It sounds like a jet approaching, and everybody, it’s a matter of instants, stares at each other, your words stifled in your mouth; but it’s only a gate that slides and shuts. A hatchet chopping fi-rewood is a burst from a kalashnikov, the step of a woman’s heel a sniper shot. We look normal, in Aleppo. Instead, fear is a cancer that wears us out from within.
Eight months after the beginning of the battle, only one thing hasn’t changed, here: Assad jets are so inaccurate that they never bomb the frontline – they might miss the rebels, and hit the loyalists. And if the favourite target was once Shifa Hospital, now that its walls are reduced to dust, its me-dical staff to a flower and a framed photo, the most dangerous places are the bread lines. They are only women and kids, today. Two hundreds, competing for a bunch of boxes with some olive oil, some rice, chickpeas. Sugar. They are missing fingers, missing ears, their eyes are red and wrinkled, and amid the wind needles of this winter’s remains, haggard and emaciated, they are barely covered by a threadbare shirt and little else, their bones sculpting their skin like a bas-relief. Mothers notice you, notice a stranger, and try to give you their baby: Take him with you, they beg: Save him.
Aleppo is starving, swept away by a typhoid epidemic, in the streets people sell everything, it seems they have scattered their entire living room on the ground, teapots, TVs phones, tableclot-hes, light switches, everything – to be precise: bits of everything: for Aleppo is but ruins, now, so-meone sells you the stroller, someone else its wheels. Ibtisam Ramdan is 25, she lives with her three children and tubercolosis in a slide of sewer under the river’s bank, the door that is a chic-ken-wire gate, the fireplace a paint can, and these three children, in the dark of a rancid corner, crying and coughing, they cough so loudly and they cry so desperately that they wheeze – on a scrap of cardboard, amid worms, some left-over rice: they don’t even have dishes: and anyway, here, for the time being, there’s nothing edible. And like them, dozens of other families; all the ri-ver bank is faults and hovels, they aren’t sheds, they aren’t caves, they are but bits of things, metal sheets, planks, plastic scraps – piles, piles of bits of things, and at some point, simply, you realize you are in the midst of it, amid women, kids, old men, maimed and mute, these mouths empty of teeth, you walk one centimeter away from them and they don’t even look at you, blackened from the stoves’ coal, their feet in the mud. They have but rain water to drink, their skin dotted with infections, even cats, here, are sick, while a jet, suddenly, snarls over your head, you move a shutter, and you find a man who is dying from leukaemia, you move another shutter, and you find a man skinning a rat, another one, and only this girl, still and absent, wearing on her body, unmistakeable, the marks of rape – you try asking a question, and your translator who bursts into tears and says Excuse me, but I no longer have words, I no longer have words for all this.
It’s so starving, Aleppo, it’s so exhausted that missiles strike, and people continue to live amid the rubble. Like in Ard al-Hamra, 117 dead – 17 of whom are still here, scattered under you. The li-ving pop out from collapsed stairwells, collapsed ceilings, one by one, from crumbled pavements, pillar stumps, a carpet that hangs from the blades of a fan: their only possessions are the clothes on their backs, in the Nokia belonging to Fouad Zytoon, 36, is the picture of a head hurled on a shelf, it’s his daughter. They insist on telling you everything in detail, Do you want the names of the victims?, they ask you, I have the complete list, and you feel ashamed to say it, but no, you don’t need the names, the number is enough, and then it’s late, and Aleppo is thousands of stories and this is just a line of your article, it’s late, really, and then you are tired, and dusty, and you are scared of this jet over your head, that keeps on circling, and circling and circling, the pilot who is selecting his target, who is perhaps selecting you and no: you really only need the number, thank you it’s enough, 117, 17 never recovered from under your feet – and the guy, point-blank, who stares at you, says: You see? nothing remains, of our lives, not even a name.
