The Syrian War: Living with the Dead

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Photo by Bengin Ahmad/
Refugees of the Syrian War number more than a million. But the UN’s statistics refer to evacuees in the camps set up in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq. They don’t record the IDP’s (internally displaced persons) who have remained here. Who are estimated to be 4 million, and who have nothing.

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.”

They live crowded together, 22 of them, in these two underground tombs. The youngest is called Malaki, she’s 2 months old, and you can barely see her in her cradle amid the flies. They are the families of Ahmad Omar al-Yahya, 45, and Basam al-Amnou, 42. They buried everything under an olive tree. And they moved in here, ducking their heads, the vaults too low, a cigarette lighter for illumination, the only latrine marked not so much by a wall of bricks and the ooze of sewage, as by a swarm of insects. Beetle casings, and when it rains, the tombs get flooded so they stay outside. Out in the rain. One little boy has a bruised face, a broken wrist, because they slither in through steep passages, muddy tunnels, and he slipped a week ago. Their homes, in nearby al-Bara, were swept away by an air strike, 11 families pulverized. As of today, six missiles and 275 mortars have hit al-Bara, population 5,000. The one we hear now is number 276. A mortar, then we go on talking.

Refugees of the Syrian War number more than a million. But the UN’s statistics refer to evacuees in the camps set up in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq. They don’t record the IDP’s (internally displaced persons) who have remained here. Who are estimated to be 4 million, and who have nothing. Nothing. The international NGOs are still settling in, still at the border, engaged in yet another assessment and planning meeting, while the local ones are often nothing more than impromptu acronyms of Syrians who have returned after years abroad to pocket donations. And the UN, by statute, operates through the Damascus government, with the result that aid is distributed in areas under the control of the regime. “But to get to Turkey is costly …” Mariam al-Mohamad, 57, explains, interrupted by another explosion. “It’s partly that we’re afraid of looting, and we don’t want to leave. But it’s also true that a car to the border costs $300, and three cars would be needed for an average family. Almost a year’s salary. The truth is that to become refugees is a luxury we cannot afford.”

Ahmad Haj Hammoud is 31 years old, and every day at 8 a.m. on the dot he clocks in to work in Idlib. He’s a public employee there. Only the province is actually under rebel control. Everything in the city functions as usual, shops, offices. Schools. And there are many like Ahmad: part of the regime by day, its victims by night. “But I need the money,” he says briefly. “And I just want this war to end.” A great many in Syria are neither with Assad nor with the rebels. They’re simply tired. Caught between a vicious regime and the opposition: disorganized 20-year-olds with T-shirts and rifles. “Not only don’t they have any plan for the future, the problem is that they don’t even have rules for the present. They only think about themselves. They confiscated the granaries, the flour, and left everyone to starve, saying that the front took priority. That they need energy to win. To liberate us. But to be liberated, we must be alive.”

Another explosion meanwhile. They’re fighting a few miles from here in Maraat al-Numan. It’s right above Aleppo-Damascus. Strategic for a southward advance. The name Maratt al-Numan is a graft of the Greek name Arra, the Christian name Marre, and the location’s first Muslim ruler, an-Numan ibn Bashir. “A synthesis of the Syria of old, in which we all lived together,” says Habib al-Hallaq, 26, a Sunni deserter who in Damascus had a house in an Alawite district. “A synthesis of today’s Syria,” Noura Nassouh, 47, his neighbor in the tomb, corrects him. “In which we are all killed, without distinction.”

