Life and Death in Syria’s ongoing Civil War

Leaving Syria in February

Leaving Syria in February

In 2013 I made two trips into war-torn Northern Syria to photograph the effects of the conflict upon the people and landscape of Aleppo. I have been asked numerous times to talk about what it’s like to work in a conflict environment. I visited Aleppo in February and April of 2013, and was scheduled to return again in August. However, during the summer of 2013 the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), formerly known as Al-Quaeda in Iraq, made a major push into the Aleppo area, displacing other rebel groups and rendering access by foreign journalists all but impossible. My recounting of Aleppo is during the time before ISIS had asserted its dominance, and Aleppo was accessible to photographers such as myself.

This story is my attempt to share my personal experience working and living in a war zone in a way that can convey what it was really like.

"A man rushes into the hospital carrying a bleeding boy in his arms"

My first day working in Aleppo

Standing in front of Dar Al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria I hear the distinct punch of artillery shells fired by Syrian Government forces from the airport a few miles away. Within seconds I cringe at the explosions as the shells impact less than half a mile from where I'm standing. The people on the street around me continue going about their business. They have been through this before. They know what to expect. I do not.

Cars and trucks race up to the front of the hospital. People begin to gather and watch. Armed rebel fighters work to keep the street in front of the hospital clear for the vehicles, but it's hard to keep onlookers and helpers out of the way. A man rushes into the hospital carrying a bleeding boy in his arms. Another man struggles to walk into the hospital, bloody holes pepper his shirt and pants, as others reach over to help him.

Even in the midst of chaos, it is still fairly calm on the street. Bystanders and workers pull a third man out of a white pickup and roll him onto a gurney; his body smeared with blood from half a dozen wounds. My heart races and my instinct kicks in, and while I can't ignore the intrinsic horror of what I'm seeing, I keep my focus and continue to take pictures, that is why I am here. I frame the images and shoot. The exposure settings are second nature, I don't even need to think about them. At the same time, the people at the hospital kick into high gear and bustle people out of vehicles in whatever way they can. I stop trying to count the arrivals and become a part of the press of people coming and going.

I've been looking to a kid for information about what's happening. Mohammed is 16. He works at the hospital because he wants to support the revolution peacefully. He's been working for three days straight, with no more than an hour or two of sleep snatched here and there. This is a constant for him, he says. The gurney comes back out for its next passenger, smeared with the blood of those who've already ridden it inside. Mohammed leaves me to get back to work. Blood pools on the ground and people walk right through it. It's hard to tell who works for the hospital, and who is just trying to help, or watch. 

"Look at what Bashar al-Assad is doing to you!"

The hospital becomes a morgue

In the mounting turmoil a truck pulls up, and Mohammed motions me toward it. A crowd gathers, arguing and jostling. Whatever is in the back of the truck is covered by a tarp. One of the fighters angrily jumps up into the back of the truck. The crowd is yelling, but quiets as the man yanks the tarps aside. I do not speak Arabic, but it is very clear to me what he is yelling, quivering with rage, as he motions down at the pile of meat below him, the torn remains of a man killed by one of those artillery shells, "Look at what Bashar al Assad is doing to you!" The air is electric, the rage palpable, the crowd is wild, and I feel sick seeing the bloodstains on the street as they haul what amounts to a torso into the morgue.

Another man is unloaded with a gaping hole in his face, blood pouring down the front of his body as he dazedly looks around, motioning at the bloody wound as if to say, "Hey, guys, is there something on my face?" They carry him in past a confused, bleeding man rolling around on a gurney. Again I lose count as the crowd thickens and people scramble to help. The bloody yellow gurney is back, whisking away a crying, bleeding woman this time. An AFP photographer is next to me, and we run interference for each other to photograph the woman when we are told to stop.

Again a white truck with tarps pulls up and Mohammed points toward it, the dead are here again. This time there is no shouting, no yelling, only the crying and wailing of women. They carry in five or six wrapped up bodies and place them in the garage next door, which now acts as a makeshift morgue. The crowd presses forward anxious to find out who is there.

Off to the side, Mohammed motions me over, and guides me through a corridor in the hospital, through a side door into the morgue. My interpreter is outside, but I can understand Mohammed clearly; he wants me to go in and photograph the bodies so that people can see what happens here. I do not hesitate, I just follow. We walk in, and there is a stack of bloody blankets. Mohammed pulls some blankets aside to reveal a pile of bodies and body parts, all of young girls. I have never imagined anything so horrifying. But I take the exposure, frame the shots and take the pictures. Headless bodies, limbs literally exploded apart, feet and hands separated from bodies. But it's the eyes that I won't forget. They still look alive. And I can hear their mothers outside crying. A man walks past the door, his young boy bandaged but alive, an X-ray in his hand.

I am spent after that; nothing more in me for the rest of the day. I could not even look at those pictures for weeks afterwards. I take up smoking for the first time in my life for the rest of my time inside Syria.

Life goes on, and people continue about their business

The daily grind in the middle of conflict

I went into Syria with an image of war as something that happens far away in deserts, in jungles, between two opposing military forces. Images of Total War a la Saving Private Ryan ran through my head as I approached the border from Turkey. Would there be just a storm of bullets and bombs? Would I need to run and duck for cover? Would I need the body armor I wore?