It looks normal, Aleppo. And the journalists have all left. War has become so part and parcel of this city, so embedded in its flesh that grass has grown amid the rubble, taxi drivers notice the Nikon, around your neck, and they stop you, as if you were a tourist, they ask you: Want to go to the frontline? – but then you bump into a child, and she salutes you standing at attention: you bump into a garbage collector, in the street, into an electrician who is fixing an antenna, and it’s like a whip crack, suddenly, the body falling down: shot down: a sniper. Then at the hospital en-trance, while the jet disappears, appears, glides, gains altitude again, at the hospital entrance lie the corpses with no ID, people pass by, they lift the white sheet slightly, they make sure he isn’t a brother, a cousin. Then you walk into a playground, while perhaps he is selecting you, and there is a sleeping bag amid the swings, while perhaps it’s your turn, and in the sleeping bag there is a black-and-blue young man, a hole in his temple, then you open a gate, and the walls that are all blood, while they are the fiercest minutes, you look around, and everywhere, worn out by artil-lery fire, these buildings that are one floor inhabited one floor destroyed, a charred tricycle pen-ding in the air, a lamp swings in the wind, in the wait, a curtain, fossils of normal lives. Because it looks normal, Aleppo; then you enter a school, a classroom, and at mortar fire, children don’t even turn their heads: only at a rain of kalashnikov fire they start to quarrel: It’s a doshka, Ahmed, 6, says, No it’s a kalashnikov, Omar, also 6, says, You see?, it’s lighter than a draganov – while perhaps it’s your turn, now, and you can only hug yourself, together with everything you haven’t said, in your life, the times you weren’t able to love, the times you weren’t able to dare, the words that got caught on your fingers the times that now it’s late, actually, it’s late for everything, and life shines of a raging beauty: now that perhaps your turn has come.
Until a man comes, in the street, short of breath; announces: airstrike on Sheik Said. And because it’s rough to admit it, but – it’s wild: but it’s an infinite relief. Sheik Said: not you. An infinite relief. To know that somebody is dead. And because it’s like this war has robbed you not of your huma-nity, but all of a sudden, and even more violently: like it has left you naked in front of the mirror, naked as you really are: because you are the only one that matters, in your life, to admit it bleeds, but this war hasn’t robbed you of anything, simply your humanity, your diversity, it bleeds – but it has never existed: you are the only one that matters. And what a life is a life like this?

They have all left, the journalists – it looks normal, Aleppo. But the frontline is still here; you rea-lize it’s close when in the opposite direction, you start to see the line of Syrians fleeing away. Do-zens of vans stand out against a sky burning of explosions, loaded with everything: and it isn’t exactly the image you’d associate with the word ‘liberation’. But because that’s the way the fron-tline advances; town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood: it moves forward like a tsunami, after its passage nothing is left standing, only children playing football amid the dust, while the regime bombs everywhere. They play as if nothing has happened. And on the other hand; to reassure people, the rebels roam around in pick-up trucks decorated with doshkas: but it’s a pla-cebo machine-gun, its effect, against a jet, is tantamount to a peashooter. As Wael says: the only anti-aircraft system, here, is rain. “The only shelter is luck.” He is 8.
The unity of the Free Army we are embedded in counts 13 men, two of whom are wearing flip-flops – and the others do not always have matching shoes. They were 17, three of them died while trying to recover the body of a fourth who still lies there, at the end of the street. Behind the cor-ner, a regime’s sniper. They sit with a glass of tea in what once would have been a shop, engaged for over an hour in a lively debate about the best strategy to win Damascus. A woman, in the meantime, cautiously looks over; she needs to reach the other side. But nobody cares; and after a while, resigned, she simply crosses, alone – whispering verses from the Koran. Yet, even Wikipe-dia recommends it; it’s called ‘covering fire’. It’s two dollars per bullet, Fahdi looks scathingly at me: “Are you mad?”, and he goes back to plan the storming of Damascus. Reinforcements arrive, in the afternoon, jumping out of a jeep in the form of Ayman Haj Jaeed, 18. It’s his second day on the frontline. Write, he says to me: Bashar is coming to an end. And he runs across the street with his kalashnikov, firing as fast as he can. Write write, he shouts to me from the other side; another two months, and Aleppo will be free. Only, he has just been firing leftward. And the sniper, ac-tually, was on his right.
