Image courtesy Kyle Huynh

Aleppo: January—February, 2013


An explosion. Followed by another.

Downloading, Nizar says in the dark.

He applies the language of the Internet to the live videogame outside. Incoming fire from the Syrian government he calls downloading. Return fire by the rebels, uploading.

It’s going to shit something, his cousin Radwan says. What do you think, uncle?

He calls me uncle because I am more than thirty years older than him. When we drove into Aleppo five days ago, my shoulders jerked in fright at every burst of gunfire, at every explosion. Now, I’ve stopped reacting unless it stays quiet. Then I feel uneasy.

It sounded close, I say.

They carry pistols, Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, and move openly, almost casually, in the street like pied pipers followed by chanting boys.

We sit on the floor wrapped in blankets, shift closer to a wood-burning stove in the center of the room and the dying embers inside it. Amer and Bassel, friends of Radwan and Nizar, sit beside me. I wear three pairs of long underwear, tops and bottoms, two pairs of socks, jeans, a wool shirt, sweatshirt, coat. No power, no heat in the apartment, in the building, on the block, in all of Aleppo. The brittle January air tastes metallic. Ice films the ceiling. Sometimes we refill the stove with wood, sometimes not. It depends how desperate we feel, how much more cold we can stand. Burning wood warms us but creates another kind of misery.

Much of the wood comes from the debris of buildings shit-kicked from mortar rounds. Busted up doors, chairs, sofas. The glue used to seal joints emits a foul odor when it’s burned. We cough, our heads pound. Better to freeze. Seeing your breath kind of freezing. Too cold to bathe. We douse our funk with the overripe sweetness of perfume snatched from the dressing room of an abandoned apartment. We crept into the apartment, down a hall and through a dining room, as if we didn’t want to disturb the absent family. Bread on the table, a plate of chicken. They were about to eat (lunch, dinner?) but instead fled. In another room, Mickey Mouse sits in an airplane suspended from the ceiling. The plane spins above an empty bed (a boy’s?), the sheets folded back.

Radwan gives in to the cold. He stands, opens a balcony door to retrieve a sack of wood for the stove. Frosty air rushes in. Beyond the balcony, young men, many of them former university students, roam the streets. They belong to their own militias within the loose conglomeration of rebels known as the Free Syrian Army fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. They carry pistols, Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, and move openly, almost casually, in the street like pied pipers followed by chanting boys.

God bless the FSA! God bless the FSA!

The rebels’ passion for the revolution is real. But they have no plan for the future other than the immediate one of ousting Assad. They live day by day with only the authority that comes with carrying a gun as their guide.

The lines separating FSA forces and government troops zigzag between them, splitting neighborhoods into a puzzle of forever shifting, disputed territory. Many streets remain deserted, their apartments and businesses empty, controlled by government snipers.

In the night, if the snipers see no one to shoot, they will kill stray cats and dogs, Radwan says. Even birds.

Every morning we see dead animals.

We avoid open areas. Instead, we move through a maze of houses like interconnected caves. We enter one house, walk over a couch and through a wall blasted open by a rocket-propelled grenade and enter another house. We continue in this way house to house until we reach our destination. One time I got confused and emerged from a house and onto a street covered by a sniper. Radwan yanked me back inside.

You want to die, man? he asked.

Although they are not part of the FSA, Nizar and Radwan carry guns. Nizar owns a Schweizer, a German-made pistol. Radwan carries a Kalashnikov. Nizar makes a big show of clearing the Schweizer’s chamber every morning. He likes shoving the clip in and taking aim at imaginary targets.

Tonight, he points it at me.

I will kill you, Malcolm.

He jokes, I know, but I also know he wants to shoot. To feel the heft of his pistol and the kick it gives when it’s fired.

There are many ways to die in Syria now, Nizar says.

Getting Started

The Syrian uprising was almost two years old when I decided to visit Aleppo. It is the largest Syrian city and considered strategically important. Fighting between the rebels and government forces began there in July 2012 and was dubbed “the mother of all battles.” Rebels quickly seized several neighborhoods, but six months later and about the time I planned my trip, the battle had developed into a bloody stalemate with heavy street fighting that left neighborhoods in ruins and forced thousands to flee.

