From the Days of Siege
Passing Through Death
The period that started in October of 2016 was known as the Second Siege of Aleppo. These unforgettable days will remain deeply engraved in my memory, as will the pain I suffered in those difficult days.
We arrived in besieged Aleppo with the aid vehicles, entering through Kafr Hamra, the only way to cross into the entire city, whether besieged or liberated. There were huge crowds of cars waiting to cross safely. I realized that only 900 meters remained between us and the city where thousands of hungry people dreamt of tasting a loaf of bread, even if it were mere arid crisps.
We stopped our cars by the side of the street and got out to see what was going on. I understood from conversations here and there that the way ahead of us was named Castillo Road. This road was marked by snipers and rocket launchers coming from the area of New Aleppo, as well as other areas. No one could pass without being caught by the snipers.
The smell of death poured off the road as it stretched out like a terrifying snake, in adjacency to a dirt barrier that ran in parallel with a two-meter-high wall, such that small cars could sometimes hide and sometimes move, quick as an arrow, entering or exiting the city according to orders that came from the checkpoints at both ends. Big vehicles like the aid trucks had to wait for the snipers to sleep in order to avoid their watchful eyes.
I felt outraged as I contemplated the cars’ load. We weren’t carrying bombs, bullets, or explosive materials to kill people. We only carried food for the hungry people hiding inside away from bullets, bombs, and rockets. Perhaps they did not belong to any of the warring parties fighting to control their city of birth and the streets in which they grew up as children. People struggled to seek out their living and secure their children’s future. I imagine them now, in the deep shelters, hugging their scared children quivering from the sounds of bombs and screaming with hungry fear. Yes, they cried out from hunger, and they might die while the aid vehicles filled with food helplessly stood only 900 meters away.
What a jungle the world is! The crimes of the sniper who watches the road do not only amount to shooting passersby. They are responsible for mercilessly killing thousands of children, without shooting one bullet, by preventing milk from reaching their gaping mouths. Oh God, what has war made of these creatures called human beings?
The spirit of adventure possessed me, urging me to enter, to reach those besieged people, to relieve their pain. One of the missions I had was to assess the people’s needs inside Aleppo, and later convey them to the parties intending to help them. I had no time to lose. I had to find a way to enter.
I knew that cars carrying fuel, like gasoline and diesel, were the most adventurous in crossing the road that was watched by death at every inch. Fuel vehicles had to supply bakeries, as without them they would stop working. Hospitals also depended on diesel instead of electricity, which had become an edifice of the past.
I had to find the driver of a fuel tanker to help me enter. It was not difficult to find one, as dozens of cars were at the side of the road, waiting for a chance to enter. But the hard thing was convincing the driver.
I chose a man in his sixties, sitting alone beside a large tanker. His eyes were fixed on his wireless radio, which buzzed from time to time, announcing the launch of a helicopter, or the start of a rocket launcher or machine gunner. It was dark. He was greedily inhaling at his cigarette as I approached. He was immersed in his wireless, trying to comprehend the intermittent words. When I addressed him with my request, he did not answer right away, rather ruminating upon my words for a while before asking me to sit down. He then began explaining to me the seriousness of the adventure awaiting me.
“Do you know what it means to enter in a fuel tanker?” the driver said.
“It means it’s a big car and the dirt barrier won’t hide it from the sniper’s gaze,” I said.
“Also, do you know the danger of what I’m carrying?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“We carry flammable materials, meaning that any bullet that to hit us will ignite the car and we’ll be burned within minutes, before anyone comes to help.”
Even though I was afraid, my desire to reach the people was bigger than my fear.
“Lives are in the hand of God, uncle,” I said. “Nothing will happen to us but what God has written.”
He looked at me, admiring what I said. “God’s word is the truth”.
“Is your entry urgent?” he asked.
Without hesitation, I said: “Yes, there’s someone waiting for me.”
I did not know what to tell him. Those people were my family, but not the family that had given birth to me. Every frightened woman inside was my mother. Every child that needed me was my brother. I wanted to explain their needs to those who could fulfil them. Those people were my family. They were from me, and I was from them. So I said without giving it another thought:
Then, to further convince him to take me with him, I told him: “I work with a humanitarian organization, and I’m required to enter to see what people need there”.
He looked at me again for a long time, as though checking me from head to toe, as if the word “organization” had worked against me, as though he would give me an answer way beyond my expectations.
“My son, our way is dangerous and it’s a heavy responsibility. I do not mind picking you up, but it’s your responsibility, not mine.” He stressed the words your responsibility.
I said without hesitation: “It’s my responsibility, you got it”.
He agreed and asked me to wait until they allowed us to enter. “I think we won’t be late — the diesel I carry is for a field hospital, and they insist on letting me enter as soon as possible, as the engines that run the hospital’s machine might stop if the fuel runs out”.
I told my colleagues that I will go ahead with the fuel tanker and wait for them inside. Even though they condemned my quick decision, I was stubborn headed, and I went back to wait with the driver. It was almost midnight.
He asked me not to walk far away. They might open the road at any moment.
“How long will it take to pass?”
