I could hear it prowling in circles above us. You see them during the day, people gathering around, pointing them out, wondering where they'll strike. If you're in a car you pull over and watch until it drops its payload and you can move on. One day, I sat with a farmer and drank fresh cow's milk as a helicopter fired flaring rockets at a target a few miles away. We seemed so removed.
So when we heard the jet circling, I wasn't particularly startled or afraid. Until the sky ripped open with the extended “braaap” of a heavy cannon. Abu Ahmad's family farm is less than three miles from the Aleppo International Airport where rebel forces besiege regime forces. The jet fired several times directly above us. It was the most terrifying sound I've ever heard. And then it was gone, and we went back to our meal of fresh olives, hummus, and maculce. We sat on the back porch enjoying the night air, when the missiles started to fly, piercing the cloudy night sky with long jets of fire. Ahmad told me that the regime forces launch them from an air force base in central Aleppo. I lost count after fifty, arcing soundlessly to the north, toward Azaz, Marea, Minnagh and elsewhere. With a photographer’s eye, I can see the beauty; how the light threads through the clouds as I frame my shot. But then I realize, guiltily, what those missiles are going to do.
You do not even hear the shelling after a while unless it is close enough to affect you. I had dinner at an activist’s house one evening. We gathered around, eating family style and chatting, a football match on satellite TV. A whistle/whoosh sound starts to drill down distinguishing itself from all the other shelling in the background. We all pause, eyes wide, looking at each other, wondering, Is this the one that will hit us? When we hear the explosion a few blocks down we all smile in relief, but, again, I feel guilty, because the explosion may have ended someone else's casual evening.
This contrast between everyday life and instant death and violence is never far from sight. A new clothing store opens in a free neighborhood next to a building destroyed by shelling. A street strewn with rubble holds a squeaky clean, bright white pharmacy with an immaculate green sign and stacks of medications, all too expensive for most people. The pharmacist keeps a good stock, but must risk his life to cross over to government territory to buy more. And even then he cannot get some common medications.
People say to me, Oh my god, it must be crazy there. And it is in some ways. But before I went, a more seasoned conflict photographer had told me you can edge up to the line and keep as much distance as you want (as long as the line does not move), so you can be in relative safety. And that turned out to be true. Most of Aleppo, that I could visit, is rebel-held territory called the Free Areas. Areas still held by the regime are called Occupied Territory. Within the free areas is where I live and move while I am there. And the people of Aleppo live there too. Just like people live in your home town. They shop for food or go to a restaurant. Every day I buy coffee, and my crew buys cigarettes. When the car breaks down we need to get it fixed. Though I try to vary my routine to avoid attracting attention, and I try to stay in different homes each night, I still crave some sort of routine and stability.
This is not the anarchy that I thought it would be. FSA guys direct traffic. Vendors line up along the streets selling vegetables; butcher stores are full of fresh meat. I even see a cotton candy vendor and an ice cream parlor. In the middle of the destroyed Bustan al Pasha area, not 500 meters from the front line, a group of boys play football in the cleared yard of their bombed-out school. Down the street a widow rummages through the rubble of a building that seems to be spilling its guts onto the street to try to find something of value to sell to feed her kids. I walk down the street and start to recognize people. People are very friendly and they want you to have coffee with them, or come back to eat at their restaurant. I realize that this can backfire on me, but there is a sense of community here, and in some way I am part of it despite being a foreigner. At the beginning, I had to seek out people to talk to or to photograph, now I have to plan my time more carefully, or I will be sucked into having coffee twenty times a day. Even with the constant sound of shellfire or jets overhead, you go about your day and hope it is not interrupted with violence.