He steps through the splintered front door of an apartment building, leans stooped, shoulder against a charred wall. Twenty years old. Gashes of stubble on his drawn cheeks, sharp chin. A sweatshirt too big for his narrow chest. Jeans, sneakers. Brown hair wild from sleep. Eyes flat-lined unblinking.
He squints at the gray sky, hangs his head. Behind him, a block or so, gunfire. Government sniper. He recognizes the sharp crack of the sniper’s long rifle compared to the roar of the Kalashnikov he carries.
The front line between Syrian rebel forces and government troops cuts unevenly across this residential neighborhood in north Aleppo dividing streets and alleys into a contorted maze of contested turf that shifts between one opposing side and the other. Blasted apartments. Abandoned buildings. Empty streets. Garbage, debris, tattered clothes, children’s toys. He listens to the sniper fire again. He hears it without hearing it. Like the wind. Like the crackle of trash fires. Like the voices of the rebels shoving past him. The noise does and doesn’t distinguish itself from any other noise. It has become part of a habit of noise, a part of a whole dominated by an overwhelming silence that reduces sound to a whisper swallowing even gunfire into a depthless void.
He fears nothing.
He taps a cigarette against his palm. He has been awake less than an hour. His mattress on a living-room rug dragged down from a second-floor bedroom. He slept beside an entertainment unit. A TV, DVD player. Some cassettes. The poor posture of sagging curtains hanging from bent rods. Framed paintings on the wall of men on horseback. No power. He woke up staring at a chandelier above him, his breath a thin stream rising in the steely winter air.
Outside, he shifts his weight. Broken glass crunches underfoot. Cigarette smoke snakes up past his nose, and he closes his eyes to slits, tilts his head down, arms dangling by his side. Grimed fingers curled into half fists. He had been a chemistry teacher before the revolution. Then he was called up for two years of mandatory military service required of all Syrian men. He noticed that the army did not have much equipment and even less technology. All the planes dated back to the 1960s. He didn’t care, really. He didn’t consider himself a soldier.
When the revolution began, he was ordered to stay in the army an additional year. He earned $80 a month. He gave his commanding officer his salary to curry the man’s favor. He served him coffee and tea too until he was named a marksmanship instructor at an army school in the countryside of Damascus. Some of the other instructors told him they had been ordered to shoot demonstrators. If we don’t shoot, we’ll be shot. They fired into the sky and hoped their commanding officers would not notice. Other instructors admitted to killing demonstrators. They cried and would not talk further about what they had done.
Six months ago, when the chemistry teacher himself was ordered to a demonstration, he defected. It was not hard. His commanding officer trusted him. He requested leave to visit his family and never returned. He traveled to Aleppo. The rebels were in the midst of a fierce offensive there. He had his own gun. He was stationed in one of more than a dozen front lines in the city.
He first experienced combat in August when he and 100 other rebel soldiers attacked an army base in the Aleppo countryside. His heart raced. He had only shot at targets, never people. The government troops fired rockets and the rebel assault failed. The rebels retreated, regrouped and attacked again the next day and for many days after that. Now, he says, the base is liberated. He fears nothing.
If during a military operation against government forces, he faced an officer he had known in the army and whom he considered a good man, he would not kill him. He would instead shoot him in the leg. But if the officer had been a bad man, he would shoot him in the head. He would be so happy to do this.
One time, the rebels captured an officer, a man the chemistry teacher had once considered a friend. He was sad when he saw him. But it’s a revolution and no place for emotion. When he sits alone he thinks about what he has seen. Dead friends. Dead babies. A month ago, he was in a car accident. He was traveling with two other defectors when an airplane shelled the road. The car rolled and one of the defectors broke his neck and died.
The other day he lost another friend. They ate and slept together. His friend was next to him when a sniper’s bullet killed him. For two days the chemistry teacher couldn’t eat, sleep. He didn’t know his friend’s family. Just that he was a good guy.
The moment the rebels achieve victory he will remember his friend and all of the dead martyrs. If he survives. He wants to die for Islam, for his country. He thinks of his days teaching chemistry like he does an uncle who died when he was a boy and whose face he remembers in a vague sort of longing way. He wants to be in paradise with God. Dying. Day after day. It’s normal. He imagines his own death and being remembered. He fears nothing.
Photo by Reynaldo Leal