Devastation in the Salaheddine neighborhood of Aleppo. Photo by James Harkin.
There’s a short stretch of main road on the drive into rebel-held Aleppo, when you pass a prison that’s one of the last holdouts for the Syrian Army in this area, where the cars speed up. “This bit is dangerous. Sometimes the army shoots at us,” barks Abdul Kareem, before jolting the accelerator.
I haven’t seen Abdul Kareem for nearly a year. “I’m sorry for your loss,” is how I greet him. By this I mean his eldest son, Ayham, a 25-year-old battalion commander in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Last July, on the day the rebels launched their assault on the city, Abdul Kareem brought both Ayham and his second-oldest son, Molham, from Zitan, the family’s village where they’d been fighting, for me to interview. Whereas Molham was a pensive, thoughtful type and couldn’t wait to return to his architecture studies at Aleppo University, Ayham was more like his father—driven and brusquely authoritative, impatient to get back to the fray. We kept in touch on Skype, and two weeks later he let me know he’d been stationed in Salaheddine, the first district of central Aleppo breached by the rebels and the site of some of the thickest fighting. A week later, the news came that he’d been killed by sniper fire.
“It’s OK,” replies Abdul Kareem, brushing off my outstretched hand with typical matter-of-factness. “Now I’m worried about the other one.”
The “other one” is the reason for our journey. On a whim earlier that morning, Abdul Kareem had offered to take me from the refugee camp in Turkey where he and the remainder of his family live to see Molham at the front line. The last time I came here, the rebels had just taken Azaz, a historic and strategically important town with twin minarets just five kilometers from the border. As Abdul Kareem walks me around it, however, I see that their prize is now a ghost town. Most of the civilians have fled, and the best buildings have been destroyed, first by airstrikes from the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime and then, a week before I arrive, by a ballistic missile. The hundreds of disparate battalions working under the loose umbrella of the FSA have made some progress here, but only inch by inch, and at incredible cost—and even then only with the help of Islamic fundamentalists like Jabhat al-Nusra, who recently pledged their fealty to Al Qaeda. At many of the checkpoints, rebels from the two different groups are indistinguishable. “Most of these lorries and pickup trucks are Free Army, you know,” says Abdul Kareem as we reach the edge of Aleppo City. “You can tell because they’re all broken down.” Shortly after that, a chunky four-by-four with tinted windows races past us, the black flag favored by Islamists hanging off its back.
In addition to Ayham, seven of Abdul Kareem’s extended family members have been killed. Six were fighting with the FSA; the other was Khalil, a 5-year-old from the family village of Zitan, who disappeared a few months ago. The boy had been missing for a week when they got word from a neighboring village that someone fitting his description had been found in the river. It is impossible to know exactly who killed him, but Abdul Kareem has no doubt it was the work of the shabiha, the paramilitary forces of the regime, whose ruthlessness has made them infamous among the rebels. “They had cut his throat,” says Abdul Kareem. “The doctor said he’d been dead for five days.”