I had no idea how to enter Syria until a friend introduced me to a Syrian doctor in Utah. She put me in touch with her cousin, a Syrian activist in Turkey. He introduced me to a group of FSA supporters through a Skype chat group. The lead member of the group used the moniker “Aleppo Rad.” He would not reveal his real name because he said it would put his family and friends in Syria at risk. He already had a younger brother in jail and his father had recently fled to Turkey to avoid arrest. Aleppo Rad offered to get me into Aleppo where his family had an apartment. We agreed to meet in Hatay, a Turkish town about an hour’s drive from the Syrian border.

At the border, we stopped at a Turkish police station. An officer copied my passport and thrust a sheet of paper at me. It explained that Syria was in the midst of a civil war. Consequently, the Turkish government bore no responsibility for my welfare. I signed it. He stamped my visa.

Four weeks later, I stood at the entrance gate to Mustafa Kameel University in Hatay. I called a number on my cell phone. A voice on the other end belonging to Aleppo Rad told me to raise my right hand. I did. Looking around, I noticed three men standing by a white van. One of them waved. They had on heavy winter coats and wool caps. One wore glasses and a patchy beard covered his face. I walked toward them. They hurried me into the van. I slid across the back seat. A sticker of a black flag associated with jihadists filled a corner of the windshield.

I glanced back toward the university, the throng of students, the sounds of their voices. Then the bearded man slammed the door shut.

* * *

His name was Nizar, a.k.a. Aleppo Rad. He drove. He was twenty-six and had been an architecture student at the University of Aleppo when the uprising started. He attended his classes and marched in demonstrations. Later, when the FSA entered Aleppo, he threw Molotov cocktails and worked as an FSA medic. Now, he was “in media.” He shoots YouTube videos for the FSA as part of a public relations effort.

Twenty-two–year-old Radwan rode shotgun. He was stocky with a thin beard and nearly shaved head. He had also been an architecture student. He moved to Aleppo after the uprising had spread to his village, Taybet al-Imam just outside of Hama. A 1982 uprising there had been brutally crushed by Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

One day, a friend told Radwan that the Syrian army was coming with tanks to their village. Radwan drove his motorcycle to the main road but saw nothing. Then he heard a tank. A soldier walked behind it. When he saw Radwan, he started shooting. Bullets thudded into the ground behind and around him. Radwan bolted across a field. That was his first encounter with a Syrian soldier. Since then, he has faced hundreds more.

You sure you want to do this? he asked me.

* * *

At the border, we stopped at a Turkish police station. An officer copied my passport and thrust a sheet of paper at me. It explained that Syria was in the midst of a civil war. Consequently, the Turkish government bore no responsibility for my welfare. I signed it. He stamped my visa. I walked outside, passed through two security checkpoints. Nizar and Radwan waited for me on the other side of a gate. I followed a line of people through.

The rebels controlled the border and no Syrian entry authority approached me. Burned tanks listed by the side of the road.

Welcome to Syria, Nizar said.

* * *

We met up with Bassel, another member of Nizar’s media team. Bassel shot video in Idlib, Syria, where his family lived. He was twenty-six, thin, and stoop-shouldered, but he had an easy grin and patted me on the back as if to assure me I would be fine. Last year, he had been detained by the police in Idlib but escaped. He had not seen his family in seven months.

We protested and the regime shot us so we had to use guns to defend ourselves. It’s a revolution. There is an end to everything. Dying is just a habit now.

Show me your balls, man, he said to me and laughed.

Bassel, Nizar explained, spoke little English. However, he loved quoting the lines of bad guys in low-budget American movies.

Show me your tits, bitch, Bassel said.

We drove about a mile and then turned off the road at an FSA aid station. A blue tarp covered sacks of rice for Syrians who had lost their homes in the war. Nizar, Radwan, and Bassel entered a warehouse. They came out moments later with their guns.

For protection, Radwan said to me.

* * *

We drove south passing through small villages congested with street vendors, cars, and mule-drawn carts. But as we continued we saw fewer and fewer people and the air turned noticeably colder. Shuttered shops threw long shadows casting shrouds over those things that signaled the absence of activity: a stray soccer ball, a door open to a ransacked shop, a bucket swaying above a well.

We stopped at the house of Abu Saif, another member of Nizar’s media team. He lives in the Aleppo countryside. He showed us video he had shot of FSA soldiers. In one video, a soldier crept forward across a meadow. Move slowly, a soldier behind him said, or the birds here will reveal our position. In the same video moments later the soldiers raised their guns, then lowered them. Don’t shoot civilians, the first soldier said.

