The Syrian War: Living with the Dead

Inside the underground tombs that have become shelter for war-ravaged Syrian civilians


| Summer 2016


April is April even in Syria, sprightly, its hills newly speckled, all primroses and violets, the white flowering boughs of almond, the orange of the tulips, and this mild, gentle wind, laden with sunlight and jasmine. By contrast, in the house to your left, yesterday — it was nearly evening — Asma committed suicide. A bullet to the head. April isn’t April in Syria. She was 13 years old.

The province of Idlib, in the north, borders on Turkey, and was the first to be captured by the rebels who have their bases in Turkey. But a “liberated area,” here, is by no means a safe zone. Because this is the land of missiles: every day they drop down on you, randomly, unexpectedly. The rebels still have no anti-aircraft protection other than bad weather and haze. Missiles and Islamists. They come from Libya, from Tunisia, from Afghanistan, veterans of a thousand other wars; without them the regime would already have suppressed every revolt. No one knows what their objectives really are. They are feared and invisible. Few Kalashnikovs around, few checkpoints. Life seems to go on as usual, but everything is chaos, everything unreadable. It’s a dry wind that blows, sun-drenched and thick with fear.

Jabal al-Zawiya is a nature reserve studded with Roman and Byzantine tombs, stretches of meadow among pale, barren rocks. But then you spot a glitter, under a stone arch, in shadow, hidden among the bushes, and it’s the metal of a teapot. Between a book lying sodden in the grass, a torn strip of a shirt, you see a silvery reflection. And it’s not one of the many rocks, but a plastic tarp.

It’s a door.

They emerge from underground, dozens of them. Gaunt, barefoot, looking haggard and tattered. They took refuge here, to await the end of the war in this damp, fetid air, the vaults of the crypt blackened by the carbon of wood-burning stoves. They sleep on the sepulchers. And they cough, they cough continuously from tuberculosis, like Nader Khaled al-Badwy, 26, and his wife Sanaa, 22, 19-month-old Omar in her arms. Nader turns a box of medicine around in his hands: it’s the only thing he found in the pharmacy, the instruction sheet is in English. “Better than nothing,” he says. It’s medicine for meningitis. All they have is bread and tea, rainwater to drink. Another child, 7 months old, is in Turkey; every so often they try to send her a bottle of mother’s milk through a smuggler. They’ve been here since September, and since September not a soul has passed through. Not an NGO, not the Red Cross. Not Doctors Without Borders. No one. They’ve received no aid whatsoever. Nor do they have the slightest expectation, by now. I ask them about the National Coalition, the organization of opposition forces based in Istanbul, which recently appointed a prime minster and a provisional government. What would they ask the Coalition for, if they could? Their only response is: sugar.

The hills look the same as always in Syria, but then you notice these tall, scrawny trees, looking like spikes stuck in the ground, spaced apart from each other, these strange trees, and you don’t get it. These spikes. Then you realize that they are just tree trunks, their branches missing. To keep warm, people here sawed off the branches. One by one. “But not the trees. This is a protected park.”