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Aleppo: Desperation in the darkness

After about 10 days here, the nightly shelling no longer upsets sleep cycles. The humming throbs have a rhythmic precision much like counting sheep.
Syria’s largest city has been reduced to a sprawling battlefield. Quiet neighborhoods where kids once played soccer are now silent front lines no one dares cross. The unfortunate quarters bear the urban scars of this war — heaps of rubble. Fighters rather than bureaucrats are the new power brokers. They bulldoze through the streets, commandeering the supplies they need to fuel a war with no end in sight.
Beyond the constant shelling and strafing lie the real hardships of this war — the shortages of basic goods and the lack of electricity and heat. For more than a month residents have been unable to turn on the lights at night. Instead they sit in darkness that is only disturbed by the flickering of oil lamps. Prices for heating oil have soared, leaving the poor to scrounge for wood to build nightly fires. Disruptions in flour distribution have forced people to stand in line for six hours to buy a bag of bread.
For the foreigner, the situation is only marginally better. Though the cost of bread at corner markets is several times more expensive than the government subsidized rate, the difference is negligible for a Westerner. The price of meat has quadrupled at hole in the wall shwarma stands, but sandwiches are still cheaper than a McDonald’s Big Mac.
Instead it is the Spartan living conditions that take their toll. Journalists live with fighters in warehouses and bunkers. From the cramped living quarters to the uncomfortable nightly accoutrements, the front lines lack the charm of the Four Seasons. Scratchy wool blankets lack the smoothness of American made comforters. With no heat, fighters huddle together for warmth. Their foul body odor accumulated from weeks without showers takes just as long to become accustomed to. The constant shuffling in and out of fighters coming off guard duty leaves little time for uninterrupted sleep.
Few sleep much in Aleppo. From the need to feed dying fires perpetual supplies of wood to having to stand in line at night for bread, there is always something keeping Syrians from making it to their beds. “Mostly I worry,” says Anwar Ibrad. “Where will the next gas canister come from. Will the bread run out,” the 45-year-old carpenter explains. It has been three months since Ibrad last worked. The owners of his woodshop fled to Turkey, shuttering its doors. Since then Ibrad has exhausted his savings, forcing him to borrow from friends to make ends meet.
Ibrad’s story is a common one in Aleppo. With soaring prices and no work, people have depleted the wads of cash they stored in their mattresses. They have sold off their heirlooms. Yet they still find it difficult to marshal a few quarters to buy a tank of gas. “I have not had heating oil for two weeks,” Muhammad Jalo explains. “I just cannot afford to spend the money I need for food on it. We get wood now,” the 53-year-old van driver says.
Contact with the outside world is minimal. The cellular networks rarely function, leaving word of mouth the preferred method of communication. Internet is a dream that only the visiting Westerner can afford to make a reality. Activist networks using cutting edge satellite systems skirt the regime’s blockade. But even access to these networks is a challenge. The generators that power them inevitably break down, disrupting communication for hours.
In Syria nothing is routine, not even a drive in the countryside. Isolated regime bases dot rural areas, transforming a 10-minute journey into a three-hour adventure through back roads and village fields. The constant bouncing and jarring leaves a soreness that only seems to end when the next day’s trip begins. And while some are more comfortable, they are by no means safer. The road into Aleppo passes within distant eyesight of the Minagh Air Base, a regime stronghold surrounded by rebel fortifications. Soldiers there occasionally shell the road simply because they can.
In Syria there is no logic to events and actions. War has destroyed a population that merely wants an end to their nightmare. For unlike the Westerner who can check out any time he likes, Syrians can never leave.