Syrians are fighting against each other, Saif said when the video ended. It upsets me but the truth is we are right. We protested and the regime shot us so we had to use guns to defend ourselves. It’s a revolution. There is an end to everything. Dying is just a habit now.

* * *

An hour later, we entered Aleppo. Shuttered stores stood submerged in darkness, black hulks, bleak outlines against the night, fathomless depths. Flames rose out of trash fires and sparks drifted into the sky. I saw lines of people huddled outside a bakery waiting for bread, a bright light inside glossing the pale brown loaves like oil, and the flames outside rose higher with the wind and the wavering faces of men and women shuddered and danced, their distorted shadows climbing up the sides of the closed shops. Mortar holes yawned open until the wind settled and the night closed over the subdued flames.

An empty freeway arched above an intersection. Beneath it, an FSA checkpoint. Nizar shut off his headlights. A government sniper held a position on the far side of the freeway, he explained. If he saw our lights he might shoot. Yet without our lights we risked marooning the car on the huge chunks of blasted concrete that covered the road. Nizar flashed his lights on and off, swerved around the looming obstacles. A sharp snap of gunfire. I sank low in my seat. An FSA soldier peered inside our car with a flashlight and waved us through.

Nizar stopped at an apartment building a few blocks away. We got out and he opened a metal door and we filed into a dark hall and felt our way up the steps to an apartment on the fourth floor.

Inside, we took off our boots and walked into a large room with two sofas and a wood- burning stove. I met twenty-two–year-old Amer, yet another member of Nazir’s media group. He stays in the apartment when Nazir is away. I sat beside him, blew on my hands.

Where are you from?


Chicago. Al Capone, Amer said. I like how Capone controlled everything.

An explosion. And then another.

There’s no control here, Amer said.

A taxi driver asked him, what is freedom to you? To do what you want without hurting people, Amer said. Do you think we have freedom here? Amer didn’t answer. Why, he wondered, was a taxi driver asking him these questions?

It happened to everybody

Now, days later, I slip out from my sleeping bag, arms squeezed at my sides against the cold, and hurry toward the stove. Radwan and Nazir lie on the couches covered with blankets. Bassel snores on the floor. Socks and underwear hang from hooks above the stove. Ashtrays overflow with crushed cigarette butts. Amer peers at me squinting, his hair matted down with sleep.

We used all the wood last night, he says. This apartment is like fucking Siberia.

He sits up, offers me a cigarette and shakes Nizar.

We need wood, Nizar, he says.

Nizar burrows deeper into his sleeping bag. Amer shrugs.

He and Nizar met at an anti-government demonstration. At first, Amer opposed the uprising. The regime, he thought, could not be challenged. But many more people believed that the regime would fall as Mubarak had in Egypt. However, instead of collapsing, the government ordered its security forces to shoot demonstrators. Amer got involved then. Out of respect for the martyrs. He distributed leaflets denouncing the government. Don’t worry, Syria, the pamphlets read. Freedom, it is coming.

A taxi driver asked him, What is freedom to you? To do what you want without hurting people, Amer said. Do you think we have freedom here? Amer didn’t answer. Why, he wondered, was a taxi driver asking him these questions?

Later that day, he was arrested in an Internet café by six security officers.

See this, one of them said, waving a leaflet the taxi driver had given him. You want freedom?

They dragged Amer outside, hitting him in the back with batons. He was shoved into a van and taken to a police station. The beatings continued. Say goodbye to your mother, you will never see her again, they told him. They tied his wrists and suspended him from the ceiling. Only the tips of his toes touched the floor. After six days, a friend bribed members of the security forces and Amer was released.

What happened to me was nothing, Amer says. It happened to everybody.

He saw a line of government soldiers reflected in a bedroom mirror he had positioned at an angle on a shattered wall. He fired the first shot.

The Old City

After Nizar and Radwan reluctantly relinquish the warmth of their blankets, we walk to the Old City of Aleppo.

Built in the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the Old City is a city within walls and remains contested territory between the rebels and government forces. Its ancient stones loom above destroyed pickup trucks and ambulances. We hunch over and sprint across a road covered by a government sniper, and enter the Old City through one of its nine entrances.

