Monday, 15 February 2016

In Aleppo, one man's story of fear, defiance and survival

The 69-year-old's family fled fighting in Aleppo, but he stayed behind to care for his cars.

 'Karam al Masri is watching his city die. Or more accurately, he is watching the life gradually ebb from it. Masri is a 25-year-old photographer in Aleppo who documents the fatalism, fear and sometimes the defiance of tens of thousands of civilians who remain in rebel-held areas of the city now almost encircled by Syrian government forces and their allies.

 In broken Skype conversations across several days, Masri described how Aleppo's people are trying to continue their lives despite the bombardments. He says they have seen so much horror they are almost oblivious to it. Of course, the airstrikes are bad, he says, but in many ways the intense barrel-bombing of the past three years was worse -- more indiscriminate. As if delivering good news, Masri says only half of the recent airstrikes have killed civilians.
 Stallholders in the markets still offer their produce, though there is less of it and prices for many staples have doubled in a week. Children still go to school, though sometimes in makeshift underground classrooms. And the "White Helmets," the voluntary civil defense workers, race from one jumble of rubble to the next, though often only to retrieve the dead.
 Masri knows what it's like to be the target of the regime and its secret police. Before the uprising began, he was a law student at the University of Aleppo. He was active on Facebook and called for a revolution in Syria like those that had toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. One night in April 2011, there came the dreaded knock at the door. He was detained for a month and says he was beaten and tortured.
 On November 28, 2013, a barrel bomb targeted the Myasar neighborhood. Masri jumped in an ambulance with two friends, but they ran into an unexpected roadblock. Masked ISIS fighters stopped them, tied their hands and blindfolded them. Within hours, Masri and his friends were in a makeshift jail in an industrial area called Sheikh Najjar.
 Masri spent 45 days in an underground cell. His daily ration was half a slice of bread and three olives; some days there was no ration at all. He lost 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) in weight and often felt like he would die from starvation. He was not tortured, he says, but believes that's because his captors intended to kill him. He was, after all, a cameraman; there were few worse sins.
 Masri believes there were some 30 cells in that underground jail, holding men of the Free Syrian Army, activists and other journalists. As ISIS lost ground, the guards took their prisoners from one place to another, but every time they killed a few more of their hostages before herding the remainder onto buses. Masri saw the body of his friend Nour, the ambulance driver he had ridden with on that fateful day in November.
 While he had been in an ISIS dungeon, his family's apartment building had been hit by a barrel bomb. Unknown to Masri, his mother had been killed, along with several others in the building. His father, widowed and with no idea whether his son and only child was still alive, had left Aleppo and gone to Egypt.
 A few months later, Masri was injured in his left leg by a sniper's bullet. He spent three months alone in a small apartment, no mother and no aunt to visit and care for him. The loneliness of that time still haunts him.
 But when he recovered, Karam al Masri went back to roaming through rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, taking his remarkable photographs.
 "I focus on characters who survive the pain and endure and find strength to stay in spite of the horror of war," Masri said.
 "I focus on the suffering of people and children, showing how they deal with this war, how they escape airstrikes and come out of destroyed buildings looking for their relatives."
 "I also like to show stories that demonstrate how beautiful Aleppo is and how it used to be before the war. I dream that one day the war ends and I can take photos of beautiful Aleppo and not only images of destruction and devastation."
 One of the characters he found -- and there is no shortage of them in Aleppo -- is 69-year old Abu Omar, who is a collector of vintage cars. His house was hit by a mortar and his wife and five children left the city. But he chose to stay, wiping the dust of war from his precious collection every day.
 Masri says that today, some people in Aleppo still urge resistance, futile though that might seem. There have even been small demonstrations urging the dozen or so fractious rebel groups to come together and form a "Jaysh Aleppo," or Aleppo Army.
 Masri does not believe the regime and its allies will try to reduce eastern Aleppo to dust in street-to-street fighting. They don't need to; they can just stop food and diesel getting in, he says.
 "There's not enough food stored for more than a month," Masri says. "If they force a siege for one month, people will die."
But he says he can't imagine leaving unless forced to by the Syrian army.
 "I can't leave Aleppo. My family was buried here, I can't go away and leave their graves; it would be a betrayal. My mother could have left and saved herself, but she waited for me. She died waiting for me." '

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