Robert Fisk: Aleppo's poor get caught in the crossfire of Syria's civil war

Our writer meets the civilians who have been stranded on the streets by a brutal conflict

Robert Fisk
Friday 24 August 2012 08:23 BST
Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo
Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo (AFP)

In Aleppo, the rich have already left, the middle classes stay at home and the poor suffer. You only have walk through the old French park beside Saadalah al-Jabri Square to meet them, three families of 19 souls, the women in black and sun-burnt, the children dark-skinned, mothers-in-law and nephews lying exhausted on thin carpets laid over withered grass. It is 37C. They lie under the shade of a scrawny tree, their only cover since they came here a month ago from the city suburb of Haderiyah.

There is a father in his mid-forties who refuses to give even his first name but is prepared to tell their story. "The Free Army came to our mosque and an imam told us to leave our homes – even my own home, which was owned by my father and grandfather and great-grandfather. This man kept shouting through a loudspeaker: 'Go out of your homes'. This was his advice. And then we heard bombs and bullets, so we left our home."

The man is a Syrian Kurd, a shoe-shine man from the slums, and he referred to those opposing Bashar al-Assad's regime as the Free Army – albeit without much affection – but we have to strain to hear his words, nearly drowned out by a helicopter.

"Almost everyone was leaving our area – it was the beginning of Ramadan – although some families stayed in their homes," the man shouted. There was a pop-pop-pop-pop-pop from the helicopter circling above us, followed by the crack of bullets hitting a street two blocks away. Another rebel marauder had sniped into the Kouatli Street area and the Syrian army had called for an air attack – how on Earth a chopper pilot at 1,000ft can pick up a single gunman in an apartment block escaped me – and now the helicopter was banging away with gusto, pop-pop-pop-bang-bang-bang, like a fairground soundtrack.

"The imam was from the other side of Haderiyah. We knew who he was, he wore a sheikh's clothes; he was not a foreigner. As we were leaving, our nephew Hassan got out of the car to buy some bread. That's when the sniper shot him, one of the 'Free Army' – we saw him. He had a scarf around his face – he was shooting from a roof top."

Hassan is lying in pain on an old carpet and he looks at us with a frown, his left arm bandaged at the wrist and shoulder. "We got first aid for him, he was bandaged at the Razi Hospital in Faisal Street. The charities come and feed us but we have nowhere to stay."

The sniper-on-the-roof has become a feature of this dirty war, the "Free Army" sniper as ferocious to the Syrian army – and apparently to Hassan – as the Syrian government snipers have become for their opponents, the unarmed as well as the armed variety.

We could hear the latter still shooting – at soldiers or at the flea-like, pop-popping chopper, we could not tell, although a Syrian friend who had taken us to the park broke down and wept in fear at the uproar. The Syrian Kurd said he had gone back to his home a week later. The "Free Army" was still there but his home was undamaged. "If all the people went back, I would go back. The 'Free Army' has to leave because they are making a mess in our country. I want to go home."

Well, here we were in the government-controlled part of Aleppo, so he would say that, wouldn't he? Too frightened to give his name, calling insurgents the "Free Army" was as far as he would go in politics. Then a young man approached us, a 32-year-old clothes-maker who said his name was Bakri Toufnakji, his family from Idlib – a safer town than Aleppo, he claimed – but he had a home in the Bab Jnein area of the Old City and was there when the rebels arrived at the start of Ramadan.

"The families were all in the street and I went to speak to the 'Free Army' people," he said. "I said, 'We have families here and women and children and a man with a heart problem'. I said: 'Please go away and take your guns with you'. And the 'Free Army' said they would go. But then the [government] army came and the fighting began."

The helicopter was still firing – how many bullets can it carry on one sortie, I wondered? – but Toufnakji's memories were more powerful than the sound of the guns in the air above us. "The next morning, after they finished fighting, I saw a van in the street that was on fire. There was an awful sight. The driver was almost non-existent: all that was left of him was his head and his backbone. This was a week ago. He was an innocent man. His body was left in the van. I ran away after the 'Free Army' burnt the police station…"

And here Toufnakji's recollections began to break up. There had been a woman in his shop who had given birth by Caesarian surgery, he said, another pregnant woman who could not be taken to hospital, women screaming in a mosque…

On the street corners in this part of Aleppo, there are melons and boxes of grapes for sale – no one starves here, on the "other side" of the war – and there are a couple of garden cafes in Al-Ayoubi street where elderly, once-wealthy Christians drop by for tea in the evening, sitting beside a splattering fountain where a white duck observes them with disdain.

In a nearby lane, heaped with garbage, there's a chicken stall whose owner is a half-Russian Syrian who sells sandwiches at two dollars a shot. But walking down towards the old Baron Hotel – yes, Lawrence of Arabia stayed there and Theodore Roosevelt and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Charles Lindbergh – I hear another sniper firing from a roof top. Men run into the shadows. We skulk back to our hotel where they are pulling down the iron shutters. And a Syrian-Kurdish family, be sure, still sits beneath its scrawny tree in the French park.

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