Postcard — May 5, 2016, 11:37 am

A Sense of War

What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of fear.

There is no end in sight for what seems to be a perpetual civil war in Syria, as the bombing of a maternity hospital in Aleppo this week made pointedly clear. Since the conflict began in 2011, more than 11 million people have been killed or driven from their homes. Though an estimated 13.5 million Syrians still living in the country are in need of humanitarian aide, indifferent world governments have done nothing to alleviate their suffering, merely supplying various factions with deadly weapons. The following is excerpted from The Morning They Came for Us, by Janine di Giovanni, a courageous reporter who has covered the recent conflicts in the Middle East, and before that the war in Bosnia. She wrote this dispatch from Aleppo in December 2012. The book is out from Liverlight, W. W. Norton this week.

War means endless waiting, endless boredom. There is no electricity, so no television. You can’t read. You can’t see friends. You grow depressed but there is no treatment for it and it makes no sense to complain—everyone is as badly off as you. It’s hard to fall in love, or rather, hard to stay in love. If you are a teenager, you seem halted in time.

If you are critically ill—with cancer, for instance—there is no chemotherapy for you. If you can’t leave the country for treatment, you stay and die slowly, and in tremendous pain. Victorian diseases return—polio, typhoid and cholera. You see very sick people around you who seemed in perfectly good health when you last saw them during peacetime. You hear coughing all the time. Everyone hacks—from the dust of destroyed buildings, from disease, from cold.

As for your old world, it disappears, like the smoke from a cigarette you can no longer afford to buy. Where are your closest friends? Some have left, others are dead. The few who remain have nothing new to talk about. You can’t get to their houses, because the road is blocked by checkpoints. Or snipers take a shot when you leave your door, so you scurry back inside, like a crab retreating inside its shell. Or you might go out on the wrong day and a barrel bomb . . . lands near you.

Wartime looks like this.

The steely greyness of the city. The clouds are so low, but not low enough to hide government helicopters carrying barrel bombs, which usually appear at the same time each day, in the mornings and late afternoons, circling for a while at altitudes of 13,000–16,000 feet, little more than tiny dots in the sky, before dropping their payloads.

What does war sound like? The whistling sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impact—enough time to know that you are about to die, but not enough time to flee.

What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of . . . fear. The rubble on the street—the broken glass, the splintered wood that was once somebody’s home. On every corner there is a destroyed building that may or may not have bodies still buried underneath. Your old school is gone; so are the mosque, your grandmother’s house and your office. Your memories are smashed.

Then there are the endless fields of garbage. The rooms that are as cold as tombs—having gone unheated now for five winters—are all you know. There are so many abandoned apartments. Remember that beautiful house, what it looked like when someone lived there? Your beautiful life from before is now dead.

The dirt, filth, fear and nausea. All the things you go without—toothpaste, money, vitamins, birth-control pills, X-rays, chemotherapy, insulin, painkillers. Petrol costs 170 Syrians pounds per litre. Today. Tomorrow it might be different.

Then, suddenly, you might catch the odd sight of a man in a T-shirt despite the frozen air, squeezing oranges into juice for the lucky ones with money. Oranges? You wonder who the people are that still have money, and you have dark thoughts about people you used to trust and know well. But with the constant theme of survival surrounding your whole city, your neighborhood, your life, you don’t really know anybody’s intentions.

War is the corner near the Old City where people are lined up with plastic Pepsi bottles, to buy a small amount of petrol on the black market. War is the wrecked hospital, Dar al-Shifa, bombed on 21 November 2012, which still stinks of carnage in hallways where stretchers once passed, and where doctors in scrubs and rubber gloves once walked. Now it is a twisted pile of cinderblocks and concrete, broken tiles and glass—a shell exposed to the grey sky.

War is empty shell casings on the street, smoke from bombs rising up in mushroom clouds, and learning to determine which thud means what kind of bomb. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.

War is the destruction, the skeleton and the bare bones of someone else’s life.

From The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. Copyright © 2016 by Janine di Giovanni. Printed with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Share
Single Page

More from Janine di Giovanni:

Film December 4, 2018, 12:37 pm

A Private War

Life during wartime is more complicated than easily digestible, Hollywood heroism

From the December 2018 issue

The Vanishing

The plight of Christians in an age of intolerance

From the April 2013 issue

Life During Wartime

Remembering the siege of Sarajevo

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Post
Seeking Asylum·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Post
Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today