A Syrian-Mothers Tale-Of-Woe:What does the war in Aleppo smell of?

Umm Hamid dressed the crying girl. She stuffed her miniature hands into socks instead of gloves to keep them warm. She was taking her to queue outside the bakery in the Kadi Askar neighbourhood. There was no one to leave the girl with, she said unapologetically, so she was bringing her to stand in the line with her. They might be waiting all day, she told us.
“If we get there early, we might be lucky,” she whispered to the little girl.
If she were lucky, she would not be living in Aleppo. If she were lucky, she would not have to cook on a wood stove. If she were lucky, her children could play outside, or not be afraid of the balcony, where people shot at you when you stuck your head out. If she were lucky, her husband would not have been jobless for the past four months. If she were lucky, there would be no war.
The Arabic name for Aleppo is Halab. Some people say it means iron, or possibly copper, because the city was a source of these metals in ancient times. But there is also a biblical legend that Halab means “the giver of milk”, because Abraham allegedly gave out milk to travellers when they passed through the city.
But the city called the giver of milk has now ground to a halt, except for the fighting. Umm Hamid has not had milk at home for months. She had powdered milk, she said.
Eventually, Umm Hamid coaxed the protesting girl, holding her by the arm, and we followed her down the stairs. On the staircase, she saw her younger son wearing rubber sandals outside on the street instead of shoes. December is cold in Aleppo, covered by grey mud and raked by icy wind. She stared at him, but she did not go inside to get him socks: she did not have any. Nor did he have shoes.
She just stared at the boy’s feet, purple with cold, then hurried on to the bakery. There was nothing for him to do, and nothing for her to say.
We took the small child to the market and bought him shoes, which he silently laced up. But he was one child. There were dozens, hundreds, thousands in Aleppo that did not have his tiny shred of luck that day.
War means endless waiting, endless boredom. There is no electricity, so no television. You can’t read. You can’t see friends. You grow depressed but there is no treatment for it and it makes no sense to complain – everyone is as badly off as you. It’s hard to fall in love, or rather, hard to stay in love. If you are a teenager, you seem halted in time.
If you are critically ill – with cancer, for instance – there is no chemotherapy for you. If you can’t leave the country for treatment, you stay and die slowly, and in tremendous pain. Victorian diseases return – polio, typhoid and cholera. You see very sick people around you who seemed in perfectly good health when you last saw them during peacetime. You hear coughing all the time. Everyone hacks – from the dust of destroyed buildings, from disease, from cold.
As for your old world, it disappears, like the smoke from a cigarette you can no longer afford to buy. Where are your closest friends? Some have left, others are dead. The few who remain have nothing new to talk about. You can’t get to their houses, because the road is blocked by checkpoints. Or snipers take a shot when you leave your door, so you scurry back inside, like a crab retreating inside its shell. Or you might go out on the wrong day and a barrel bomb, dropped by a government helicopter, lands near you.

Wartime looks like this.
The steely greyness of the city. The clouds are so low, but not low enough to hide government helicopters carrying barrel bombs, which usually appear at the same time each day, in the mornings and late afternoons, circling for a while at altitudes of 13,000-16,000 feet, little more than tiny dots in the sky, before dropping their payloads.
What does war sound like? The whistling sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impact – enough time to know that you are about to die, but not enough time to flee.
What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of the heady smell of fear. The rubble on the street – the broken glass, the splintered wood that was once somebody’s home. On every corner there is a destroyed building that may or may not have bodies still buried underneath. Your old school is gone; so are the mosque, your grandmother’s house, and your office. Your memories are smashed.
Then there are the endless fields of garbage. The rooms that are as cold as tombs – having gone unheated now for five winters – are all you know. There are so many abandoned apartments. Remember that beautiful house, what it looked like when someone lived there? Your beautiful life from before is now dead.
The dirt, filth, fear and nausea. All the things you go without – toothpaste, money, vitamins, birth-control pills, X-rays, chemotherapy, insulin, painkillers. Petrol costs 170 Syrian pounds per litre. Today. Tomorrow it might be different.
Then, suddenly, you might catch the odd sight of a man in a T-shirt despite the frozen air, squeezing oranges into juice for the lucky ones with money.
Oranges? You wonder who the people are that still have money, and you have dark thoughts about people you used to trust and know well. But with the constant theme of survival surrounding your whole city, your neighbourhood, your life, you really don’t know anybody’s intentions.
War is the corner near the Old City where people are lined up with plastic Pepsi bottles, to buy a small amount of petrol on the black market. War is the wrecked hospital, Dar al-Shifa, bombed on 21 November 2012, which still stinks of carnage in hallways where stretchers once passed, and where doctors in scrubs and rubber gloves once walked. Now it is a twisted pile of cinderblocks and concrete, broken tiles and glass – a shell exposed to the grey sky.
War is empty shell casings on the street, smoke from bombs rising up in mushroom clouds, and learning to determine which thud means what kind of bomb. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.
War is the destruction, the skeleton and the bare bones of someone else’s life.


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