Syria is a place of wounds. Flesh wounds, mental wounds, wounds of the memory. The scars settle like a tissue over every conversation. Perhaps that’s why the market in western Aleppo is still packed each evening and the road outside the old Baron hotel jammed with traffic – because pretence of normality is the best cure for a front line that runs straight through the brain. Like the man who told me that the war had so framed his daily life – ensuring the washing machine would end its cycle before the scheduled power cuts, listening to the news each hour with the passion of an addict, calling friends after air raids – that his greatest fear was that peace would break out.
Many people feel like this. In Aleppo, some in the government-held west of the city watch the two Syrian opposition TV channels, one broadcasting from Turkey and the other from Dubai, to learn about the barrel bombs and the new “snake” bombs – explosives in tubes, a weapon originally designed to destroy mine-fields in earth revetments – which are dropped by the regime on both rebel and civilian targets in Nusrah or Isis-controlled areas. Perhaps this makes sense of the Nusrah mortars that fall across military and civilian targets in western Aleppo.
There are moments of unexpected, infinite sadness. In a military prison in Damascus, a 34-year old Muslim who wanted to be an Islamist fighter breaks down in tears as he tells us how he lied to his wife, informing her that he was going to Moscow to earn money for their family in Kyrgyzstan. Instead of going to Russia, he headed for Syria to make “jihad” but rather than sending him to the front, Sukrat Baba Jan’s colleagues from Chechnya forced him to be a cook. His was a familiar story, lured on by internet calls for a “holy war” in Syria and a well-organised system of villas for newly arrived “jihadis” already set up on the other side of the Turkish border.
But when Baba Jan called his wife from rebel-held Syria, she begged him for money. When was he coming home from Moscow? Now he is in the hands of the Syrian army and she is still waiting for Baba Jan to send her money from Russia. He has a six-year old child called Abdul-Rahman, he says. I ask his wife’s name.
“Hafiza,” he replies, and breaks down in tears. “I cannot remember her last name.” This cannot be true. He does not want us to contact her. She thinks he is still in Moscow. And he sobs away in misery. A lost soul.
And then there is the young Syrian soldier on the front line north of Aleppo who tells me that his parents are in the besieged Isis-held town of Manbij. Remember Manbij, which the American-supported Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” were just about to capture in May, but which mysteriously remained uncaptured – and thus unreported ever afterwards? It’s Kurdish rather than Syrian, definitely not “democratic” and has no “force” unless US planes bomb its enemies. The Syrian soldier has managed to call his mother and father on the phone just once in three years. He fears that Isis will destroy the town. “We spoke very vaguely, I said I was well and unhurt. I could say no more. They couldn’t say anything either. But they heard my voice. Yes, they know I am a soldier.”
The teenager’s commander, Major Hassan, is not unhurt. He has been wounded four times – first by a bullet in Hama, then by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade in Homs, third by a bullet in Sheikh Sayeed, and then by a mine explosion under his car. He shows me a photograph of his almost severed leg poking from beneath the wreckage – and now he has a prosthetic left leg. But he begged to stay in the army and now he is a Syrian special forces officer liaising with the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranians on the front lines.
He talks of the 300 religious television channels in the Arab world, of which only three are educational, the rest dedicated to “wash the minds” of the young. “These [religious] people use technology for the wrong purpose. The internet and social media serve their purpose. This is sufficient to throw up the suicide bombers.”
Then Major Hassan changes the subject. He talks of his wife’s love, how she nursed him and believed in his future even when he started a course of 42 operations – and even after his brother was shot in the back defending the besieged Koyeress airbase; his brother will never walk again. But Major Hassan drives himself round the front in the ruins of the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City, jumping down from parapets on his peg-leg. “I so love my wife because I got my strength back through her power,” he says.
But the Syrian war provokes far earlier memories. Take the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblat who has always blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s late father Hafez al-Assad for his own father Kamal’s assassination in Lebanon in 1977. Walid Jumblat now constantly demands the overthrow of Bashar, and in a recent speech recalled how he travelled to Damascus less than two months after Kamal’s murder to meet Hafez al-Assad, the man he was convinced ordered his father’s own death.
“Geopolitics dictates unavoidable choices so, after the 40th day [of death, when families again receive condolences], I took the road to Damascus,” Jumblat said. “I climbed the steps of the presidential palace – in those days a modest building below Mount Qassioun – and arrived on the first floor where a door opened onto a sparsely furnished room which contained the descendant of the Old Man of the Mountain – Hafez el-Assad himself. In walking to greet me, he fixed me with his small, intense black eyes in which I thought I could see the shadows of a terrible past. And he exclaimed, with apparent surprise: ‘How you resemble Kamal Jumblat!’”
Thirty nine years after Jumblat’s visit to Damascus, however, the city remains safely in his son’s hands and Bashar al-Assad’s army has not collapsed as the regime’s enemies predicted.
By chance, I met again a few days ago a Syrian general whose soldier son was killed in Homs and who was wounded by shrapnel in the battle with Isis to retake Palmyra this year. He sat under the shade of a wrecked house, close to the spot where almost 2,000 years earlier, another military man, the Emperor Diocletian, had built a camp for the 1st Legion after Palmyra had rebelled against Roman rule.
In present day Palmyra, the general – Fouad is his real name – was already thinking about the future.
“Yes,” he said, “after the war, the rebuilding will start, even political rebuilding, even military reconstruction.” It all sounded a bit Roman. And then, he suddenly admitted after much questioning: “I will write a book!” Essential reading, I imagine.
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