ALEPPO, Syria — There weren’t any bombs today, or the day before. That’s good, because it means you can leave your apartment, see your friends, try to pretend life is normal. Still, you don’t know when the attacks will resume or how much worse they’ll be when they do.
The war here has been going on for more than four years. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and thousands more are dead, including many of my friends. My wife and I are among about 250,000 people trapped here in the besieged eastern section of the city. If you want to stay alive in Aleppo, you have to find a way to keep yourself safe from explosions and starvation.
First of all, to survive the many different kinds of airstrikes, shells, rockets, phosphorus bombs and cluster bombs, you’ll need to live on the lower floors of a building. They’re less likely to be hit than the upper floors are. When a smaller bomb lands on top of a building, it often takes out just the top two or three stories. A lot of people are living on the lower floors of buildings whose upper stories have been destroyed. Many of these residents moved into apartments left vacant by people who fled the city. My home is on the second floor of a six-story building, so I might be safe. But I might not be: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Russian military launched a coordinated assault on Aleppo last month, and in the most recent airstrikes, the jets have been using a new kind of bomb that demolishes the whole building.
Stay out of any rooms near the street. Because light in a window attracts bombers or snipers, I keep our front rooms empty or use them for storage. My wife and I seclude ourselves in interior rooms. We have no electricity, which means it’s usually dark. Before the war, I was studying Islam at the University of Aleppo, but the campus is in a government-controlled neighborhood, and I can’t get there anymore, so I dropped out. Now we almost never leave the apartment. If we’re going to die, we prefer to be together when it happens.
If you have kids, they’ll have to stay off the streets most of the time, or they’ll be killed. Occasionally, they can go outdoors to play or get to school, but then their parents have to listen carefully for the sound of warplanes or shelling — and these days, for cluster bombs, which are even more dangerous. Schools and hospitals have been moving underground for several years, and almost every neighborhood has an underground school operating now. Not all of the children go; some parents think it’s too risky to send them. Some families live near the schools, though, and they let their kids go if it’s not too long a walk. All the teachers are local volunteers. They are our neighbors and friends, so parents know that their children are safe. Under the building across the street from mine, a school opened recently, managed by a man who lives there. All the children in my neighborhood are going. It is called al-Hikma, which means “wisdom.”
Maybe you have a car. You’ll have a hard time getting gas for it. If you’re hoping to keep it from being blown up or damaged by shrapnel, you might store it inside an empty garage or shop. Open the windows, too. Otherwise, the glass may crack from the pressure of bombs exploding nearby.
Listen for scouting planes, which sound different from fighter jets on bombing runs. The scouts fly lower, and they make a constant buzzing sound. If you hear them, you’ll know that shells will be falling soon, bringing death with them. If you do go outside, make sure you don’t wind up in a group of more than 20 people, or you might attract a plane to target your area. Scouting runs were particularly dangerous in the summer, when there weren’t any clouds to obscure pilots’ vision. But they’re also bad on clear days in the winter.
Going out at night is especially risky, because you can’t see the planes coming overhead, and you have to drive without headlights so you aren’t spotted from the air. One night, I was driving through my neighborhood when I suddenly felt pressure in my ears, and the windows of my car cracked. It was an airstrike less than 100 meters behind me.
Unlike the scouting planes, you won’t always hear fighter jets coming. Sometimes, you hear their bombs or missiles only after the planes have flown past. If you listen closely, you can tell the difference between Syrian planes and Russian ones: You hear the Syrian planes before they’re in the area. Russian planes are quieter, and their rockets are more accurate.
Staying cooped up at home all the time will get boring, and you’ll eventually want to try to live some semblance of your normal life — to see friends, to attempt to find food. People want to go out. But if you leave, remember that you might not make it back. Whenever I run into friends, I keep in mind that I might never see them again. Once, I ran into a neighbor who was a blacksmith. I asked him to make me a new hand-powered generator. He said he’d do it, but he died the same day in a cluster-bomb attack on our neighborhood.
When the bombardment is heaviest, you’ll start to worry that you might lose more of your friends. Call them to check in on them. If you see them, when you say goodbye, tell them: “Take care of yourself. Maybe I won’t see you again.”
You’ll be able to tell which days are safer. If there are peace talks going on in Geneva, there will be fewer bombing runs that day. This past week, the regime and the Russians announced a cease-fire. But that has made everyone afraid — we don’t know what’s going to come next. Maybe the attacks will be worse than before when they start again. That’s what happened last time. And the scouting planes continue flying overhead, day and night, even during the cease-fire.
Hearing bombs go off all the time is hard. They’re so noisy — the sound alone could drive you crazy. So now I try to ignore it. If bombs detonate nearby, try to forget them, try to be calm. Go save your neighbors instead of panicking. If you aren’t calm, you will really go mad.
It’s so easy to lose your mind here. You might go out one day to look for food and come back to find that your building has been destroyed and your family killed. I’ve seen people standing in front of bombed-out buildings, screaming and crying in disbelief. More and more people have lost their homes, and now they’re living on the streets asking for money. Before the war, they never imagined they would be beggars.
Even people who still have their homes struggle to cope. A friend of mine killed himself with a machine gun after another friend of ours died. (That person had been at home when a small bomb blew up nearby; shrapnel lodged in his brain and killed him.) My friend shot himself in the chest. I think it is more common in Western society for people to commit suicide, but here in Syria, it is very rare. In Islam, it’s a terrible sin.
If you aren’t killed by airstrikes or shells, your big worry will be food. Before the siege, there was enough for everyone. But now a lot of poor people don’t have enough money to buy food, because there aren’t jobs anymore, so every neighborhood has young volunteers whose responsibility is to get food and other supplies for their communities. Families that still have a father are lucky: His mission is to get food and other supplies every day.
Bread is getting rarer and more and more pricey on the black market, because the economy has been destroyed. The Syrian pound is getting cheaper and cheaper against the dollar, which makes everything more expensive. There is some rice and pasta available from aid organizations. Some of them give it away, some of them sell it. A few families sell their extra food. But there is no meat, no milk, no yogurt.
Maybe you’ll try to grow vegetables in your garden. In my neighborhood, people are growing eggplant, parsley and mint. Many gardens have become burial grounds, though, because there isn’t room anywhere else to bury dead bodies after four years of war. But if the alternative is starving to death, you might not mind eating food that’s been grown among corpses.
Other commodities are hard to find, too. We have serious trouble getting hold of fuel or gas to cook with, so we use wood or some kind of dirty diesel. This is really bad for everyone’s health, especially the children’s.
Hope — or pray — that you don’t have to go to a hospital. They’re absolutely miserable. I don’t know how the doctors and nurses can stand all the blood, bones and bowels all over the floor. The smell is awful. Patients who can’t leave are constantly screaming in pain. Several weeks ago, I was shot in the hand by a sniper, and I have some broken bones. So I have to go to the hospital once a week to change my bandages. I can’t bear to be there for more than half an hour.
Why am I still here?
Aleppo is my city. Syria is my country. This is my principle, really, and I insist on it.
People here are suffering because we want freedom. Before the war started, I joined a demonstration against Assad’s regime — and I was arrested, beaten and detained in a tiny cell for five days. The longer the demonstrations went on, the more violent the regime’s reactions were. Eventually, the Free Syrian Army tried to launch a revolution, and the war began.
After all that — the beatings, the airstrikes, the war, the bombings — I want to live in a free Aleppo. I want to stay here, where I was born, all my life. It’s my right.