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 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2019

Without a Trace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What China Threat?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going to Extremes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Tell Me How This Ends”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What China Threat?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Article
Without a Trace·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Article
Going to Extremes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
Article
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Amount Arizona’s Red Feather Lodge offered to pay to reopen the Grand Canyon during the 2013 government shutdown:

$25,000

In England, a flutist stole 299 rare bird skins from an ornithology museum in order to pay for a new flute.

The 70th governor of Ohio was sworn in on nine Bibles, which were held by his wife.

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

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“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