On the way back to Idlib, I fell asleep in the back of the pickup and woke to the sight of regime flags. The pickup stopped at the front of a government office. It was an empty husk of a building. A large, torn poster of Assad flapped in the wind. The battle had only lasted a week, and the government was driven out. Jaysh al Fatah now controlled the city.
We took selfies by the government building. Idlib was another step toward defeating Assad, but there still seemed to be a giant leap to victory. Jaysh al Fatah was advancing toward Latakia and Hama. There was progress in the south of Syria as well.
Civilians were returning to Idlib. A coffee house was being built and the marketplace was being stocked. A Corolla taxi rolled into town with bedding and luggage attached to the roof. With so many leaving Syria, there were still a few returning to their lives at home. The battle in the city was rather quick, and the visible damage wasn’t as bad as Aleppo.
“We will stay,” a man who had returned to the city with his wife and children said to me as they were unpacking. “There might be nothing left. We might be bombed. We might be gassed by chemicals, but I would rather be home than to be miserable without my homeland. We live and die in Syria.”
The family had been living in the Atmeh camp, and they thought about making the journey to Europe, but they were penniless. Upon returning to their hometown, the courts helped find them a house. Electricity services and water distribution was being provided by technicians working for the al-Nusra Front. People would be given food handouts and jobs to assist in the clean up crew.
We returned to Atmeh. We were photographing the destruction along the way when a militant stopped us. He was angry and told us to follow him. Apparently we were close to one of their bases. I started to worry that he might be detaining us.
Ibrahim and Tamer spoke to the al-Nusra leaders. A boy who looked to be no older than 11 was dressed in military garb and holding an AK-47. Fighters surrounded the truck. They were more interested in Wiam than in me. She was wearing a dark red scarf around her hair, but her neck and face were showing.
They reviewed our photos and let us go, reminding Wiam that she should dress more appropriately. Wiam didn’t argue, but inside she was fuming. It was a long and mostly silent ride back to the camp.
I wanted to get back to work in Aleppo. Atmeh camp was interesting, but Aleppo was at the center of the conflict now, especially since the battling was happening in Zahra.
Mahmoud’s car had some problems, but we decided to drive to Aleppo in the middle of the night anyway. After 30 minutes, the fan belt broke, and we came to a slow halt. Using rope, we tied his car to the pickup that was traveling with us and kept going. It was a treacherously slow drive, and I was sure most of the guys were angry with me since I was the one who thought we should leave in the evening. Our vehicle kept detaching from the other pickup, and it was early morning by the time we arrived in Aleppo.
The fighting in Zahra had become intense. Ibrahim’s family home was there. His father lived on the regime side and refused to move or flee. We wondered what remained of the neighborhood with all the missiles being used.
I went to visit my friends at the civil defense unit, known as the White Helmets. I first came here back when this war was still just a protest, and they have been my closest friends in Syria since. The civil defense are the men and women who go to assist with the rescue recovery of wounded civilians after a barrel bomb has fallen.
One particular trip with the White Helmets still haunts me. We were responding to a bombing in which an airstrike had struck a van carrying civilians. A woman was decapitated by the blast and held her lifeless infant son in her lap. Since then I haven’t been able to get the image out of my mind. I’ve cried for days thinking about it.
Assad punishes us for wanting to be free
When I saw my friends in the White Helmets we laughed and hugged. They joked that I was their lucky charm—whenever I was around, they said, there were no barrel bombs.
“Never leave! Get married here!” Hassan Alkhalaf, a senior member, joked.
Hassan had been with the group for almost three years and had seen more death than you can imagine. “Assad punishes us for wanting to be free,” he said. “Our death is not a worry. We cannot feel anything when we are dead. When our family, our children, our friends die—that is the suffering.”
Hassan took out his smart phone and showed me photos of the slain Canadian photojournalist, Ali Mustafa. Ali Mustafa was a young, very talented photojournalist who covered the Arab Spring and then the war in Syria. He spent a week with the White Helmets covering the barrel bomb attacks. One day a regime helicopter dropped a barrel bomb, and then another when the White Helmets arrived to rescue the wounded—a tactic known as “double tap.” Over six members of the unit were killed in the attack, as was Ali Mustafa after he received shrapnel to his head. His body was then transported to Turkey and brought to the Canadian Embassy.
We spent mornings monitoring the helicopters. We heard radio reports of the neighborhoods they flew over. Each helicopter could carry two or three barrel bombs, depending on the weight. The larger ones were about 500 kilos of packed explosives and shrapnel. Between 6 a.m. am to 10 a.m. they would do two or three runs. The White Helmets sat ready and waiting for the reports to come in. Several bombs dropped, but there were no casualties; some didn’t explode.
Some Aleppo civilians had set up group messaging programs to notify each other of the helicopters whenever they were in the area. People held radios on their sides to listen in on helicopters as well. They had the means to warn each other and within a moment’s notice could close up the market and find necessary shelter. Still people died, but at least now there was more of an organized system in place that could help keep people slightly more safe.