Without giving it much thought, he said “Minutes and not more, if God makes it easy.”
We waited hours, or maybe days, to pass a distance that should’ve taken no more than three minutes. I returned to my reflections, contemplating the darkened fuel tank.
“You’re working with a humanitarian organization, right?” the driver asked.
He sighed. “Is there any humanity left, my son? It died. Humanity should be put in museums.” He then pointed to the fuel tank. “Do you see this tank? Every drop inside is connected with the soul of a human being who might
die if it does not reach its destination. We’re forced to wait here until the sniper goes away to put on the teapot or to pee, and then we will be able to reach the people whose lives depend on us.
“Snipers can kill a lot of people unknowingly. Killing is not confined to penetrating the body with bullets. It’s enough for the sniper not to allow this tank of fuel that’s needed by a hospital waiting for us minutes away. Do you know how many people during these minutes will die, not to forget those killed by the warring parties? If the fuel in the engine runs out, how many children will die in their incubators? How many patients will die in operating rooms? How many people depending on oxygen will suffocate?”
He sighed from the deepest chambers of his chest. I felt the warmth of his sigh getting torn by the sounds of bombing. From time to time, tracer bullets penetrated the darkness. He said as though talking to himself, “The world abandoned its humanity long ago. Beasts do not do what humans do nowadays. I swear they do not”.
At 3: 00 in the morning., the crossing point opened, and the first car was allowed to pass. I do not know where the sniper had gone. I did not think about him at that moment; I was shaking uncontrollably for those first few minutes. After a while, the sniper began occupying my thoughts. Was it a change in the killing shifts? Or had he just gone to pee and, during that time, thousands of those awaiting fuel tankers and aid would be allowed to live again? Or maybe it was a phone call received from the woman he loves, and they were flirting in the stunning April atmosphere. He might tell her how proud he was to kill the very many he shot that day. I even imagined them arguing about the names of the children they’d have in the future, or how many of them there would be. And the longer the disagreement continued, the more lives would be allowed to continue through the crossing.
The first car that passed was a Suzuki that could hide itself behind the tad-higher dirt barrier. One man occupied the front seat whereas the backseats sat a woman and a child. The car zapped like an arrow through the darkness, with no regard for the holes in the road that caused the car to bounce. Behind it, the second car set off with a number more passengers.
Uncle Abu Abdo was ready behind the engine. We were fifth in line. Three cars had already passed safely. He spoke reassuringly, as though he’d he has noticed my pallid confusion:
“Do not be afraid. You’re on the barrier side. If anything happens, open the door and shelter yourself by the barrier. If you hear the sound of a bullet, jump out right away.” He went on. “If you hear the bullet, it won’t kill you. The bullet that kills you is the one you do not hear.” He laughed, despite the difficult moment. As the three cars set off in front of us, I calmed down a little. For the first time, I was aware that I was on the right side of the car and the driver was on the left, and that, less than half a meter away, stood the most dangerous place near the embankment.
In war, the measure of time and space becomes very precise — from one second to another, between one meter and the other, there could be the distance separating life and death.
Before our car could start its journey, something we all feared happened.
Heavy gunfire broke the silence, and I heard bullets whizzing above our heads. It was a matter of seconds before we were down on the ground, and the night’s clouds receded, allowing us to distinguish the people around us filling the air with their screams.
Oh God, be with us, Oh Lord! I saw the fourth car catch fire, as though it had been hit by incendiary materials. I did not notice what it was carrying when it passed by us. But, by the light of the fire, I could see firefighters sneaking in alongside the barrier and moving the people screaming from inside the burnt car. And the fifth car was ours…
Minutes and not more passed before Abu Abdo started our journey and headed toward the ticking clock. He was a hero indeed, “Oh God, we rely on you!”
He stepped on the pedal, causing the tank to emit the roar of a terrifying monster. He went and challenged Death. And it was as he said. Three minutes.
Three minutes! Each minute consisted of 60 seconds. And between each pair of seconds, there was a vast world, with space for the orbit of fantasies and dreams that stumbled with the terrified heartbeats accelerating with every meter travelled. I cannot describe him except as a hero. Tons of air were imprisoned in my chest, refusing to get out. We passed near the burnt car, and then we were in the darkness of the last third of the road. Any crackling beside the tank would lead to an explosion. Any movement would shake the earth out of its orbit. It is I who was shaking badly. I never felt as cold. My eyes stared at Abu Abdo’s clenched lips, which resembled his fisted hands gripping the steering wheel. He looked at me through the tail of his eye as he slowed down. It was a long time between the moment he opened his lips and when he said, “Thank God for our safety, my son.”
Despite the total darkness, I felt the sun filling the whole universe with its filtering rays, seeping into my freezing entrails. I finally relaxed and released the clouds of imprisoned air.
“We made it?”
I whispered, as though I were pronouncing the first words in my life. I was inside Aleppo, but the aid cars had stayed, still waiting for their chance outside.
I heard Uncle Abu Abdo saying, “We’re safe now.”
#SYRIA #lWasBornTwice #ALEPPO #IDLIB