A hive of cobbled streets and alleys twist below towering stone mansions and smaller apartment buildings with cell-like rooms, all of them abandoned. FSA soldiers mill on street corners. Some sit on sofas hauled out of a vacant home.

One soldier, fifty-year-old Yasser, was in a firefight with the army early that morning. About 3:00 a.m., he heard whispering coming from a government-held position. Get ready, he told his men. Don’t shoot. Let them get closer. He saw a line of government soldiers reflected in a bedroom mirror he had positioned at an angle on a shattered wall. He fired the first shot. A man behind him threw a grenade. Yasser fired into the dust rising from the explosion and kept shooting. Ten government soldiers died in thirty minutes. Yasser allowed the survivors to remove the bodies.

Without Assad, you will have no milk, food, schools, hospitals. Come back to us. Think again or die.

We are fighting for God, he shouted at them.

* * *

Yasser leads us deeper into the Old City. The sun catches the pink bandanna wrapped around his forehead. He follows some FSA soldiers into what had been a hotel. They stop on the second floor, consider the numbers on the guestroom doors. Two, three, four, five. By our feet, Crest toothpaste, a comb, a brush. Deodorant. Dead plants. Bird shit. A teddy bear. Clothes in a closet. Sweaters, dresses. Absent voices:

Three rockets struck three buildings on my block. A large piece of metal tore through the door. I counted one hundred explosions in an hour. Jets came with bombs. Shrapnel struck the building like rain.

A government sniper fires a shot from a white building blocks away. We look through a hole in the cream-colored walls. Near the building, a mosque and brown smudges of smog and a billboard advertising canned beef.

We wander back outside. An FSA soldier squats amid twisted metal and broken stones of a collapsed building. Baskets, shutters, milk crates, cans of tomatoes, a toilet, a chandelier. Cats prowl.

People lay on the pavement bleeding. Some of them called for help but no one stopped. A neighbor lost a son, his only boy. A jet fired, exploding burned cars with burned people inside. The government was sending a message: Without Assad, you will have no milk, food, schools, hospitals. Come back to us. Think again or die.

The soldier plays a trombone pilfered from a music store across from the rubble. Another soldier beats a drum. A third blows on a harmonica. Some soldiers nearby begin dancing to the distorted sounds.

You want to see me shoot somebody? Yasser asks.

At the slightest noise, I remember that night. I see bodies again, hear people screaming.

He jogs to a wall and aims his Kalashnikov at the building used by the government sniper. He squeezes the trigger but the gun jams. He clears the chamber and reloads. Fires. One, two, three, four. Each shot like a slap. He lowers his gun, has no idea if he has killed the sniper. If not today, another time. He saunters back to where the soldiers dance.

I see myself dying, calling out as a jet approaches.

The cheapest thing in Syria, Yasser says, is life.

* * *

FSA soldier Abu al-Majd stands at an intersection not far from where the soldiers dance. He had been in the Syrian army before he defected to the FSA. He saw soldiers kill demonstrators in the countryside of Damascus. People who escaped, escaped. Others died or lost an arm, a leg. Al-Majd would only fire his gun in the air.

He defected and moved to Turkey. When the war came to Aleppo, he joined the FSA there. He was twenty. Because of his military background, he became a sniper. One time he saw a government soldier praying. He wept and put his gun down. He could not shoot a devout Muslim. He cries telling this story. He taps his feet in a puddle splashing water on his white sneakers, and his fingers drum against his knees. Every day he worries he might shoot a friend he served with in the army. He asks God, please don’t let me kill someone I know.

Some days he asks more from God. God, please don’t let me see any government soldiers today, good or bad. I don’t want to shoot anyone today.

When he visits his wife, he tries to forget the war and all the souls of the people he has killed. In his dreams God asks him, why are you killing?

I have to kill, al-Majd says, or I will die. It’s hard. I am sorry.

* * *

From Old City we drive to Saif al-Dawla, a neighborhood in west Aleppo. We race through intersections covered by snipers. Shower curtains and blankets strung across streets provide some cover. Blown balconies hang like broken jaws. Doors list on their hinges. The ripped side of one apartment exposes a kitchen cabinet, a table set with silverware, a bowl-shaped light above it. A clock on a wall frozen at half past two. All of it, somehow undisturbed.

