In Aleppo, death comes from above and there's no knowing where it will fall

Toby Muse reports on the horrors caused by the constant shelling he experienced in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

After a two-hour drive, the car came in to Aleppo. Grabbing my bags and getting out of the car, a mortar exploded some two blocks away.

And then another. Every inner voice screamed to get in the car and race back to the safety of the border.

What caused me a moment's terror has been daily life for Aleppo's millions of inhabitants over the last six weeks.

Aleppo can be overwhelming. It's unlike combat I've ever covered before; much of it isn't even combat. Day and night, it's non-stop bombing and shelling of a city of millions by the Syrian government using airplanes, helicopters and heavy artillery. In an instant, death comes from above and there's no telling where it will fall.

Government MiG jet fighters perform elaborate military maneuvers against civilian neighborhoods, diving down to drop bombs across the city.

It's in the emergency wards where one sees the daily mutilation of the city. Heavy shelling rocked the neighborhood around the hospital all afternoon, causing deep rumblings that upend the stomach. Without fail, five minutes after a shelling a car would screech to the hospital's front doors and one or two injured civilians would be carried in.

One man who looked to be about 55 was brought in half unconscious, his head lolling back. The left leg below the knee had been blown off in the shelling.

With the hospital already attending to dozens of other patients, the only space left was on the floor by the door, just feet from the pavement. Doctors in blood stained white coats quickly stubbed out their cigarettes and did what they can.

The doctors applied the tourniquet as a bright red puddle spread out underneath him.

Tens were killed yesterday here in Aleppo and tens more will die today.

When Syrians learn I'm English, they ask why England or America or the world doesn't do anything to stop the maiming, end the killing. But there's also a resignation that the world will not help.

One commander told me: "The world knows what it should do. We are not interested in begging for help."

Daily sights are the bread lines, where dozens queue for the staple that accompanies every meal in Syria. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple cases where heavy artillery has fired on these lines, dismembering women and children.

I've rarely been so self-conscious of the limits of my job trying to describe Aleppo. Obviously, I'm only reporting one half of this story; I can't speak to soldiers fighting those rebels or civilians who support President Assad (journalists working in Aleppo take it for granted that if they're caught by the army they'll be indefinitely detained or killed).

As I prepared to leave Aleppo I was frustrated that I can't convey the sheer scale of what is happening to this city. No report prepared me for what I would see in Aleppo and I know I'm equally incapable of explaining to the outside world.

As I left Aleppo, it wasn't the sight of the dead girl that remained with me, it wasn't the group of Syrian fighters who stood in the middle of a main avenue thrusting their Kalashnikovs in to the air defying the MiG jet screaming overhead. It wasn't the brigade commander sitting in the flickering light focused on the chessboard as heavy artillery landed all around outside his command center.

It was a suitcase. One of my final nights, I slept on the frontline.

All civilians had fled the neighborhood, leaving the rebels and the army to fight over the deserted homes and blasted out buildings.

Even Aleppo's ubiquitous stray cats had fled the government's constant mortar attacks.

Four fighters, two brothers and two cousins, had taken over an apartment. The spacious home had obviously once belonged to a well-off family. In the living room, the fighters would relax at night watching clips from around Syria showing combat with the army or the latest civilian bloodshed on a huge flat screen TV.

With the customary hospitality, they put me in what they said was the safest room, what was once the children's room.

Two small beds lay side by side, each made up with matching sheets showing a smiling sun.

A stuffed elephant sat on the shelves.

On one bed was an open suitcase. It was almost fully packed, with t-shirts and shorts adorned with drawings of animals and Minnie Mouse.

I can see a young girl, maybe ten years old selecting her favourite clothes, neatly folding them in to the suitcase.

I can imagine her and her family frantically fleeing their home as survival becomes countable in seconds. Not even time to grab that bag she had taken her time to thoughtfully pack.

I imagine this girl now with her family, a few more faces among the 200,000 Syrians living in misery in the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan.

Or perhaps she never took that bag because one day, her and family were killed in shelling.

Toby Muse is a journalist and documentary film-maker who has just returned from Aleppo, Syria.

A Syrian girl runs for cover from an air raid in Aleppo. Photograph: Getty Images

Toby Muse is a journalist and documentary film-maker who has just returned from Aleppo, Syria.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue