Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Husk of Aleppo

An internal refugee camp on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria
Aleppo, Syria - Walking through the bombarded streets of Aleppo, each Syrian on the rubble-strewn road fixed their eyes on the clear and open sky stretched out above them, fearfully scanning the blue for any sign of aircraft. This is ideal weather for airstrikes. Soon enough, the cry goes up in Arabic, "Jet! Jet"! freezing everyone's pounding heart in their throats. Several women, men, and children quickly run back to their homes, or places of shelter as groups of men gather together, pointing at a small black dot miles above in the sky, debating on what the object could be: a jet, a helicopter, or a distant bird. A moment later, clarification came as the distinctive sound of an engine caught up with the machine of war flying overhead - a helicopter. A soldier for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), dressed in green army fatigues raised his unit on the handheld radio he kept attached to his waist, directing the nearest 50. caliber gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck to the helicopter's location. Given the altitude of the helicopter overhead, small arms fire would prove pointless; all that can be done is to wait helplessly for the bombs to fall. Slowly, the helicopter floated past as it seemed to be identifying a target below. Then, in a moment of frozen terror, we watch a smaller black dot free-fall from the helicopter; a barrel bomb plummeting towards the city below. It will take what seems like a minute for the barrel of crude oil, filled with shrapnel, and rigged with elementary explosives, to fall through the sky, and detonate on impact: a soldier's minute, where time slows to a crawl, where blood pounds through your body with each heart beat, where silence becomes almost deafening, and where everyone around you stands motionless with the collective, clairvoyant knowledge as to calamity that is about the ensue. Then, like a lightning strike cracking overhead, the ear-piercing explosion of a bomb striking a three-story building a mile down the road sending a thick plumb of smoke, and dust towering into the sky as wavering citizens run for their lives, while others run into the thick haze to help the wounded.
A war torn street in Aleppo
The sky is the only front that matters in Syria at the moment. Skirmishes and firefights can win minor victories for the FSA; a high-ground position atop a mountain, or a section of an urban neighborhood. Yet, in the end, only the Syrian government has the capability to marshal airpower to the battlefield; an advantage so great that no true gains can be made against the government while they dominate the air. In fact, any territorial gains, or spear-head offensives made by the FSA will become a prime location for Syrian government counter-airstrikes and artillery shelling. With no airpower to reinforce their victory, and with minimal surface-to-air weaponry, there is little for the soldiers of the FSA to do except to dig in, and attempt to survive the falling onslaught.

The Syrian civil war, which began in the spring of 2011 during the height of the Arab Spring, quickly slipped from popular protests into full scale conflict as Syrian civilians and defecting military personnel banded together in force to oppose the violence perpetrated against non-violent demonstrators demanding the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. What started as a movement with rallying cries of freedom, liberation, and revolution, has now been bludgeoned to anything but that. Four years into the conflict, over 200,000 people -estimated conservatively- have lost their lives; over 40% of Syria's population has been displaced with millions of refugees fleeing into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians remain internally displaced inside Syria - too poor, sick, young, or elderly to escape the brutality of war. In my work with various units, brigades, and fighters of the FSA inside Syria and Turkey, many of the soldiers referenced a struggle for freedom and revolution, even if their tone and emotion suggested something otherwise. For some, the battle for independence is a true and honest driving force. Yet, for an ever increasing number of combatants now on their fourth year of a calamitous war, much of these phrases have become empty rhetoric; a piece of propaganda you tell yourself over, and over again to muster the courage to go back the front, and fight.
A Syrian woman walking through an internal refugee camp around Aleppo
Born from the true emotions of the desire for self determination, freedom, and democracy, the Syrian civil war has, on all sides, has become enshrouded by the myths of war. In my experience with the men that make up the command and ranks of the FSA, the words "freedom", and "revolution" are seldom heard; instead, accounts of atrocities, and personalized horror are cited as the catalyst for further war. The enthusiasm for a democratic government is rapidly fading in the minds of those fighting on the front line, becoming less and less about a war for liberation than it is a war about attrition, and toppling the government who has spurred them into militancy by killing their brothers, raping their sisters, torturing their fathers to death in prison, and who has decimated their country's infrastructure, and the lives of millions of innocent civilians.
FSA soldier inspecting a neighborhood after being bombed by the Syrian Gov.
As I watched the barrel bomb attack in Aleppo, with civilians scrambling away from the impact site while others selflessly run towards the blast to help survivors, I realized the need to rendezvous with my armed escort. The Hazm Movement, one of the factions that make up the FSA, had agreed to smuggle me into Syria, and provide military security while I was in Aleppo to help my documentation of the ongoing barrel bombing campaigns, and to build their relationship with western media. After gathering with the FSA squad to which I was attached, calls were made to report the blast, and provide directions for the first-responder team rushing to ground zero. Racing down the street in our car towards the strike, the soldier driving leaned endlessly on the horn as the fleeing civilians made their way onto the sidewalk. The volunteer ambulance had already arrived on the scene and loaded the injured into the van. The initial account was four wounded civilians with no dead - but that figure changed later after a family member returned to their crumbled house, unable to find their grandmother who had been hit directly by the barrel bomb. Her body had been mostly incinerated.
A Syrian boy recovering in a field hospital
We followed the ambulance to an undisclosed field hospital, refitted from an abandoned government building stationed on a hilly lookout, where unloaded wounded began receiving treatment. In one corner of the room a man sat up on a metal table, using both hands to clamp down his writhing right leg as he cried freely into the arms of a friend who embraced him so tightly it seemed that by letting go, his friend would die right then and there on the table; a possibility not too far from reality. Across the room sat a stoic elderly man with short hair, and a peppered beard who had been connected to a breathing apparatus. Fortunate enough to have avoided the main blast, this elderly gentlemen collapsed on the street shortly thereafter due to the dense dust particles which make it difficult for him to breathe, and which struck directly at his asthma.

