A year ago, almost to the day, I watched a graffiti artist called Khalifa paint a huge smiley face onto a wall. The wall was pretty much all that remained of the house it had been part of, and every other house on the street was in a similarly bad state. The day before, the street had been hit by a Scud missile: That was Aleppo in, 2013.
Khalifa sprayed a slogan next to the smiley face. It read, in Arabic, "Tomorrow this will be beautiful". He was wrong.
Aleppo was not beautiful the next day, or the day after that. One year on it is less beautiful than it ever was before. I didn't think that I could see anything more severe than the destruction that last year’s Scud missiles had wreaked on the city, but it turns out that I was wrong too. Last week I went back to Aleppo for the first time in seven months and drove around the city with my friend Mahmoud, noting the places that used to exist and now don’t. When I visit London I do the same thing, but in reverse. I notice the new overpriced deli round the corner from my old house, and the skyscrapers that have shed their scaffolding, revealing themselves in all their shiny new glory. In Aleppo I noticed the street stall where I had bought a box of sweets last Ramadan, now twisted and burnt and broken.
Aleppo has suffered waves of misfortune since my last visit. As the stifling summer drew to a close, a new and brutal group tightened its grip on the city. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham is a takfiri militia so extreme that even al Qaeda have disassociated themselves from them. First they started kidnapping foreign journalists, then they turned their attention to the activists and fixers who we work with. Then they started arresting and torturing anyone who didn’t abide by their own literalist Islamic rules – and no one abides by those rules but them.
In the final stage of their campaign, ISIS turned their attentions towards the other rebel brigades. The Liwa al Tawhid was once the biggest and strongest rebel group in Aleppo, funded by the Muslim Brotherhood and led by a personable and popular man called Hajji Marea. The Tawhid suffered its first blow when Hajji Marea was killed by a regime airstrike in November. It suffered its second when his successor was killed by an ISIS car bomb in January. By that time, the uneasy truce between ISIS and the other rebel brigades had broken down into open conflict. “They started to attack all our checkpoints, and they killed our fighters and took their weapons,” a young Tawhid rebel called Abu Mohammed told us. “Around 700 of our fighters were killed by ISIS.”
It’s a widely held belief among opposition activists that ISIS are agents of Bashar al Assad’s regime. They say that the two have been working hand in hand to undermine the Syrian revolution and to halt the advance of the rebel forces. Whether that is true or not, the outcome is the same. ISIS drove the media and the activists out of Aleppo, and while the eyes of the world were turned elsewhere, Assad’s forces unleashed the winter’s second wave of misfortune on the city. As the Geneva II peace talks went absolutely nowhere in late January, the Syrian regime was two months into a barrel bombing campaign in Aleppo.
Scud missiles are hardly cutting edge military technology, but they are space age compared to barrel bombs, which are nothing more than canisters packed with explosives and metal shards, hurled from overhead helicopters. Their effect is largely the same – a single barrel bomb, like a single Scud missile, can devastate a whole street in one go. The difference is accuracy. A regime fighter can have little idea of where the barrel bomb will land as he shunts it over the side of the helicopter with the sole of his boot. It could hit a school, or a hospital, or a home just as easily as it could hit a rebel base. And the barrel bombs that have been dropped on Aleppo have hit many homes – it’s estimated that 20,000 people have been made homeless in the city over the past four months.
The Liwa al Tawhid lost its home in the barrel bombing too. Its base used to be the biggest and best equipped in Aleppo – a former hospital that had, by last summer, been furnished with a parade of elegant United Nations style flags at its entrance. Now those flagpoles are nothing more than burnt stalks, and the Tawhid has been absorbed into a new rebel alliance called the Islamic Front. It’s an open secret that the Islamic Front takes its support from Qatar, while a second alliance that was formed at the same time – the Syrian Revolutionary Front – is funded by Saudi Arabia.
“When all the groups were Free Syrian Army, nobody supported us,” said Abu Mohammed. “But now we are the Islamic Front. We are not the FSA and we are not a radical Islamic group. We are something in between. What has happened now is because of the financial connections. This situation is because of the whole world.”