We park by four FSA soldiers. A small stick fire burns at their feet. One of the men, Az-Addin Salem, offers to show us his clinic. We walk behind him through the gate of an apartment building and down a flight of broken steps to a patio. On the wall, a painting of a beach. Palm trees and bright yellow sand. Someone wrote, Allahu Akbar, God is great, beneath it.

Stepping through a blasted wall, we drop down onto a sofa and emerge into a dim living room. A table cluttered with tweezers, forceps, and boxes of cotton stands alongside an entertainment unit: TV, VCR. A box of antibiotics, expiration date 2010.

Salem was an engineer before the revolution. He knew the war would eventually come to Aleppo. He did not want to carry a gun. He looked at himself in a mirror, at his gray hair and gray beard. The lines in his face, his sagging chest. At fifty-eight he knew he was too old to shoot. To prepare for the coming fight, he stopped by a hospital and asked to be taught first aid. He learned how to take blood pressure, how to drain a chest of fluid, how to stitch deep cuts. Then he joined the FSA as a medic.

He sees two or three soldiers a day, often for sniper wounds. He always asks about the people he has cared for but no one seems to know anything about them. Whether they returned to the front or not. When he is alone, he thinks about them.

* * *

Salem introduces us to his commander, Abu Ali. Ali is forty-four, a thin, wiry man in white sweatpants, a yellow hoodie, and sneakers. His graying hair perfectly combed, a line of stubble neatly trimmed.

Come, come. Come, come, he says barely taking the time to shake our hands.

He jogs into an apartment building and through a sacked bedroom. Climbing through a hole in the wall, he emerges into a courtyard. We hurry after him, cross into another apartment building, and make our way down a hall. A faded map of the neighborhood tacked to a wall above a plastic duck rustles from our movement. Ali holds the duck against his cheek and smiles, blinking his eyes like a flirt. Assad has a mistress who calls him Ducky, he says. Then he drops the duck and rushes on.

Please, please, come, come.

We climb a flight of stairs to a bedroom, the walls painted pink with white clouds. An FSA sniper lies on his stomach, peering through the scope of his rifle. He offers the rifle to me. I look through the scope. Across a courtyard, I see two men in green uniforms on the deck of an apartment. The Syrian flag flies above them.

Ali tells the sniper not to shoot. He doesn’t want to give away their position. Not yet.

* * *

We retrace our steps back to where we started. Ali leads us to an expansive stone building with about a dozen rooms. Here he lives with his wife and four children. One room holds a large cache of weapons: seven Kalashnikovs, gas masks, mayonnaise jars filled with TNT, tank bombs, jet bombs, plastic explosives, and a bomb converted from a blown water heater. Molotov cocktails in Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black Label bottles stand on a table.

Ali looks at his watch. 4:00 p.m.

Enough for today, he says.

He shoos us out to spend this time with his family. He devotes at least two hours a day to them. He has a boy and three girls. The girls are Sarah, a Jewish name, Ali points out, Helen, a Christian name, and Farrah, Arabic for happiness. His son is Mohammad, a Muslim name. Ali has no problem with Christians and Jews. Everyone can live together happily as long as they believe in some kind of God.

Yesterday, he borrowed a generator and he watched part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD with his wife and children. After the movie, they listened to gunfire. When the fighting first started, the children would vomit from fear. Now, months later, they play war games during the day. One child pretends to be a Syrian army soldier, the three others FSA. The FSA always wins.

We live together as a family, Ali says. Live together or die together.


We leave Ali and return to Nizar’s apartment. We put wood in the stove and prepare for another night sitting in the dark when the lights snap on. We look at one another, blink in disbelief. My God, we have power! Bassel doesn’t miss a beat. He turns on the TV and flips channels to a Dubai station that shows music videos. Four women dance across the screen singing in Arabic. Their skimpy outfits leave little to the imagination.

Bassel pulls his shirt up, and points to his chest.

What is this in English?

Nipple, I tell him.

Radwan, Nizar and Amer join him in front of the TV, their sexual desires colliding with their fundamentalist beliefs.

Women, Radwan says, violate the Koran if they have sex before marriage, dance, don’t wear head scarves, and expose their bodies.

Amer agrees. He blames Assad for introducing night clubs to Syria. Places where men go to drink alcohol, meet girls, fuck, and get AIDS, he says.

None of them, however, can keep their eyes off the TV.