Instead of finding a chaotic wasteland, I found that we needed to get gas. We stopped and bought gas from a guy in a garage alongside the road. A cigarette pinched tightly between his lips, he filled us up with gas from dirty two-liter bottles as he joked with my driver. We stopped and changed money; we needed cash to go to the crowded restaurant next door and buy sandwiches and cold cokes for the drive to Aleppo.

My goal in being there was not to be a “combat photographer” by any means. My vision was to make portraits of the people affected by and living with this conflict on a daily basis. It was not hard to find people who could share stories of dead relatives, or to find destroyed environments to shoot in. Every street in Aleppo has walls riddled with bullet holes or at least one bombed-out apartment building. And while the war was never out of sight or mind, I was struck more by how normal everyday life seemed in the midst of the carnage. Among the events that cause this damage, life goes on, and people continue about their business. They can't do anything else.

I spend a night at my interpreter Abu Ahmad's house in the country. His family owns a small farm just outside of town. They grow olives, pistachios and make olive oil. We sat up that night, eating and talking. I met his family. I walked through their pistachio orchards and felt like I was taking a walk in the Pennsylvania countryside. Until the jet came.

the missiles started to fly, piercing the cloudy night sky with long jets of fire.

Finding life with danger all around

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.

I can peek out from the fighting holes and see Government army positions only 50 or 100 meters away.

At the Front Lines

People warn you not to walk down this street or that alley, because SAA snipers can see you there. When you visit areas held by Liwa al Tawheed, their well-oiled PR machine shows you a tour of the old city with food distribution points, street cleaners, and men tasked with guarding and maintaining both mosques and churches. While I realize I am being shown what they want me to see, I am impressed at the level of attention that goes into quickly cleaning up rubble when a building is hit anywhere except directly on the front lines.

When I go to the front lines, I crawl through holes in buildings, running behind buses crashed crazily blocking sniper's views until I can peek out from the fighting holes and see Government army positions only 50 or 100 meters away. And despite the ongoing potshots, the fighters offer you tea, or make you have lunch with them. And as you talk you again realize that you no longer hear the bullets cracking overhead unless they are close enough to affect you, and you look around and people are laughing, joking, eating, watching TV; all the while carrying weapons. A game show blares as the watch switches and a new group of fighters goes out to relieve the guys on the line.

I have recently come from the funeral of an FSA fighter killed not an hour ago in a firefight. His brother had opened the shroud and motioned for me to photograph his dead brother's face. His name was Ahmed Ibrahim. It is the last photo that anyone will ever take of him. The gravediggers finish the tomb, pile the dirt on, and go back to their fire and make a new pot of tea, laughing and joking. The graves are already dug, long rows, one for each neighborhood, they just add new tombs in the line and cover them up. I have had enough of death, and I just want to leave. But we have one more visit to the hospital.

in the midst of this conflict, people are making babies, and people are still taking care of them

Weddings and babies

This time there is no shelling. It is quiet at the hospital, and they invite me upstairs. I see a man who has had a heart attack. This hospital is equipped to deal with cardiac care. I did not even think about this type of care with the more violent happenings outside. A boy lies in bed, his father next to him. I ask what happened to him, the father says his son has a severe ulcer from stress. I get it.

And in another ward, in another building, I find a nursery. Three newborn babies lie peacefully in incubators. The nurses hide their faces, no one wants to be photographed, and I promise not to show pictures that will give away the location of this site. They cannot afford for it to be bombed, because even in the midst of this conflict, people are making babies, and people are still taking care of them.

I meet a man who is preparing his car for his wedding that night. I see people walking with their kids, and when I am invited into people's homes, mothers show me pictures of their grandkids playing, just like anyone might do. But just to remind me, there is always a picture of the son or grandson who they lost. The war is never far from heart or mind.

What I see are the people on the ground doing their best to live their lives like we all do

Life goes on

The greatest contrast right now is the talk of a revolution to gain freedom set against the reality that the Islamists seek to establish a Caliphate. Most Syrians do not want to trade a repressive authoritarian regime for a repressive Islamic state. They just want to live their lives. But they must accept help from whoever is giving it. Haji Marea, the well-respected leader of Liwa al-Tawhid did so, and it can be argued he brought an even worse enemy into the fight.

In the end, these are just people who wanted more freedom; freedom to have political discourse or dissent, and ended up having to fight for it. The war has gotten very complex, very sectarian, and very violent. It may be a proxy war with Syria as a pawn in the middle. But I am no geo-political expert. What I see are the people on the ground doing their best to live their lives like we all do. They may be sandwich makers, mothers, activists, fighters, refugees, shopkeepers, farmers, or imams, but they all have to sleep, eat, feed their kids, go to work--even if that is fighting--and even get married and have babies.

For all the talk about the revolution being hijacked by jihadist or sectarian complexities or al Qaeda involvement, these people all just want to live their lives, and must do so in spite of the horrors happening around them.

I am relieved when it is time for me to go. I breathe much easier when I am back under the shield of the patriot missiles, and see the well-lit streets of Turkey in the distance. But I feel that familiar tug of guilt because I get to leave, and my friends and colleagues stay and try to live their lives amid the death that hovers around them. I smoke my last cigarette with my driver at the border, say goodbye, give him an extra hundred dollars, and walk back to a world where violent death is a fluke, not a daily expectation.

Back to top