The Islamic Front are still in Aleppo but most of the people have left. The streets are empty and echoing. But the barrel bombs are still falling, up to twenty of them every day. The rebels and the regime have spent eighteen months fighting over this city. Soon there may be nothing of it left to fight for.
But there are people who have no choice but to stay. They are the very poorest – the people with no money or travel documents, and so no means to leave. People like Um Mustafa, a mother of three who is living in the Firdous district. It is a frontline neighbourhood, but the frontlines are now the safest places in Aleppo because the regime, wary of accidentally hitting its own areas, avoids dropping the barrel bombs on them. But the shelling and clashing continues there. “There are no other places to go,” she said.
Alongside the poor, there are the brave – the Aleppines who could get out but insist on staying. People like the men of the Civilian Defence Team, a team of thirty poorly equipped volunteers who rush to the sites of the bomb blasts to dig survivors out of the rubble with their bare hands. “Already this morning, there have been around ten bombs dropped,” said Khaled Hajou, one of the volunteers. Without heavy lifting equipment, their job is painstaking. “In one place we have been searching for a man for two days, he is missing under the rubble,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are just missing. We have never been able to find them.”
At night we went to Mahmoud’s apartment, the same place we’d stayed in last year before ISIS forced both of us out of the city. The building was still standing but the windows had been blasted out, and he’d patched them up with breezeblocks and sandbags. They let the cold in but not the light, but the futility of repairing them properly was revealed the next day when a jet attacked the building behind ours and ruined the one window left in the apartment.
The jets and the helicopters are terrifying during the day, when you can see them flying overheard. But they are heart stopping at night, when all you can do is listen and try to work out whether they’re coming towards you or heading away. On my second night in Aleppo I huddled under a duvet on the sofa, attention fixed on the whine of the engines as a single mantra ran through my head: "Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off", on an eternal loop.
The walls of the apartment and the concrete in the windows felt fragile. The evidence of how easily they could be crushed, with us inside, lay just on the streets outside.
Mahmoud’s friend, a rebel with one of the city’s brigades, had other things on his mind. He desperately wanted to get the generator working so that he could contact one of his girlfriends on WhatsApp. The mains electricity barely works in the rebel held areas now, and the fuel that powers the generators has risen to prohibitively expensive prices, even as its quality has plummeted. A litre of diesel used to cost around 30 US cents; now it costs over a dollar.
I asked him how many girlfriends he had. He told me that he had nine. Keeping them all happy was a full time job – at least it was distracting him from the jets.
The overhead bombardment is so terrifying, makes you feel so small and helpless, that it is easy to forget that the regime is still shelling the city too. We were reminded of the shells in spectacular style the next morning, as we drove along the only road out of the city. An ear splitting crump to our left was followed by a cloud of dust and smoke. A mortar round had landed less than fifty metres away from the car.
For us it was a lucky escape, but for the people of Aleppo it is a daily reality. Doctors at one of the city’s seven field clinics told us that their ambulances are often shelled on that road as they transfer the most seriously injured patients out to Turkey. One month ago the hospital was targeted too – the top floors have been destroyed, and the only usable rooms are on the ground floor and in the basement. Three doctors are treating around sixty wounded people every day.
Aleppo used to be beautiful. It had treasures, like a six hundred year old souk, one of the largest covered markets in the world – now reduced to ashes and rubble. Treasures like the Ummayad Mosque, with its minaret now blasted off. While representatives of Assad’s regime took their place at an international negotiating table, his forces smashed its own country’s second city to dust with its people still trapped inside, and they are continuing to do so right now.
One thing I remembered from Aleppo was still there – Khalifa’s graffiti, dulled and faded, but still legible on the blasted wall of the house. That street had escaped the barrel bombs, but it was impossible to take any joy from that fact because the street had been screwed up anyway. “Last year we had Scuds. This year we’ve got barrel bombs. What will we have next year?” laughed Mahmoud.
Khalifa’s slogan seemed optimistic when I watched him spray it on that wall last year. Now it’s just cruelly depressing.