Radwan, Nizar and Amer join him in front of the TV, their sexual desires colliding with their fundamentalist beliefs… Right now, we are making a mistake, Radwan says. But after we watch this, if we say, God forgive us, we will be forgiven.

That girl in the video shakes her ass like Shakira, Nizar says.

I love Shakira’s ass, man, Radwan tells him.

I love California blondes. I hear they rule the house, Amer says.

You take the house, I’ll take the blonde, Radwan says.

They laugh. Then Radwan turns serious again.

When Assad falls, the new leadership will have to teach people real Islam, he says. Step by step. Islam is very clear. Do this, do that. Women can’t just walk around nude. People can disagree but if they do they must disagree in secret and keep their opinions to themselves.

And this? I ask pointing to the video.

Right now, we are making a mistake, Radwan says. But after we watch this, if we say, God forgive us, we will be forgiven.

* * *

Midnight. We lose power. The TV snaps off. We sit in the dark.

Radwan: The paper, uncle, you signed at the Turkish border said this was a civil war?

Malcolm: Yes.

They like death more than life. They will die to open the door to paradise. They are like the Special Forces. They have no fear. They are our best fighters. They will fight anybody to have their interpretation of Islam in place.

Radwan: That was wrong. This is a revolution. The people against the government. Do you understand?

Malcolm: Yes.

Radwan: There are three levels of people fighting the government. First level: FSA soldiers. They hate Assad. They just want freedom. They shout God is great but they don’t fight for God. They like material things. They steal. They are not always friendly to civilians. Not all but many of them.

OK, the second level: They are good Muslims but they don’t have a strict interpretation of Islam. They don’t think women need to be covered all the time.

The last one, the third level: They are true Muslims, true jihadists. They will do anything for Islam. They like death more than life. They will die to open the door to paradise. They are like the Special Forces. They have no fear. They are our best fighters. They will fight anybody to have their interpretation of Islam in place.

Malcolm: Which one are you?

Radwan : When we have no power, I am third level. When we have power and the TV is on, I’m second level (laughs). But I will be third level when the war is over because the jihadists will kick the FSA’s ass.

Malcolm: So it is a civil war.

Radwan: No, not now. Now it is a revolution.

* * *

Cutting Loose

Mid-morning, next day. We meet with Ali when we hear gunfire erupting near the Old City. Lots of it. Poppoppopoppoppop! Ali shouts at his men and they shout at one another and scream into walkie-talkies, What’s happening? What’s happening? and Ali runs one way and then another, screaming, Get in the van, Get in the van, calling names, Khalid, Nabil, all of you, get in! get in! get in! and Ali jumps into the van behind them, Go! and the van races downhill, beeping, leaping over the debris of toppled buildings, bouncing against the curb as a fighter hangs onto the van’s open door his legs flying out from under him, beepbeepbeepbeep, kids cheering, shouting, Allahu Akbar, Ali screaming, movemovemovemove! and he raises his Kalashnikov fires rounds into the sky, popoppopopop, movemovemovemove! and the van plows through a bazaar, overturning vegetable carts, bicycle riders, Gogogogogo!

Then, just like that, Ali tells the driver to slow down. He listens to a voice on his walkie-talkie. His men watch him.

The shooting has stopped, Ali says. One civilian dead. Another martyr killed by a sniper. Allahu Akbar.

* * *

We follow Ali back to his command and into the ammunition room of his house. He begins filling the rocket made from a water cooler with plastic explosives. The shooting outside the Old City will not go unchallenged. He tightens the cap and wraps it in plastic to keep it dry. A chemical engineer and a car mechanic taught him how to make bombs. He twists a drill bit in the nose of the rocket to trigger the explosion. Satisfied, he wraps a black scarf around his neck, tossing one loose end over his shoulder.

Terroriste, he says.

Carrying the rocket, a copper wire switch, and a plastic pipe, Ali walks outside. We follow after him across a ruined park to a house. We make our way to a kitchen. Outside the kitchen, a deck. On the other side of the deck railing, a step ladder. We hear a government sniper shooting close by.

Ali waves us forward. We clamber over the top of the railing and lower ourselves to the step ladder and jump to the patio wall of another house, letting ourselves down by grasping a tree branch. We jog through this house and run across an alley divided by a laundry line of blankets to yet another house. Up a flight of stairs to the second floor. There. Through a window we see government soldiers in the same building we had watched days earlier when we met Ali’s sniper.

