Aleppo’s first trick of the day is to make it feel like a beautiful morning anywhere on earth. It is 8 o’clock in the morning and the feeble sunlight has not yet managed to dissolve the blanket of fog covering the city‚ the remnants of the night just passed. The sky is distant. And so are the airplanes. “If we don’t see the plane, it doesn’t see us either,” says Abu Mohamed, a fighter from the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group that holds half of Aleppo. “This means we don’t need to worry‚ at least until the sun is up.” He invites me to take a seat in a popular bar in the Masakin Hananu district.
Behind a big black pot‚ a child perched on a stool stirs our fried food. We stretch our hands towards the fire to warm ourselves. The previous night we slept rough‚ sheltered by a Kurdish family in the neighborhood‚ with neither electricity‚ nor heat‚ nor phone‚ nor food. The aroma of falafel in the boiling oil fills the air. Humus and ful are already on the table‚ next to a small plate of fresh onions‚ green chilis and a kalashnikov. The television is tuned to the state channel‚ and the customers laugh at the stream of regime propaganda—the naked delusion of Assad’s government is as close to a joke as you’ll find in this war.
The second illusion of Aleppo is the calm outside. The marketplaces in the narrow streets are filled with people and merchandise. Fruit‚ vegetables‚ meat‚ household products. Traffic moves slowly along the main road. Minibuses used as collective taxis are parked by the edges of a roundabout. Their drivers call out for customers looking to travel to the cities north of Aleppo, in the liberated areas.
Everything appears to be normal, until you take a second look again. What you didn’t see before–and it’s hard to believe it had blended so well into the background—are the slumped ruins of buildings crushed by missiles. There is at least one on each block. Then you eavesdrop a bit on the conversations happening around you: pedestrians ask each other at every corner whether the street ahead is under fire from snipers. And finally your eye catches the parks. They have no trees left. Nothing remains of Aleppo’s parks, only fist-high stumps. And yet, there are people who keep on cutting even those stumps with an axe until they reach the roots, because any piece of wood helps through this cold, long winter of war. After six months of fighting, with no electricity, with gas and fuel at exorbitant prices, the people of Aleppo are burning their trees for fuel.
It gets worse for the parks, though. Look again, and you see the tombstones. It has become far too dangerous to reach the cemeteries from certain areas. So martyrs are buried directly in the park. Last time it happened was at a park in Bustan al Qasr, on January 29th, when the waters of the river Qwayq brought to the surface the bodies of 80 civilians executed, with a bullet in the head, by the regime and then thrown into the river. They were buried in a large mass grave in the park, under a plaque of sorts: three wooden boards that mourners had nailed together and driven into the dirt by the river’s edge. The living wrote “The Martyrs’ River” on the boards, in the hopes of not forgetting what had happened there.
The martyrs’ river itself is also a feint: sometimes a river, sometimes a grave, but its most important role these days is as a border, one of the most dangerous ones in Syria. Part of the river separates the areas of Aleppo which are under the control of the regime from the ones under the command of the Free Syrian Army. There is only one spot where it is possible to cross, but and even there only at great risk. The crossing is a shaky wooden plank, thrown across the two riverbanks. Hundreds of people in their muddy shoes tightrope across those boards every day. There are those who pay a visit to their families; those who smuggle goods across; and those who seek shelter on the side occupied by the regime, trying to escape from the continuous shelling on the insurgent areas. Then there are people like Abu Nur, who every morning defies the snipers’ shots to go to school, to teach.
Like his city, Abu Nur has his own illusions. He teaches, but he is not a teacher. Before the war broke out, he used to work as an engineer. An easy life. Middle class, thirty years old, a happy marriage, two beloved daughters, eight and ten years old. Abu Nur was one of those who used to say: “No to the regime, but also no to the war”. Particularly since his house is in the area of Aleppo under the control of Assad’s army. One day though the war knocked on his door.
“Do you remember,” he asks, “a month ago when a MiG belonging to the regime fired two missiles on the university? That same day a third missile hit the building just in front of our house. The splinters and the blast wave smashed the glass windows. I was in another room. When I rushed in I found my wife and my girls completely buried under a pile of glass and rubble. I lifted them from the ground, nothing had happened to them thank God, not even a scratch. But that day I swore to myself I would do something”.
So Abu Nur joined the civil movement that is secretly reopening the schools in the liberated areas of Aleppo. He takes me to a school of his in the Mashad area. From the outside no one can tell it is a school. It is just an ordinary building, partly damaged by mortar shells, in the middle of an anonymous backstreet. While we climb up the stairs, the voices of children become clearer. The apartment-turned-school is on the first floor. Each room hosts around thirty children. The chairs and desks have been brought from abandoned schools. But textbooks are missing—in fact, there are no books, or worksheets or posters or any kind educational material at all. As in the rest of the city, electricity comes and goes. At most it stays on for a couple of hours a day.
“The Free Syrian Army”, Abu Nur says, “has made its bases in some of the schools of the city and they have rendered all the schools potential targets for the regime’s air force. They’ve already bombed many of them. For this reason we cannot go back to the old schools. If they hit the children it would be a massacre. So we went in search of abandoned private houses. In each house we place about one hundred children, in three or four rooms. The teachers are all volunteers. We have no funding whatsoever. Many of them were teachers before. Others, like me, give a helping hand. Our aim is for the children not to miss the school year.
From the windows left ajar, one can hear guns firing, mortars exploding. The frontline is just 300 meters away. The children don’t flinch; by now they are used to this. On the contrary, they enjoy recognizing and imitating the sounds of the weapons. The kalashnikov, the mortar, the dushka, the rpg, the antiaircraft artillery, the Mig, the Grad. As if it were all a game, some sort of “Old Mac Donald had a farm” in time of war.
Mariam sits in the front row. Her eyes are fixed on the sentences written on the blackboard with the curiosity of ten-year-olds everywhere. Then, in chorus with the other girls in the class, she repeats a piece of today’s English lesson: “The man who is there is my father. People who eat a lot get fat”. On her desk lay her three drawings. One depicts a princess dressed up in a light blue dress embroidered with gold, her hair in the wind, a smile on her face. The second drawing shows a yellow birthday cake and a circle of children. In the third one there is a girl who writes on her notebook, in front of a lit candle, just like the ones that light up the classroom when there is a blackout.
“We ask them to draw nice things, to help them escape from the context of the war,” the English language teacher says to me. It is 10 o’clock in the morning. The next class is religion, then comes math and Arabic. The children, by keeping busy, can forget what is happening outside their window.
But that trick can’t last for long. The same afternoon, after lunch, 200 meters away from the school, two missiles from the regime’s favored fighter jet, the MiG, strike a building. There are at least thirty dead, all civilians. By evening, the images of the strike are on YouTube, and I watch them while drinking a cup of tea in the old biscuit factory where I will spend the night with a Kurdish militiaman from the Free Syrian Army.
It is the usual low-resolution video, shot on the spot by Syrian media activists. A group of people runs to the place of the shelling to dig through the still smoking ruins with their bare hands in search of survivors. First they extract the body of one man, then another. Then a boy. Then a girl. All covered by rubble and blood. Such slaughter. I think of Mariam and the princess in her happy drawings, and the power of magical thinking. In Aleppo, where schools look like apartments and parks look like cemeteries and markets look normal until you think about the snipers, a little extra fantasy can go a long way.
[Top Photo: A clandestine classroom in Mashad, Aleppo. Photos by Gabriele Del Grande]