Syrians oppose the regime, but also, more and more, they oppose the rebels. Charged of having dragged Aleppo into a war they weren’t ready to engage in, with their tuna cans turned into ma-keshift grenades; and now, charged with looting and exortion, too, and most of all, of consigning the country to Jabhat al-Nusra. This means the Support Front: it’s composed by the al-Qaeda fighters, coming from Iraq, Chechnya Afghanistan. From Marseille, London; from the outskirts, from the dumps of globalization. With their experience, and their advanced weapons, they are shifting the war’s balance: but also the balance of Syria, a secular state. In favor of Islam.
The HQ of the Free Army is now the HQ of Jabhat al-Nusra. “In liberated areas, the government consists of shari’ah courts where somebody places a Koran on the table and defines justice as his own will,” Abu Maryam, the Friday demonstrations’ leader, explains. He has been persecuted by the regime, beaten by the rebels, put on trial by the Islamists. “We didn’t just lose the revolution. We lost Syria.” Because jihadists, according to estimates, are only a minority, just five percent: but they are the most highly trained, the most organized: they are the ones who decide. In the streets under they control, it’s not uncommon to run into loyalists dragged by their hair, drenched in blood. Their skin a map of tortures. “But Syria will be a democracy,” they assure you. Until the moment a mortar rains, suddenly – “we will respect everyone”, a second, a third blast; I slide into the first door I see. Only, they are all men, inside; and under the helmet, I wear no veil. “It will be a Syria of freedom and equality,” they repeat; for now, however, they leave me outside.

They look at you dumbstruck, the people of Aleppo, standing still on the side of the road, like an apocalyptic nativity scene. Because then a green bus passes, and it’s an instant; you think: like the bus we were hiding behind, that afternoon, snipers everywhere, and that child, he had almost ar-rived, he too, almost to safety – but it’s just an instant: and you go on. Only that you enter a home, later, and on your right: there’s a basement. And like the basement where that man, jets were bombing, you remember? and he gave you his spot: so that you could survive and tell the world. And at the corner of Shifa, then, over there, that slightly wavy asphalt: and but there were two craters, there, two jets, where Alessio was about to die, where Narciso was about to die and that wall, in front of you – but because there was a body, there, and a mortar that hit it, that disinte-grated it you don’t feel it? there’s a corpse in the air, and every corner, every corner, you walk, and you try to go on, but every corner, and you believe you’re losing your mind, the entire city, and it’s like a tomb of the unknown civilian while suddenly, a child: he hangs onto your arm, I lost everything! I lost everything!, he screams, and he jerks you, and he screams, he begs you, I lost everything!, where a hand was once floating, and you believe you are simply falling, falling while everything surfaces back, and Aleppo, before your eyes, turns into a kaleidoscope of hor-rors, it disappears it appears again, I lost everything! he screams, and he doesn’t go away, doesn’t go away, he hangs on you, I lost everything!, there, you remember?, where a head was once floating, where you thought it was rubble and instead it was shards of skull, just there, the last time you saw Abdallah, the first time said I love you.

And for worn out, and soul of dust, you twist and turn amid the piled sandbags to escape the ne-ver ending snipers. How long does it take?, you ask, your nerves crumbling, how far is it? – and only now you do understand this war; when in the middle of nowhere, Alaa says: It’s here.
Because of the ancient souk of Aleppo, the most charming 4,000 sqm of the Middle East, the most famous postcard of Syria, a vertigo of voices, and tales colors, an overflow of life, now this is all that remains: rubble. Your feet that you walk in and sink until the ankles, bented spikes of rusty iron bars, shattered glasses, metal sheets, bullet-ridden blown up shutters. Powder and stones. Nothing else. But really nothing else. Rebels drag you around alley by alley, shop by shop; this is the cotton market, they explain you, this is the gold market, on your right you find the spices, down there is the silver. And they are but rubble. Here is where brides come to buy their gowns, and they point out the butt of something, here their wedding band – verbs in present tense: and you see but nothing. There’s not even a rat, here.
