Six months ago, I found myself sitting in the courtyard of a Spanish-style members club in the heart of government-held Aleppo. Children played soccer and guzzled pomegranate molasses, while women in bright hijabs puffed away at their shisha pipes. Middle-class families were tucked up at tables laden with freshly baked pita pockets, delicate cheese-stuffed pastries, oil-dipped vine leaves, and an enticing array of dips and meze.
The small group of businessmen I had joined for dinner loaded my plate with a little of everything, proudly informing me that Aleppan cuisine is the finest in the Arab world and proclaiming themselves the original "foodies." It would've made for an entertaining summer evening, had it not been for the constant thud of nearby explosions that came thundering down every 40 seconds, ringing through our chairs and punctuating our chatter.
The ancient city of Aleppo was fiercely divided at the time, with government troops holding most of the west and the opposition clinging on to the east. When we arrived, fighting was spilling over onto both sides: Buoyed by hefty Russian air support, Assad's forces seized a major opposition supply road, which resulted in ferocious rebel pushback. Within 24 hours of our arrival, hundreds of mortars had been propelled into our immediate vicinity, resulting in a flood of casualties at the remaining state-run hospitals.
And yet it was as if everyone I met barely even noticed they were living through one of the bloodiest battles of the Syrian Civil War. Gas canisters had ripped through living rooms and exposed entire walls, and still families had returned and laid down blankets in the dust to sleep on. An old souk (or market) in the Christian neighborhood of Maidan had been obliterated, so traders pitched up stalls on the side of the road and flogged anything they could get their hands on. Meanwhile, just around the corner, large tarpaulin sheets were hung up to obscure snipers' sights.
Within the confines of the members' club courtyard, Bacel Nasri from the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce yelled cheerfully over the table and the sound of artillery, "We tell our children, it's usual to count sheep before you sleep. But here we count mortars!"
They were the lucky ones. Either via fortune of circumstance or devout regime loyalty, they had found themselves in comparative safety on the government-held side of the city, protected from the cold-blooded atrocities carried out on their counterparts in the east.
We weren't permitted to cross over. And throughout our two weeks in Assad-held territory, our movements were restricted. A minder appointed by the Ministry of Information accompanied us everywhere, diligently monitoring each of our on-camera interactions. We moved around cities and towns as much as we felt possible, speaking with everyone we could to try and get a sense of how people were really experiencing in the conflict zone.
For the most part, President Bashar al Assad and his government were spoken of fondly. A group of young men attending a wedding in Damascus passionately insisted on how crucial Assad was for Syrian stability. They praised him for protecting them from Islamist terrorists, who sought to "rip [their] secular state apart."
This was true even in Homs, the fallen "capital of the revolution," where civilians had been pulverized by artillery and air attacks for years, before being starved out: The slow trickle of returning inhabitants voiced nothing but ardent support and glowing admiration for their nation's leader and his ability to drive so-called extremists out of their city.
The most telling exchanges, though, were those whispered to me in confidence. One official made sure the cameras were off before confiding in me that he felt trapped in his job and that he was more scared of the state than he was of the terrorists. He told me how several of his colleagues had suddenly gone missing for what he assumed was no reason other than falling out of favor with Assad and his cronies.
Another woman squatting in an apartment near our Aleppo hotel confessed that she knew of the massacres her own government had carried out. But she had siblings on the other side and her chances of seeing them alive again were diminishing, she said. "My brothers and sisters… I think of them every day, even if I can't speak openly about them. We just want the war to end so their suffering can be over," she told me.
Her fear was justified: As the final strongholds of rebel-held Aleppo folded to the powers of Assad last December, panicked residents sent much the world into a state of collective shock as they livestreamed their own obliteration. Since then, it's been impossible to determine how many have been executed, tortured, or detained at the hands of the government. Those who escaped the brutality were often bussed away to refugee camps in Idlib, or else joined the throngs of Syrians lining up for asylum in foreign countries.
"What is happening today is history that is being written by every Syrian citizen," Assad proclaimed on December 15. His troops stormed the streets of eastern Aleppo, hoisted the Syrian flag, and jubilantly waved images of their dear president. And he was right: Exterminating the disbelievers and removing the rebel sympathizers effectively silenced discontent, rewriting history in one fell swoop.
I recently got back in touch with a Syrian official who's returned to Aleppo several times since my visit. "Life is the same as when you were here, but without the loud sounds," he reported matter-of-factly.
The rhythm of rockets now gone, those who remain are getting on with their lives just as they always have. Water was switched on for a few days, before being cut again. Electricity is less sporadic than it was, allowing a small jeans factory to reopen. Schools are back in action.
The members club we dined at apparently sees more patrons returning each night, the music cranked up high—as it was when I visited—to block out the sounds of mortars whirling over our heads. For some, it's a celebration. For others, it's to muffle the silence, to forget the destruction, and to mask the fear. As the night wears on, men will rise from their seats and gyrate on the dance floor, bellowing lyrics to a pop song that's gained rapid popularity since the war began: "Syria is our country, and al Assad is our leader!"
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