New Year’s in Hell:
Inside Aleppo after the recapture

Aleppo was called the city that never sleeps. Now its inhabitants are kept awake by the bombs that no longer fall.

They are standing in the doorway: two young boys with dirty faces and gazes that attest to how their surroundings can only with difficulty surprise them. The boys do not appear to care particularly about who might come and go in the narrow hallway. Inside, their mother Wahiba is seated on a cold cement floor in semi-darkness, clinging to a dirty blanket. She has five children in all, she explains guardedly, the first four with a man who is dead, the fifth with a second man who has disappeared. The world they grew up in has also vanished. When the forces loyal to the regime advanced through East Aleppo, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, they were loaded on board a bus and placed in this barren cell in a reconstructed factory building east of the city. Now the oldest son doesn’t dare to step out the door, in the fear of someone taking their room. It is the last day of 2016. A fragile cease fire has just been established in Syria.

Aleppo crisis

“This mosque was 1000 years old.”

Abdoul Masih Khalil points at a number of torn building walls looming out of a pile of rubble on Tilal Street. Then he walks on with angry determination. As the stoop-shouldered optician leads the way into his old neighbourhood in Aleppo, it’s as if he is constantly seeing another city with his inner eye. This was formerly one of the city’s more fashionable neighbourhoods, full of luxury restaurants and boutique hotels. The road is slick with mud; at one point he must step all the way out onto the shoulder to avoid a puddle.

“There was a church here.”

He stops for a moment and makes a hand gesture to illustrate his heart being torn apart. Then he starts to weep. Three seemingly drunk soldiers with Kalashnikovs slung carelessly over their shoulders stand guard down the street. Khalil hurries on, points out an abandoned cannon, curses loudly a few times and comes to a halt outside a door. He lifts away some stones, and starts tugging an overturned, wrought iron gate to one side.

“This was my shop,” he says.

The 67-year old Assyrian earned his living making eyeglasses, but his true passion was literature. In his home behind the shop he had 4000 books, a valuable collection of rare first editions, encyclopaedias, poetry books and dictionaries. When Aleppo was divided in the summer of 2012, the area fell into the hands of the armed opposition. At first, Khalil was allowed to continue working in peace, but after having given an interview for an Arabic television channel, he was taken prisoner. He shows us how his hands were tied behind his back and tells us that an Islamist group was about to execute him when one of his former employees from the shop vouched for him and gave him the chance to escape. He went to West Aleppo, which was controlled by the government, sent his daughters to Qatar and Oman, and when his wife also decided to leave the country, he chose to stay; he preferred to die rather than abandon Syria. After the government armed forces regained control of East Aleppo in the course of a few dramatic days in December, he was able to return to what had once been his home for the first time in four years. The shop was burned down, the books are gone, and the guest rooms look like prison cells. A shrivelled lemon carcass still hangs from a scrawny tree in the back garden. As he stomps through the house, it’s as if the old optician feels that we don’t really believe him, that he is unable to make us see the past as clearly as he does. He points at a table.

“We used to drink at this table. Beer! Whisky!”

The faces of war. Wahiba has psychological problems and five children, four with her first husband, who is dead and one with another man who has disappeared. They are sitting in a room in the Jibrin refugee camp without any possessions or future prospects.

