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HomeMiddle EastMy Journey Into Aleppo: Watching a Moonscape of War Turn Into a Functioning City

My Journey Into Aleppo: Watching a Moonscape of War Turn Into a Functioning City

I took this video while on what often felt like a surreal bus ride through war-torn Syria. The video begins on the edge of the city of Aleppo, its western, government-held half. The area we drove through is all government held but has been intensely fought over, again and again, and has changed hands several times. The route we took connects the city to a key supply route — whoever controls the road determines if the eastern, rebel-held part of the city is besieged or not.

The destroyed buildings are in an area that was long held by rebels. The worst of the damage looks like the result of airstrikes. Only the government and, for the past year, its ally Russia have warplanes in the fight here. But some of the destruction could also be from artillery, which both sides have.

You go from this moonscape of war-destroyed buildings to a street of buses, open shops and apartments with laundry hanging from the balconies. These are areas that the government never lost, so they were never hit with the heaviest firepower. But rebel groups fire mortars; an individual strike doesn’t cause a building to fall, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t kill someone.

As you enter western Aleppo, everything seems so normal.

It looks like any city. Children are coming home from school. People are coming home from work. There are cars and taxis.

In the distance you can hear shelling, but most of it is pretty far away. And although almost any area does occasionally get hit by a shell, after four years of this, people just continue about their daily lives.

I took these videos and photographs last week while on a bus tour of western Aleppo that was part of a government public relations offensive. There were 12 journalists, three Ministry of Information minders (government workers assigned to keep tabs on us and those we talked to) and maybe a dozen soldiers.

This particular trip was even more controlled by the government than reporters here usually are. We were herded through quick, planned stops. That allowed for almost no random chats with ordinary people.

I took this video while we drove past Aleppo University. One of the things so striking about life in war-torn cities is that you see the rhythms of normal life. I saw children still going to school in their little uniforms and hairdos, still running and laughing.

Schools have been bombed in the conflict, and children have been killed, 14 of them by government airstrikes recently in rebel-held Idlib Province and three more by rebel shelling a few days later in Aleppo. No one knows how long the war is going to last, and families have decided it’s worth the risk to send their children to school.

In western Aleppo, every time you go out in the street you are exposed to the possibility of a random shell; in the east, it could be an airstrike, and rights groups say hospitals and schools have been systematically hit. But people keep sending their children to school. What else are you supposed to do? You have to live.

At this point I have a collection of photos of road signs to places that you can no longer get to, like this one above. I can’t go to Azaz from government-held Aleppo because it’s rebel territory. It would be almost impossible, and prohibitively dangerous, to get there, crossing several front lines.

One thing that was new to me were these little kiosks lining all of the sidewalks, selling cigarettes or snacks. Some were painted with a Syrian flag or had a United Nations tarp over them, like this one below. To receive a permit to set up a kiosk, you need to have someone in your family who was killed while fighting for the army, or you have to have been displaced from the old city souks, or markets.

These kiosks show how the war is changing the cityscape even on the government side of Aleppo. Though the level of destruction here is not comparable to the rebel side, you can still see the ways that the entire city is being changed economically, socially, physically.

Back at my hotel, the Sahba, this photo shows what happened to the exterior of the building after years of shelling.

When our group arrived at the hotel, most of us asked for rooms facing west — away from the incoming fire. That is one of the things more experienced war correspondents tell you when you start out: Get a room on a lower floor on the side of the hotel that is least likely to be hit by a shell or a car bomb. In western Aleppo, the shelling mostly comes from the besieged eastern parts of the city.

They gave me a room high up, but at least it was facing west. The next morning another journalist rooming on the east side looked up and said, “Oh my God.” The hotel had taken so many hits, so many windows were boarded up.

In my hotel room, I found a beautiful set of handmade, classic Syrian furniture, a style called mosaic, wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The headboard was carved. There was even a little plate of sweets on the coffee table.

I walked into the room and drew the curtains, and I saw beautiful Aleppo, and in the distance this huge plume of smoke. It was the battlefront where rebels outside the city were trying to break the siege of eastern Aleppo.

It was a strange combination of elegance and war.

This was a relatively quiet night — there has been a rare break in airstrikes with a unilateral cease-fire announced by Russia. But everyone says that is coming to an end now. Leaflets dropped on the eastern side warned that it was the last chance for people to leave and surrender, or die.

I wasn’t nervous. We were too far away to get hit by something from that side. But it was sad to go to sleep knowing that so close to you there were people who could be getting hurt, whether on the rebel side or the government side.

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(via NY Times)