In the corner of Afraa’s living room in Aleppo, her children whisper secrets to the dolls they’ve cut from scrap paper. Each is named after one of their dead friends, but the game brings them back to life. “They talk to them as if they’re alive,” Afraa, 35, said. “They tell them all their memories. It makes me weep.” Outside, the whining of planes and the boom of airstrikes split the air, shaking the house to its foundations. The rebel-held enclave of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, is under siege by forces allied to the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. The rebels are made up of a number of militia groups such as the free Syrian army – who oppose the Assad government – and Islamist factions such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which until recently was known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and is an al-Qaeda affiliate. The civil war in Syria has been ongoing since 2011, after al-Assad attempted to quash an uprising connected to the Arab Spring. 400,000 people are thought to have been killed by the war so far (according to UN estimates in April), with millions more displaced from their homes. Over the last month, more than 350 Aleppo civilians are thought to have died in a new bombing campaign by the Syrian government and their Russian backers – one which has largely targeted residential areas and hospitals. The windows and doors of Afraa's home are broken, glass still shattered across the floors after a bomb strike last month. They were lucky: next door, a whole family was buried under the rubble. As Wissam, Zain and three-year-old Nye play, Afraa’s phone chimes with messages from the Syrian government. They tell her that she’ll be safe if she leaves the besieged district of Aleppo – an apocalyptic ghost town of caved-in buildings – for regime-held areas. That her children will be able to live free from the fear of being crushed by the ruins of their home, or shot by a sniper. She doesn’t believe them.
“Of course they are deceiving us,” she said. “I can’t leave my city. My city is my soul. We don’t trust anything from the government. They take our dignity, humiliate us and torture us because we think freely. Why would I accept conciliation with them after what they’ve done to our homeland and our people?”
My children ask me to hug them. They want it to stop. They are frightened.
Aleppo is a city divided in two. From the window of her home in the east, Afraa can see the lights of government-held west Aleppo. During the rare hours when the electricity is working, her television flickers with images of healthy, well-fed Syrians in regime areas walking through pristine squares, lounging on the beach and dancing in night clubs. One video released last month showed aerial shots of a manicured park and a well-tended mosque, set to the Game of Thrones soundtrack. The images, broadcast by state propaganda channels, mask the difficult reality of life in regime-held Aleppo, where residents tell of food shortages and bombardment by rebel artillery. But their suffering, though considerable, is incomparable to the cataclysmic destruction being wrought on the citizens of east Aleppo. Since a US-Russia brokered ceasefire collapsed almost a month ago, rebel areas have been subjected to a bombardment more fearsome than anything they’ve experienced in the five-year civil war. “The bombing is hysterical,” Afraa said. “When it starts, we run to the corridor together, because it’s safer. My children ask me to hug them. They want it to stop. They are frightened. They can’t sleep from horror. We don’t know if this time it’s our turn to die.”
The family sleeps together in one room so that they will not be separated if there is an air strike at night. Though Afraa is crippled by pain from kidney stones, she refuses to take medication because it makes her drowsy – and she fears she won’t be able to help her children if their house is hit. None of them have studied at a normal school since the war began. Instead Afraa, a teacher, holds lessons in an air raid shelter underneath a neighbour’s house. But for the last three weeks, they’ve been robbed of this safe haven. Since the ceasefire collapsed, the Russians have unleashed a barrage of so-called “bunker buster” bombs over eastern Aleppo. Designed for destroying underground military installations, their blast radiates deep into the earth. “Now the missiles can penetrate the shelters,” she said. “But still, we want to turn the children away from the atmosphere of war. We must let them have a childhood.” Last month, the families in Afraa’s neighbourhood banded together to hold a party in the air raid shelter. For a few hours, the pale, skinny children forgot about their troubles and danced, clapped and drew. But soon reality hit again. The air strikes began and the families settled down to their one meal a day – usually lentil soup. “We aren’t hungry, because we’re used to not thinking about food,” said Afraa. “We haven’t had vegetables for two months. The children miss pizza, apples and bananas.”
They yearn for the friends and relatives who have been taken from them. They still have hope to meet them some day.
The government claims that the rebels, some of whom are extremists considered terrorist groups by the West, are blocking civilians in east Aleppo from fleeing – a claim Afraa and other civilians deny. They say that, should they take up the regime’s offer of safe passage, they would be killed by regime snipers or captured and tortured.“We are staying here through our own free will. No one forces us to stay,” she said. “But the siege is destroying our hopes.” Most evenings, the family sits in the air raid shelter waiting for a strike that will end it all. But within the misery, there are flashes of life before the war. “My children remember their former lives,” Afraa said. “They remember seeing gardens, and visiting the sea. They yearn for the friends and relatives who have been taken from them. They still have hope to meet them some day.” The children draw their dead friends as if they’re superheroes, giving them big muscles and bright red and blue costumes. Others are on board a paper ship that they’ve glued together and drawn on. It’s for their friends who tried to go to Europe, but drowned when their boat sank. “We don’t know when our end will come. We realise we’re just numbers in many countries,” said Afraa. “But history will remember this, and it will not have mercy on those who let us down.”
@louiseelisabet is Turkey Correspondent for The Sunday Times
@louiseelisabet is Turkey Correspondent for The Sunday Times