Iyad is 32, a broken expression nestled in strong muscles, he was a carpenter – “my workshop is at the end of the corner,” he tells you, even if at the corner there’s but a slid ceiling, the stump of a wall, and even if he now is a sniper, two hours per day, every day, he sleeps here, a mattress and a blanket next to a door’s skeleton, his brother died his father died, his best friend died, everybody died, his two-year-old daughter died, in his Nokia the photo of her body covered in blood, and now he is a sniper, that’s all, two hours per day shielded by sandbags, you look through the hole where he shoots from and the helmets of the last soldiers he hit are still there, in the street. Wha-tever your question is, the answer is the same. But how do you feel, you ask him, the first time? and he shows you his daughter’s body, while a man wheezes, in your gunsight, what do you think?, and he shows you his daughter’s body, you ask him: but once all this will be over, what will you do? and what kind of Syria will come? and only his daughter’s body, only blood that tric-kles – until he tells you: anything else to know?, and he puts his mobile away, and he goes back to shooting.
They are often just in their teens, and they have these eyes so transparent, so empty that you can look through them, and see the rubble that is behind. They have been fighting here for eight months, the clock, on a wall, is stuck at 17:47, it was September 25, and Aleppo was a pure hell, a blast every few seconds when the old city, a UNESCO world heritage site, was overwhelmed by fire. They roam around the storm’s spoils in T-shirt and kalashnikov, a pair of Bart Simpson socks under their military boots; they are the new lords of Aleppo, kids who barely have a diploma, ba-rely have a job – and yet they have a kalashnikov, now, now they have experienced power: and they won’t be insignificant again as they were under Assad. They squat here with their camping stove, their sleeping bag, and it looks like their interrail holiday, talking with them is pointless, you cannot extract any word, any emotion. They oversee every corner, every mark of wall here has its own checkpoint, its bodyguard; they patrol the streets of an imaginary city – “this is the best tailor of Aleppo,” and it is but a stack of sharp metal sheets under sniper fire: because when you happen to bump into a barrage of flies, then, you who know Aleppo, now, you know: under-neath, lies human remains.
And in a burst of mortar, at some point, something golden still shines. It’s a chandelier. You lower your head, curious, you slip into the sandbags – you slide in: and you find yourself amid dozens of bullet-pierced copies of the Koran: it’s the Great Mosque. It’s its remnants.
The walls defaced by artillery fire, the candleholders teared off. Engravings, decorations planed away, the shades of red, on the carpet, that now are shades of blood. And from one pillar to next, dark plastic sheets: regime’s snipers are on the other side of the courtyard. For it’s a war of the last century, the war of Aleppo, it is a trench warfare of rifle shots: rebels and loyalists are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other – on the frontline, the first time you cannot believe it: with these bayonets that you have seen only in history books, and you tought they hadn’t been used any longer since Napoleon’s time, today that war is a drones war: and here, instead, they fight meter by meter, with that blade tied to the barrel, and decayed of blood, and for it’s really a war street by street, a hand-to-hand combat, the alley cats, out there, that contend for a shinbone. Even tough they are but praetorian guards of an empire of death, by now, ready to offer you tea and cigarette under the sun and fire while they welcome you with the V victory sign as in front of the Colosseum for a photo souvenir, and instead they are but in front of smashed minarets, briers of metal sheets while they take off their shoes, as in any mosque, or they stop the photographer: they say: you cannot enter: it’s the women area, and instead they are but the char-red remains of objects you don’t even understand what objects are – while they keep guard pink elephants: but everything, here, amid the ghosts of the brides, is more sacred than life.
They seem roads, they are The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Even the muezzin, now, calls no lon-ger to prayer: he calls for blood donors for the wounded of the last missile. And only a rain of ka-lashnikov fire, suddenly, wake you up – out there shooting starts again. It is the only sign of life – out there, somebody dies. Somebody hasn’t died, yet.