Ali presses a finger to his lips. Sound carries. Shhh. He hums Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, da, da, da, dommmm, and twists a fuse into the end of the rocket. He positions the rocket out the window. He lights the fuse.

Da, da, da, dommmm…

The explosion sends me on my ass. The building across from us lurches like a man punched in the stomach. Smoke and ash rise and it begins to crumble. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Ali’s men shout and then we run back down the hall, outside and across the alley, gunfire and shelling rocketing the house, running, the laundry line of blankets dancing from the explosions, small bursts of dust where bullets strike the pavement, running, the noise of our feet against pavement, the feel of our arms pumping, reaching, lunging up the step ladder, rolling over the railing and dashing into the kitchen, running, gasping, running down a hall and outside, running into Ali’s house.

Ali paces in the hall, breathes deeply, hands on his hips.

Bullets so close to me, he says. I was dancing like a marionette!

Calm down, calm down, his men urge him.

Did you see the entrance to the building? Ali says. There’s no entrance anymore!

Where are you going? a soldier asks him.

Ali stops, listens to gunfire and mortar rounds smashing into the house from which he fired the rocket. He smiles. He walks toward his wife and children at the end of the hall. His gait jaunty. He has no specific plan to follow up the assault.

Possibly tomorrow, he says, when they won’t expect us.

A commander, a prayer, a hope, and a movie

In the evening, the FSA soldier Yasser meets in the Old City with new FSA recruits to discuss two kinds of combat: street fighting and siege. Street fighting moves slowly, building by building, block by block, city by city. Before you take a block, you remove civilians from the area. Then you put a sniper in a good location and deploy cars carrying big machine guns like a 12.7 mm or a 7.62 PKM. Russian-made. The sniper provides cover and you start moving your men in. You have to get close to the Syrian army to have a good shot. You occupy buildings, blow holes in the walls, and shoot at the enemy. You try not to destroy government buildings. They have documents and computers that may bear useful information.

To take Syrian army bases and airports requires a siege. You have to be really careful. The bases have heavy guns, planes, and ammunition. You need lots of FSA fighters. You must organize as efficiently as possible. You surround the base and cut off electricity. You don’t allow anything in, food or water. You do this for at least one month. Then you destroy a wall, storm a few buildings, kill, and take weapons. You move from building to building, forcing the army back. When they retreat to the last building, you shell it and kill them all.

* * *

In the evening, FSA sniper Abu al-Majd rests the tip of his long rifle inside a hole in the wall of an abandoned apartment in the Old City. The location of the hole is very important. The hole needs to overlook a wide area so he can see lots of streets.

Al-Majd sits on a chair with two pillows beneath him. He asks God to spare him shooting someone he knows. He adjusts his aim to accommodate the wind. He will remain at his post for four hours. He won’t eat, piss or shit. Just look through the scope of his rifle, through the hole in the wall. Some days he never fires a shot. Other days, he shoots and men fall and he runs to another room to avoid being shot himself by return fire. He makes a new hole in a different room and takes up his position. He asks God once more to spare him shooting someone he knows.

* * *

In the evening, we hear another explosion. I look at Nizar. Download or upload? He turns to me and shrugs. Radwan crosses his arms and shivers in the cold. Bassel and Amer stare out the window at the shaking night sky. I stuff clothes in my duffle. I return to Turkey in the morning.

Some people have seen their brother die, their sister raped, Amer says turning away from the window. What will they do after the war?

I continue packing. I don’t know how to answer his question. I leave Syria believing this revolution is mostly ad hoc with very real people devoted to it but conflicted about what’s being asked of them, while still others have found their life’s meaning in war. Who would they be without it? Unemployed university students, many of them. The longer the fighting lasts, the longer they have a purpose. What follows should Assad fall is almost beside the point.

When it’s all over, I just hope we can forgive, Amer says. It’s just a hope I have that’s all.

* * *

Ali finishes watching Lord of the Rings with his family.

Editor’s Note:

The names of some individuals in this story have been changed at their request for their protection.

J. Malcolm Garcia is the author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul (2009), and Riding through Katrina with the Red Baron’s Ghost (2012). His articles have been featured in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading. His 2011 article “Smoke Screen” was part of a series that won the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes.

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