The lost city

The city that never sleeps was what the Syrians used to call Aleppo. Damascus is the political high seat, but Aleppo was the capital of trade. The motorway that connected the two cities, that are in competition for the title of the oldest continually-inhabited place on earth, was the main artery of Syrian society. Today it passes through areas controlled by hostile rebel groups, and to reach Aleppo, one must make a long detour to the east. On the narrowest stretches, the regime controls only a constricted corridor: the barren wasteland to the left is under the control of the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, while the desert expanding into the east is in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The road signs count down the kilometres to the ISIS capital Raqqa, before one can finally head west once more. A few kilometres later, one passes a demolished village where the Jihadist soldiers attacked the motorway in the spring of last year and for more than two weeks kept Aleppo completely cut off from the world. The motorway twists through back roads and centuries, passes burned out busses, contorted lorry wrecks, ever hitchhiking soldiers. It is the fourth day of Christmas and dark clouds hang above the place which the UN’s departing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just 12 days before described as “synonymous with hell”. The war has made not only the buildings but also the language uninhabitable. The city has been compared to Dresden, Hiroshima and Stalingrad, but Aleppo has long since become a concept in its own right, infused by different people with completely different meanings. “Don’t forget Aleppo!” was the cry of the Turkish policeman who shot the Russian ambassador in Istanbul a week before. Outside the famous Citadel on a summit in the middle of the city, which after many decades as a popular tourist destination again came to serve the precise function it was built to perform several thousand years ago, young men and women are standing around taking selfies, while the children sing songs in honour of President Bashar al-Assad. The other version of the story lies in the surrounding ruins. This Christmas many people in the city are saying that they are unable to sleep because the bombs are no longer falling all night long.

The past

During the long years when the city was divided in two, Nabil Samarji made the perilous crossing from east to west many times.

“I can describe it for you, but then I might just lose my mind,” the bearded psychiatrist says when we meet for the first time at the office of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Aleppo, where he works.

Nabil Samarji, psychiatrist
I can describe it for you, but then I might just lose my mind. Nabil Samarji, psychiatrist

Then he starts telling us anyway. Over the course of the following days, he tells both his own story and the stories of others, constantly losing his way in digressions and interrupting himself with statements such as “just a story I remembered” or “that is a completely different story”.

“I have absorbed all the stories. You can’t see it on my face, but it’s inside of me. All the destruction, all the pain and all the laughter. But it’s mostly pain,” he says.

Long before the war, he spent one year in prison. He never tells us why, just that after he had been acquitted of all the charges, he suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress. That was what led him to decide to start studying psychiatry at the University of Aleppo.

“I went through shit. At the time it was hell, but today I view it as a resource. It opened my eyes to human suffering. When I am sitting with somebody who has suffered great hardship, it’s as if I can feel it. I don’t need to talk with them to understand,” he says.

Aleppo was the last big city to be afflicted by the war in Syria. For a long time the ancient juncture on the Silk Route was spared from the fighting, while the uprisings elsewhere in the country became increasingly bloody, the fronts more uncompromising, the weapons larger. Towards the end of July 2012, everything descended upon Aleppo at the same time. The city was quickly divided between government forces and a number of armed opposition groups. By the time he had completed his education, Samarij was the last psychiatrist left in Aleppo, he tells us.

“All my friends left the country and they kept telling me that I should also leave, but I needed to be here. I knew how it was to be left behind, which is why I had this question: What will happen if everyone just leaves?”

The institution

The next day we go to the mental hospital Ibn Khaldoun, where Samarij was working when the war began. On the drive out of town, the scope of the destruction becomes clearer. It’s as if entire neighbourhoods have been sought gnawed loose from the earth, the ruins continue for kilometre after kilometre until we park in an uninviting industrial district northeast of the city. We walk into what resembles an old-fashioned insane asylum, through large, desolate rooms where people are lying in bed in the middle of the day. Many were evacuated here during the gruelling last battles over East Aleppo. Some appear to be seriously ill, others are said to be traumatised. Some look as if they have simply given up.

“I don’t want to get well, because then I’ll have to leave. It’s safe here,” says Amira, a young women hooked up to an oxygen tank in a corner.

Two of the buildings just outside have been blown up by car bombs. When the war first broke out in 2012, the area was overrun by Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel islamist group who occupied some of the buildings from which they could shoot towards the airport. The front line passed right through the hospital area. For six months Nabil Samarji stayed here with the 400 patients and other staff with families. It was not possible to leave. In December 2012, the fighting invaded the hospital itself. The staff gathered the male patients in a small room and the female patients in the cellar and for ten days they sat packed in there together and listened to the shooting outside. After a few days Samarji went out to try and find someone who would listen to reason.

