'How will this war ever end?': Shells and bombs a normal part of life for 2 million in Aleppo

Russia's bomber pilots have been supporting Syria's army in its struggle to regain control of the country. Despite the resulting destruction in Syria's largest city, not everyone can afford to flee, says a resident.

War has blasted away beautiful buildings, but Syria's largest city still has traffic jams

About two million civilians live under government control in west Aleppo and perhaps 400,000 in the east, which is run by a combination of rebel groups. For all, shells and bombs have become a normal part of life. (Nelofer Pazira)

Today is like every other day in Aleppo, and George has long grown used to it. A Syrian photographer and native of Aleppo, he knows how to interpret the sounds of outgoing artillery, incoming mortars and air attacks.

Like many civilians in Aleppo during this war, George goes only by his first name. After four years of gruesome war in Syria's largest city, he responds with equal emotion to traffic jams and danger.

Yes, there really are traffic jams in the city's western markets, and George curses his way past the cars when he's on assignment.

But when he hears jets power-diving over the rebel-held east section of Aleppo, he responds calmly.

"Sometimes I can see the Syrian planes and even photograph them," he says. "But the Russian bombers are totally invisible. We can only hear their sound."

There is the faint siren of an ambulance. "This means the mortars fired by the Nusra Front have produced casualties here." 
From Aleppo's Citadel, Syrian forces are able to look down on this devastation marking the city's front line. (Nelofer Pazira)

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad against his American- and Gulf-backed enemies, Russia's bomber pilots have been supporting the Syrian army in its struggle to regain control of the country.

George lives on the west side of this cruelly divided city in northern Syria. The people of Aleppo did not join Syria's war until 12 months after the conflict started  in the rest of the country five years ago.

For more than a year, western Aleppo was surrounded by the rebels. Now Syrian army troops and their Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies are trying to surround the same rebels in the east of the city.
Photographer George walks with a Syrian soldier through the ruins of Aleppo's ancient souk. (Nelofer Pazira)

Today, two million civilians live under government control in west Aleppo and perhaps 400,000 in the east which is run by a combination of rebel groups. They include the al-Qaeda linked Nusra, the fighters of ISIS and other small Islamist and opposition factions, according to another Aleppo resident who works with the UN. He doesn't want to be identified for his security.

He goes to the rebel-held east of Aleppo as part of his work and insists that many people in Aleppo, like him, refuse to take sides in this bloody war. "Not all the people who live under government control support the al-Assad regime, nor do those who live on the other side support the opposition to Assad's government," he says.

"Some stayed here in Aleppo because they want to live in their city, others are trapped. To go anywhere you need money, and not everyone can afford to flee."

And so shells and bombs have become a normal part of life.

Shortages, but 'no starvation'

In west Aleppo shops are open, and roadside stalls display vegetables and fruits. "There are shortages of things, though there's no starvation," he says. "More than a month ago, there was no water for about six weeks and no power."

Despite the rumble of explosions, there is a rush of shoppers before Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Traffic jams are as common as military checkpoints and there are three-kilometre queues at gas stations, where fuel prices have just risen by 40 per cent on government instructions.

George's apartment is near the old city, and close to one of the many front lines. He walks warily with a Syrian soldier through the ruins, cameras dangling from his arm, and he knows that not everything the people are told is true.
The bathhouses in Aleppo's medieval Citadel have barely survived the four-year battle for the city, their blue glass shattered but their stones intact. (Nelofer Pazira)

"A few months ago, things were improving for the government forces," he says. "But there was a ceasefire and the other side rearmed and now the Syrian soldiers don't have enough men to advance. The army north of the city is having a hard time."

He passes the desolate old Baron Hotel, undamaged but long closed to guests. Those guests once included Lawrence of Arabia and Agatha Christie. Lawrence famously failed to pay his champagne bill at the Baron.

"Baron Street receives the most rockets fired during the day and at night," says George.

Beautiful buildings blasted away

A few hundred metres farther east, the beautiful buildings of ancient Aleppo have been blasted away. The souk of Abdul Hamid — the world's first shopping mall, according to the people of Aleppo — is a place of ash and rubble, the minaret of the great Ommayad Mosque lying in a pile of stones, the walls of smaller mosques broken open by shells.

In one half-destroyed mosque, dust-covered chandeliers still hang from the ceiling.

But on the other side of the front line along which George walks, people live among ruins. Their smashed homes sit behind the embankments of sand, wrecked trucks, garbage and huge metal sheets placed across the streets to stop snipers and suicide car bombs.

No more devastating view of this brutal division of the city can be found than atop the vast Citadel, which has towered over Aleppo for thousands of years. Syrian troops still hold out in the fortress on the 40-metre hill, surrounded by Nusra and ISIS militias.
High above the chaos of Aleppo's civil war, the ancient Muslim Citadel stands almost untouched. (Nelofer Pazira)

To reach their lonely outpost, you must climb down a set of stairs in a ruined apartment block and then stumble along a narrow, dusty tunnel built centuries ago by medieval Muslim warriors.  

"Turn cameras and recording equipment off. Don't take pictures, don't speak because they can hear you above us," says a soldier. With two fingers pressed over his lips, he orders silence. No name, no rank — and he is not in a mood to talk.

Holding his radio over his chest, using a dim light from his mobile phone, the soldier steps through the tunnel, over uneven ground and puddles covered by plastic boxes.

At the other end stands an iron-clad rusted door leading to a cool, shaded archway, and then to the blinding sun-flooded plateau.

The ruins are intact but there are no warriors' swords or armour here, only spent cartridge cases along the millennium-old steps, and bullets near the entrance to the grand hall.

The echoing Hall of Thrones with its inlaid marble floor, painted wooden ceiling and thick stone walls is a fortress for the Syrian army's gun positions overlooking the broken city beneath.

"How will this war ever end?" asks George as he takes pictures through the small openings in the wall, from where you can observe as far as the horizon the folly and destruction of Syria's war. 
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About the Author

Nelofer Pazira


Afghan-Canadian journalist and filmmaker Nelofer Pazira is one of the few foreign journalists to have visited Syria on a regular basis throughout its five-year civil war and tell the stories of people there.