebels. "Here we have a katiba – a combat unit. It is well organized, which implies there is no stealing."

Above the sofa, the clock suddenly makes people jump around to the sound of a Swiss cuckoo amid fire exchanges. It is 3 p.m., but feels like the middle of the night.

In the part of town in the hands of the rebels, waste is piling up everywhere into huge heaps where children and longhaired sheep run about. A group of women, men, children rolled together in same blanket like a litter of cats have fallen asleep in the lobby of a wrecked building. The state of war has mixed cars, livestock, people, and genders.

Nobody seems to be still doing their real job. A tailor is selling candles. A computer engineer wearing a uniform of the rebel army is checking cars. In a public garden, a mechanic climbs trees to cut down wood for heating. A bus driver is busy selling overpriced contraband gasoline from Turkey.

At the Mustapha al-Aissa primary school, a group of teachers had to negotiate hard to get soldiers to leave the buildings, after they had turned them into barracks. For a month, 550 pupils were enrolled in the primary school but Abou Laai, the 22-year-old principal, refuses to welcome more than 200 students. "At least, the massacre will be limited if we get bombed."

Education is one of the pillars of Damascus regime and every schoolbook shows a photo of the president. A caption underneath reads: "With Bashar, children are happy." Yes, some teachers – not all of them – ask their students to denounce their parents if they watch foreign television channels. Yes, everything would need to be changed, including textbooks. But then, Laai adds: "We burn the books anyway." Are they so bad? At this point, the young principal's well-scrubbed face grows darker. He can't stand these questions anymore, which are "not proper questions for us a the moment..." Yes, the books are bad, but that's not why they are burned. They are burned to help heat the school.

Under the porch, two kids are trafficking ammunitions like marbles and play the "martyr" game, a new popular game in school playgrounds which consists of collapsing on the ground, like soldiers killed in a fight, screaming "Allahu Akbar."

“When did the children last eat?”

The re-opening of the Mustapha al-Aissa primary school is part of a private initiative that has already brought about 50 teachers from 12 different schools together. They have weekly meetings and women have to wear the veil to attend. "Two years ago, Bashar's regime got rid of teachers wearing the veil. Today, we want to tell these women: "We are on your side"," says the coordinator of the project. He called his organization the "Sunni Charity League" and starts by saying: "I know that people think we are Islamists."

Like everywhere else, fundraising was problematic, and here again, people did the best they could. For its school network, the "Sunni Charity League" knocked on the doors of NGO's and public institutions. They all refused to help, except one: the al-Nusra Front.

Everybody stumbles upon this name in Syria nowadays – nobody seems to be able to confirm the reality behind this name. Journalists are not welcome and the U.S. has just added it to its list of terrorist organizations.

The movement emerged suddenly about a year ago. It started as a katiba made of experienced fighters – from abroad as well as Syrians – advocating a form of Islam that was radical enough to attract funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Most Syrian rebels first appeared cautious, defending "their" revolution. "But after a while, we no longer had the choice," says an officer from the Free Syrian Army. "We started to fight with one Kalashnikov for two soldiers. Then one for ten, and at the end we had no ammunition left."

While no country or institution has dared to get involved and help these rebels, Jabhat al-Nusra gives money. A lot of it, and quickly. "Today, the new element is the fact that the al-Nusra front not only uses this strategy in the military sector, but also in the civilian society," adds a teacher.

In the shop of a carpenter, food distribution is taking place while cell phones all start ringing at the same time. It is one of the text messages the government often sends to every subscriber of the Syrian telecom network. It targets some regions. "People of Aleppo, terrorists are among you. If you don’t fight, you will be bombed. The army is strong."

It prompts a laugh from Mustapha, a local English translator who had come to help. He too, a few months ago, had tried to launch "a call for Aleppo," contacting dozens of international NGOs online. He faced "loneliness in the heart of chaos." A small NGO from the Czech Republic was the only international organization that answered his call. It sent $5,000 and 50 tons of German flour. According to Mustapha, it is the only organization that has an office in the city. Today, there are 300 food packages for 3,000 households. One must choose, or try to. "When did your children last eat?" volunteers ask.

In the line, one woman does not answer. She feels ashamed. In the future, she wants Syria to be a state "that has something to do with God." What exactly, she does not know, "but what have the leaders in Europe or Bashar brought us?" We ask the volunteer if the future of Syria could look like the current situation in Aleppo, with this new religious element. He shrugs his shoulders. "We know less and less. Here, we are living in another dimension."

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