“Patients died every day and nobody cared. That’s how strong the stigma about these people is. They weren’t attributed any worth, in neither life nor death. I asked if they wanted this to continue,” he says.

Patients died every day and nobody cared. They weren’t attributed any worth, in neither life nor death. Nabil Samarji, psychiatrist

Finally they managed to negotiate an agreement for the evacuation of 250 people to another location, in East Aleppo, and Samarij began crossing the front line between west and east to see his patients. On the way he had to pass through the “corridor of death”, an 800-meter long passage full of snipers.

“You just look straight ahead and keep going. Every movement and every look can be fatal. It can come from any of them and all of them will say that it wasn’t their fault. You can die at any time,” he says.

At one point he started taping conversations he had with his patients, with their consent. He made hundreds of hours of recordings of the most harrowing stories. One story is about a man with a well-known psychological disorder that caused him to believe the television was speaking to him and that he could talk back to it. Then he was killed because somebody misunderstood and thought he was an informer for a television station.

“All he needed was a paper stating that he was mentally ill, then his life would have been spared. I felt guilt,” he says.

Another story is about a young woman who had a lover on either side of the front line, one was a government soldier, the other an Islamic rebel, she had sex with both of them and received money which she gave to her family and crossed back and forth between them in one of the most dangerous areas. The woman told Samarij that she wanted to die.

“Finally she disappeared. That is something we have grown accustomed to. People just disappear. It’s like watching a film that always stops in the middle, you never find out how it ends.”

That is something we have grown accustomed to. People just disappear. It’s like watching a film that always stops in the middle. Nabil Samarji, psychiatrist

After he started working for WHO, he continued to make the crossing from west to east to take care of the mentally ill. He developed a routine, a song he had to listen to. Before the war he had played in a post-rock band. During the long years of war he was unable to listen to music any longer, because “it takes you somewhere else and how can you be somewhere else when you’re here?” The only song he managed to listen to was “Mariam” from the soundtrack of the Iranian film Bab'Aziz. He put on the song every time he was going to make the crossing.

“It was like a spell. I listened to it and then I was ready to go. It was a strange feeling, being in the present moment and then just letting go.”

The last time he made the crossing was on New Year’s Eve 2015. In December 2016 he was with WHO’s team as an observer during the evacuation of East Aleppo. He says he wondered how it all could be carried out without any bloodshed.

“All this violence, and then it went so smoothly? We were used to the bombs falling from eight in the evening until eight in the morning. You woke up and expected the entire city to have been destroyed. It was as if everyone had two jobs. Night and day. And after all that – wow! We reached an agreement? Why couldn’t we have done so at the very beginning?”

Ruins. On New Year’s Day a woman dressed in black hobbles down a street on the outskirts of Aleppo’s old city and sees how four years of bombing, military siege and gunfire have completely levelled the neighbourhood that once upon a time was known for its many churches, mosques and restaurants.

The Evacuation

“The writing was on the wall for the fall of Aleppo but still I was surprised that it happened so quickly,” says Georges Comninos, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Aleppo.

He is described as one of the veterans of the organisation and took over the position one month ago, just in time for what the French UN ambassador called “the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century”.

“I wasn’t that surprised, to be honest. I began working with this already back in September,” says Elizabeth Hoff, the Norwegian who is the WHO Representative in Syria.

They are sitting in the ICRC premises in an old villa in the city centre, together with Martin Yttervik, Norway’s chargé d'affaires for Syria. He has travelled up to Aleppo to spend the New Year’s week-end there. On the walls hang large maps of the city where Hoff has been living for long periods of the autumn to prepare a possible evacuation of the ill and wounded from East Aleppo. She saw the need already in July, when the area fell under siege. Over the course of the autumn the situation became more and more critical, the hospital was bombed, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistrua said in early October that “Eastern Aleppo could be destroyed by Christmas” and warned of a “new Rwanda”, but none of the negotiations produced results. Hoff’s impression was that the final decisive turning point was the election of Donald Trump, who had said in the second presidential debate that “Aleppo has basically fallen.”