Because April isn’t April in Syria, and in this illusory spring studded with buds and mortars, this is how they live, on bread and tea and rainwater. What seems like silver is instead plastic. What seems like stillness, is death. They are workers, a greengrocer, a house painter, a policeman, but also biologists and engineers, dropped here with a degree, a doctorate, exhausted, in this life in the wild, waiting for it to be over, wrapped up like beggars in whatever they’ve been able to find, hair like stubble, that drained, haggard expression and eyes like ashes. On their cell phones, beautiful photographs of Aleppo, of Damascus, of homes with pastel painted tiles, wrought iron lamps. They talk in choppy phrases, head down, while with their bare hands they try to shape a sheet of metal into a tray and cut themselves. A trickle of blood barely oozes its way through the scabs, calluses, and blisters on their fingers. All they’ll say is: “I had a life like yours once. Ray-Bans just like yours.”

Suad is 15 days old and her eyes are already red and wrinkly; she was born here, in a tomb, in a dawn of missiles. Her mother’s name is Adlalh Ziady, she’s 19 year old and stares at me in silence, her skin sallow. Meanwhile a mortar explodes, someone dies, and while I think about what to ask her, she goes on staring at me in silence. While I think: What does it feel like, to give birth in a tomb? Are you afraid? Uncertain? And when this revolution started, when the demonstrations started, did you imagine it would be like this? While she goes on staring at me in silence, not a word. And I keep thinking, as another mortar explodes: Did they bomb your house? And where were you? I think, and how does it feel when they bomb your house? And foolishly: What do you need most urgently, milk? medicine? The sting of shame, when you come out of the tomb, children have picked all those flowers for you, and cling to your arm, as if you were worthy, as if you were here to save them, and instead they don’t know, with their flowers, they don’t know, we’re only here for another article that won’t seduce any consciences, not even our own, as they cling to your arm and don’t know, they don’t know that they don’t matter, because what is there to understand, still, in Syria, what is there to ask? While Adlalh stares at me in utter silence and doesn’t speak. And rightly so, because she has nothing to say, as another mortar explodes and a women hunched in the corner, her 50 years seeming more like 70, three children dead, not even a body remaining, covers her face with her hands, motionless, and she too is silent. If the Syrians have ended up in crypts, Syrian woman have ended up huddled in the corners.

It’s Spoon River in reverse, this life in which the living, from their tombs, talk to the dead, who watch and don’t hear. Amen al-Yassin is 37 years old, and together with his wife, his mother, and 11 children, the youngest 5 months old, lives in a stable, among goats and chickens. On a shelf are grimy jars of olives and spices, a sack of potatoes, moldy bread, that’s all; hanging from a dog chain, there’s laundry so tattered that you can’t say if something is a shirt or a sweater, or what color it is. Their house, in Kafr Kouma, is in ruins, and they haven’t found another place. For this stable, which can be hit by a missile at any time, just like their old house, they pay 5,000 lire per month, compared to the 4,000 lire they paid in rent before — but for a real house. Because only in novels do war and poverty inspire solidarity: in real life they breed speculation, borders populated with traffickers and wheeler-dealers. You pay for everything here, for a car to Turkey, for a bottle of mother’s milk. To sleep in a chicken coop. And you pay three times the normal rate. Another mortar. “I’m looking for a tomb. But they’re all occupied now. And the remaining ones, on private lands, are even more expensive.”

Ismail Khodor al-Yosef is 75 years old; his heart is failing following a myocardial infarction, his bones sculpt his skin like bas-relief, and he is lying on the ground waiting to die. His wheezing gasps pierce the thick air of early afternoon like broken bottle shards. It is not one of those deaths that you get used to in war: abrupt, terse, a bullet and you’re gone, no — it’s a harsh, protracted death, agonizing, the death of a man clinging to life, his eyes doggedly fixed on the light. He was the park’s watchman. He has no word of his children, all of them refugees. And lying on the ground, his wife behind him like a Pietá who will never have her Michelangelo, he stares solely at the light, in the tomb of a man whose name nobody knows, as he too slowly, simply, passes on.

Francesca Borri is an Italian journalist who began covering the war in Syria in 2012. Excerpted from her new book Syrian Dust (Seven Stories Press, 2016), which is her third book and her first to be translated into English. 

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