Racconto di un assedio

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

Mark is from Aleppo. I met him because he lives in Italy, he is here to study. I found out that he had been in Syria and had always been there, since the first days of 2011, when the protests broke out and there was talk of an Arab spring. We lived together for a few weeks, and I asked him if he would like to tell me his story. He agreed.

Mark is a big Mediterranean guy with a broad smile under his beard. He speaks both Italian and English well, his hearing aid is barely visible. He was and is in favour of President Bashar Al-Assad, this was one of the first things he said to me, and he repeated it the first time we sat down to talk.

He focused a lot on the war. Who was right? Who was wrong? Who was to blame? Whose crimes were the worst? I will not say who did worse. I cannot do that, and Mark’s perspective is not enough to analyze the complex Syrian affair.

A piece of his everyday life between 2013 and 2014 is what I would like to tell. Aleppo was one of the most violent theatres of the war. The western part of the city was surrounded for about a year, all lines of supply cut off. Mark was there.

In the early 2013, those he has always called ‘terrorists’ entered his street for the first time. A few days later, during his graduation exam, a bomb exploded not far from his high school. In those early days, there was a lot of chaos. The families in his neighbourhood were Christian, and Christians were not well-liked by the terrorist-rebel forces. Many then decided to flee to Lebanon, and his family was among them.

Before the war, his father owned a lovely antique furniture shop in the maze that is (was) the city’s souq. The souq of Aleppo was the largest Arab market in the world. Besides the shop, in 2005 Mark’s father with his wife set up a centre for deaf children, where they could be welcomed and taken cared of.

At the last minute, even after their antique shop had burnt down, Mark’s parents decided to remain in Aleppo and not to abandon the deaf children. For an 18-year-old Mark, that choice was hard to accept. He wanted to leave, but the city was locked down.

Thus began the siege. Mark explained that while the government could rely on heavy weapons and aviation, the terrorists could operate mortars and lighter artillery. Outside there was an explosive rain, shattering buildings, poking holes in roads, ending lives. But after days of limbo, life must and does go on.

One of the first needs that drove people out was water. People dug wells, where they went with jugs and tanks, adding a disinfectant to make water drinkable. Then it was the turn of fuel to become scarce. Reserves were limited, and demand increased because gas dtarted to be used also to power generators. The electricity was off, only engines that few people had at home could generate power. In Mark’s building, his family was the only one with a generator. For about two hours a day, the tenants from the other flats would all be in his house. They stayed together, talked, brought food to cook, the children played, and they charged their phones. Two hours of electricity meant two hours of being carefree.

Something similar happened at Diwan. Diwan was a small restaurant, turned into a safe place where young guys from the neighbourhood would meet in the evenings. They would have a simple drink, charge phones and torches, watch television and spend time.

Drama becomes a simple frame of everyone’s life. The restaurant changed its purpose because food was lacking, fruit and vegetables were almost non-existent, meat was no more available. Phones, useless because there was no network coverage, were kept charged, despite the electrical shortage, in the hope for a signal. Torches needed to be charged as well because if there was no moon in the sky, the fire from the bombings was not enough to light the way home. Television, the only mean of information, failed when the BBC or Al Jazeera misreported the events which the locals had witnessed. And then the wasting of time. It struck me when he said this. Lazing around, after a day of studying for the session or distributing bread to those asking for help because the war had destroyed their house. The same house in the rubble of which they helped look for survivors that afternoon. Arriving in the evening and staying in this basement that is (was) the restaurant, wasting time.

I listened to Mark, recorded everything and listened again. The horror of war was eventually bent by a daily routine constantly on the verge of ending. He says it taught him to love life, to understand it a little more, to seize the value of the moment. He says that war is better than the economic crisis that came later, because of the US and European embargo on the regime and the explosion in Beirut. At least a bomb kills you and that’s it. But if the economy goes wrong, you die slowly. I listen to him, record everything and listen again.

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