“After that it was it was no holds barred for the Syrian government’s armed forces and Russia in terms of doing what they needed to do. And then I understood that we had to focus on saving as many people as we could,” says Hoff.

The final offensive started in late November. One neighbourhood after the next fell to the government forces and the civilians who stayed suddenly found themselves on the other side. Thousands of refugees were transported to camps outside the city, but those who didn’t dare or wanted to surrender, were finally herded into a 2.8-square kilometre corner, where they lived under what many describe as the most intensive bombing Aleppo has been subjected to yet. On December 12, messages began streaming onto social media about the world being faced with a potential massacre. Several sources reported that 82 civilians were executed in their homes by forces loyal to the regime. The next day Turkey and Russia finally managed to reach a cease fire agreement. When the evacuation began on 15 December, it was along the routes that WHO had already prepared for the ill and wounded who needed protection from the authorities, over to other rebel-controlled areas. Georges Comninos from ICRC spent a night as an observer in the location where the green busses were supposed to pick them up inside East Aleppo.

“People were desperate, it was cold, they built bonfires and burned all kinds of materials. But since the condition for the evacuation was a cease fire, it was the first time they could spend a few days not being bombed, so there was some relief also. Combined with a lot of anxiety,” Comninos says.

Thousands of people were stranded under these conditions for days while the emergency evacuation was halted due to political haggling, but on December 22 the last busses left East Aleppo, drove through the five-kilometre long corridor and transported the passengers into another rebel-controlled area west of the city. Now people are waiting eagerly for a more comprehensive cease fire agreement negotiated between Vladimir Putin's Russia and Turkey, scheduled to go into effect throughout the entire country at midnight.

“It remains to be seen if it will last, because you know how it is with Syria and cease fires. There have been many of them,” Georges Comninos says.

“If one were to dare to be a bit optimistic, which is inadvisable in the Middle East, one could see this as the beginning of a breakthrough,” Martin Yttervik says.

If one were to dare to be a bit optimistic, which is inadvisable in the Middle East, one could see this as the beginning of a breakthrough. Martin Yttervik, Norway’s chargé d'affaires for Syria

Late the same evening, a missile is fired from the west that hits just a few hundred meters from the hotel where the entire UN staff and the diplomats are convened. Five minutes later the agreement goes into force.

Living ruins

An aerial photograph of the city hangs in the office of the governor of Aleppo. The picture almost completely covers one wall of the gigantic room, and the black felt pen lines and shadings tell their own story of the regime’s rapid conquest of the city. Hussein Deiab is the man who have had these ruins delivered into his lap. He sits behind his desk and smokes a cigarette.

“We are interested in restoring as much as possible and are encouraging people to return to the areas,” Deiab says.

Several thousand have already moved back home, but the city they return to is no longer the same city depicted on the map. The UN had said that 250,000 people lived in East Aleppo, but the number we receive from the authorities here is 135,000. Few of them dare speak freely about what they have experienced, out of a fear of reprisals, but the buildings can sometimes tell us things human beings dare not say. Aleppo is a city of versions. Ziad Al-Haj Taha, a dentist’s son wearing a black leather jacket who is Aleppo’s director of public health takes us along to show us a warehouse containing hundreds of vials of unused dialysis medicine. He says it is but a fraction of the surplus found from the rebels, but nobody can explain exactly what it means. It’s as if everyone is trying to show you something other than what you can see. One man points at the entrance of the world-famous Umayyad mosque, which is bombed out in the old city, says “that is no mosque” and another looks out across an area nearby what was the city’s large hospital and says:

“This is not Aleppo.”

On a street in the Aghior neighbourhood we meet Abd al-Fatah, who has attempted to return to his former home.

“We were happy to come back but when we entered the flat, we became more and more sad. Everything had been stolen. The television, the refrigerator. Just the bed and one chest of drawers remained,” he says.

We were happy to come back but when we entered the flat, we became more and more sad. Everything had been stolen. Abd al-Fatah, resident of Aleppo

He ran a vegetable shop on the same street. In September 2012 the family left for West Aleppo. 20 days ago they were allowed to come back and found the house in this condition. Now he is dependent upon charity.

“We tried to sleep with seven carpets on top of us, but still had to get up and go down to the street and light a fire in the middle of the night. I am looking forward to the summer,” he says.

He leads us up to the roof, where the view is better or, one could say, worse. The damage is spread out before him. You can look straight down into abandoned houses, see the stairways people used between floors that no longer exist. His son Mohamed stands beside him, holding a set of keys in his hand. It seems so strange, considering the surroundings, that there are still keys in the world. All the keys that no longer have a door.

The hotel of the past

“It’s a ghost house now.”

Rubina Tadjinjian leads the way into the venerable Baron Hotel, invites us to sit down in a dimly lit room where five people are crowded together around the wood stove. The windows have been replaced by plastic; there is a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label with a little wine in it on a cupboard shelf in the corner.

“Does anyone want some lentil soup? Can we offer you a cup of coffee? We just made it.”

The large, darkened building was an institution, one of Aleppo’s landmarks and tourist attractions, built in 1911 as the city’s first hotel. It was given its current name after King Faisal I declared Syria’s independence from the terrace. Among the most renowned guests were T.E. Lawrence, who led the Arab resistance against the Ottoman Empire; his female counterpart, Gertrude Bell; the queen of crime fiction Agatha Christie, who wrote Murder on the Orient Express in room 203, and Syria’s long-ruling strongman Hafez al-Assad.

“In 2011 we had our 100-year anniversary and after that nobody has showed up,” Tadjinjian says.

She ran the hotel with her husband, who was born here and took over operations in the 1970s. After the tourists stopped coming, they were reluctant to receive guests since nobody was to be trusted any longer. Through close acquaintances she has nonetheless taken in three families of refugees, predominantly Armenians like herself, who live in some of the empty rooms. One of the involuntary hotel guests is Abdul-Wadoud Al-Saleem, a 47-year old man who after his son was called up by the army, fled East Aleppo in the fear of being punished by the rebels.

“It’s a tragedy. Thanks to certain countries and certain people,” Tadjinjian says.

My husband always said that as long as Syria is alive, the door is to stay open. Rubina Tadjinjian, Baron Hotel owner.

Nobody appears to respect the no-smoking signs on the walls any longer. She leads the way into the bar, widely known for its gin and tonics, where the furniture is covered by dusty white sheets. On the first floor she shows the way through the rooms that have accommodated the hotel’s many famous guests.

“This was Hafez Assad’s room. It’s where I live now,” she says.

On the night table there is a photo of her husband, who died just under a year ago. She is still in mourning, and will not let herself be photographed because she is not wearing black.

“My husband always said that as long as Syria is alive, the door is to stay open, and as long as the door is open, Syria is still alive,” she says.

“So we have kept it open. He passed away but we’ve kept the door open.”

The city of death. For a number of years Aleppo has been known as the most dangerous city in the world, a place where death occurs in ever new and more brutal forms. “Snipers, bombs, grenades... It’s like a Hollywood movie, except that it’s real,” says a local business school student.

Life in the aftermath

The roads between the houses are strewn with trampled oranges. Some children are busy playing a disorderly football match out on the gravel in the Jibrin refugee camp located in a barren industrial area east of Aleppo. These are the civilians who escaped from East Aleppo as neighbourhood after neighbourhood fell into the hands of the regime. Now they are packed into small, cell-like dwellings in some old factory buildings. One of the many who were shipped out was Bakri, a 17-year old boy with a congenital disability due to which he cannot walk, but he has learned to ride a small, child’s bicycle. He lived in East Aleppo with his mother. His father and two of his brothers have disappeared.

“They went out to find food and never came back,” the mother says.