The more severely wounded cases were unloaded from the ambulance and brought below to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) located in the basement. A child, no more than ten or eleven years of age, already unconscious from pain and shock by the time they arrived, was laid out on a cot-style bed with a mangled left leg. While the unconscious boy was having the remnants of his shin and calf wrapped back together in that dark, cool, crumbling concrete room, the final vehicle arrived carrying a middle-aged man groaning in agony. He had taken a direct hit, and had shards of shrapnel lodged into the gaping hole of his right thigh, mere centimeters from his main artery. Needing immediate surgery, but unable to receive the proper medical attention due to the field hospital's severe lack of equipment, the doctors gave him anesthesia to temporarily stop his suffering while the doctors gathered together to discuss their makeshift options.
Doctors operating on a wounded civilian's leg
"In these situations, we aren't left with many choices" the chief medical director, who asked to remain nameless for his safety, explains. "People living in rebel [FSA] held areas are too afraid to go to government hospitals for fear of being punished as traitors. But this is just a field hospital, we don't have the medical supplies to properly treat many of the wounded here."

Eventually the doctors decided to operate to their best potential, and I suited up with the surgeons to document the parts of the procedure. For two hours the three surgeons worked with the situation presented to them: trying to stem the bleeding, retrieve each piece of shrapnel, and mend the leg while attempting to keep the main artery intact; all under a single lamp, while we all lost our footing and slipped on the blood covered floor. Ultimately, the man was stabilized, but still needed medical stents which the hospital could not acquire for another four days. After being sutured up, he was moved to a bed near the young boy who still lay unconscious: it was now a waiting game, a matter of luck if the stents would show up in time, or at all, before further complications claim his life.
Asthmatic man being treated in a field hospital 
"The situation is very dangerous for the medical staff here as well," the medical director went on to tell me as we stepped out of the ICU. "Because I am a doctor, I cannot enter any government controlled areas because they will put me in prison for treating wounded rebels. We've lost many doctors in this country because they were tortured to death in government prisons. "

Leaning in closer with his hands clasped together, he concluded in a somber tone before heading off to treat another patient, "This hospital is constantly targeted by government bombs. Already, we've been bombed six times. Six! And three of those were last month. Inshallah [thanks be to God] we've been able to stay open, but people in the world don't know about the terrible things happening to us. We're being targeted for being a hospital. But what are we supposed to do? These are my people, my neighbors; I swore an oath as a doctor to help people who need treatment, but they [the Syrian government] wants us finished."
Two of the surgeons in the field hospital's O.R.
Four days later, I received a call from my Fixer telling me that the field hospital had taken a direct hit from another barrel bomb flung from a government helicopter. The hospital was reduced to ruins.

As we continually watch the tragedies of this war deepen, while listening to politicians claiming to know the best solution, I'm witnessing the ever growing amount of preventable suffering occurring to innocent people being treated like chess pieces, mere pawns in a global bid for supremacy. This is no longer a war for freedom - it is now a war for power, and whichever side eventually arises from the ashes with the most Pyrrhic of victories will claim the war to be over, while placing a flag atop the pile of rubble that was once a nation.
A bombarded apartment block in Aleppo 
A Syrian child idles outside during a lull in violence
Man walking through a residential alleyway before a barrel bombardment
Residential alleyway after a government bombardment
Destroyed vehicles line the roadways into Aleppo, Syria 
From inside the crater of a barrel bomb attack

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