Life in Syria: two hours to get things done before the shelling

Since the ceasefire collapsed, opposition districts in Aleppo have suffered a fearsome bombing campaign
Men inspect the damage after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo. Reuters © Reuters

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They sleep when the thuds of air strikes fade and wake when the bombs come crashing down. As soon as they open their eyes, the mad dash for survival in Aleppo, the besieged Syrian city, begins.

“You wake up in the morning, and the first thing you realise is that it means you’re still alive, so you need to start moving,” says Hisham Skaff, a local councillor in rebel-held districts of the city. “If you hear the bombing over on the other side of town, you calculate you have about two hours to move and get things done before the shelling comes.”

Since a US-Russian brokered ceasefire collapsed last week, opposition-controlled districts of Aleppo have suffered the fiercest bombing campaign in Syria yet, as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces try to recapture the city. The regime’s offensive is supported by Russian fighter jets. On Sunday the US accused Moscow of supporting “barbarism” over the bombardment of the city.

Aleppo — seen as the biggest prize of the five-year war — is divided between rebel and regime-held territories. For the 250,000 people living in opposition areas, the nightmare of constant air strikes has been compounded by a siege.

Obtaining the necessities for life — water, food, electricity and medicine — has become part of an endless struggle to survive.

“After the bombings stop, people rush out, some of them running [to get supplies],” says Obeida Baaj, who spoke by telephone. “Bread, whatever you need for the house, whatever you can afford, whatever you can find.”

Mr Baaj, a local journalist, says the past few days have become a routine of horrific bombings and searching for food.

“I woke up to bombings [on Sunday] and the sounds of my wife crying those horrible, terrifying sobs that mean someone has died,” he says.

Hours later, Mr Baaj was attending the funeral of his cousin — a baby boy who suffocated under rubble caused by a bomb known as a “bunker buster”, which brought down an apartment building.

After the funeral, he rushed to a market in a neighbouring district, hoping to find vegetables — there were none — or meat he could afford.

Most people there are living on less than $1 a day, he says, and meat now costs about $30 a kilo.

Before finishing his search for supplies, Mr Baaj heard the sound of blasts and saw smoke rising up from his neighbourhood. He raced through the near-empty streets until he found a shared taxi heading back. Midway there, the driver grew too scared to continue and a fellow passenger had to take the wheel.

Misery has also created a sense of camaraderie.

There are so many explosions that rescue workers cannot keep up and so volunteers come out to help dig neighbours from the rubble, sometimes with their bare hands. Those fortunate enough to afford a few hours of generator power in a city without electricity alert friends and neighbours when they turn it on so everyone can charge their phones.

People dig in the rubble in a search for survivors at a site of an airstrike in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo © Reuters

In Aleppo, having a smartphone and keeping it charged is a critical part of staying alive. Residents constantly trade information about where planes are headed and which areas are being bombed through mobile phone applications like Telegram or WhatsApp.

“The first thing I do when I wake is check all my chat groups,” Mr Skaff says. “Then I start calling family or friends or shouting to my neighbour if someone needs to prepare for a bombing. You don’t ever assume someone knows.”

Sleep comes some time between 4am and 6am, when the bombing subsides. By 10am, air strikes have shaken the city awake once more.

Hozeifa, 25, heads each morning to help provide emergency first aid at a clinic. Petrol and vehicles are so scarce, he says, they can only transport the most urgent cases to hospital. He shared photographs of two neighbours carting a wounded old woman in a wheelbarrow.

The lack of resources also means rescue workers are unable to search for people unless they hear them screaming, meaning many are left buried alive. Hundreds of people were killed over the weekend.

While for many, death comes in the flash of an explosion, others are suffering slowly as their food and medicine dwindles away. Many people say they or their relatives are living on one meal a day or less.

“Last night I was chatting with a friend when suddenly he said, ‘Brother, I’m really ashamed to ask but do you have a few pieces of bread? I haven’t eaten in two days,’” Mr Baaj says. “Can you imagine?”

A day earlier, his aunt walked from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in search of medicine for his grandmother. Every pharmacy was closed or out of stock. Just as she found a working pharmacy, it was struck by a bomb.

Mr Baaj rushed his wounded auntie to hospital and waited for hours as she sat bleeding — the hospital had only three doctors and was overwhelmed.

The next day, he steeled himself as the strikes began again. “Today, I’ll go out,” he says. “We have to find that medicine.”

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