That was three months ago, during the siege. It sometimes seems as if everything that has happened, regardless of whom one asks, occurred three months ago. It is repeated so often that one catches oneself wondering whether it was then that the fighting was at its worst, or whether their unreal existence has stunned the perspective of time. Perhaps three months is the limit for the amount of suffering one can manage to remember at one time. When the evacuation began, she says that they spent ten hours getting to the location where the busses were supposed to pick them up. They sat freezing in the cold from eight in the morning until seven in the evening, and had to spend a long time convincing the Russian soldiers to give them permission to bring the bicycle on board, until they were finally transported here and assigned a room. The dirty, Oriental rug covering the cold concrete floor is more than most of the neighbours have.

“We were trapped under siege there. It’s bad there and it’s bad here,” Fatima says. She is another young mother who is alone with four children and pregnant with the fifth.

Her husband died, also three months ago. They are sitting on a stone floor and freezing, and the neighboor from whom they have borrowed a few blankets asks to have them back every day, she says. WHO has learned of two children who have frozen to death in the camp.

“My main role is to get the world community to understand that it is now the work begins. Now we must join forces and put politics aside and set up a Marshall plan for how these people are going to survive in these areas. If we don’t want to see the same wave of emigration once again,” Elizabeth Hoff says.

All of Aleppo has been without water and electricity for months. At stations for the distribution of food, blankets and medicine in the narrow streets of the old city, nijab-clad women stand in queues and seem almost desperate to express how many children they have and their prayer for “water, electricity and a reunited Syria.” Some young boys tell us how they have survived by eating rice with insects during the siege. Having stayed in Syria during the entire period of the four year-long battle for Aleppo, it is Elizabeth Hoff’s belief that the events of recent weeks will be remembered as one of the critical turning points in this gory war.

“This is the end of the first phase. I believe there will be guerrilla warfare now. But if we don’t do anything for these people who have lived under the rule of extremist groups, it will have an incredible knock-on effect in Europe in the form of explosions. The most important thing in the phase that is beginning now is to break through and offer people assistance. We can’t have these young people running around and hatching plans,” she says.

 Elizabeth Hoff, WHO Representative in Syria
This is the end of the first phase. I believe there will be guerrilla warfare now. Elizabeth Hoff, WHO Representative in Syria

Good friends

“My father spoke nine languages”, Abdoul Masih Khalil says.

The old optician has put the stones back into place outside the door of the house where he no longer has any books, and walks back through the muddy streets past looted churches and toppled minarets. It is January 1, 2017. He crosses the former front line, rounds a corner and suddenly finds himself in a lively shopping street, where the mannequins in the lingerie shops are dressed in suggestive Christmas costumes and the lights in the jewellers shops are powered by generators. We find seats in a café together with Khalil and his friend Nabil Samarji, the daring psychiatrist from WHO. They became acquainted a couple of years ago through a discussion group which during the years of the war has convened in flats in West Aleppo to discuss religion, spirituality and philosophy and other lofty topics.

“Have you seen the film Fight Club? It’s just like that, but with knowledge instead of violence,” Samarij says.

“In Aleppo, knowledge has always been passed on orally. It’s not found in books, that is how it has survived so many wars,” Samarij says.

The old optician who has lost his 4000 books, is disconsolate. He had made it his life’s project to collect the entire cultural heritage, and as we drink our coffee he rattles off the titles of several of the books he has lost, describes the poetry collections, conjures up an illustration of the scope of the encyclopaedias. Then his voice cracks.

“My books, my books. I was the king of books in Aleppo. I didn’t have very much money, but I had the books.”

Then he starts crying.

“Books are the best friends you can have,” he says after a while.

“It’s as if he has lost 4000 friends,” Samarji adds.

“Did he say so himself?” I ask.

“No, but I know how he feels.”

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Lost treasures. As he walks through his former neighbourhood, the book-loving optician Abdoul Masih’s reactions alternate between condemnation, rage and grief. “The destruction is on the inside, not the outside,” he says.

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