The doctor covers his ears, my hands begin to shake, and we drop toward the floor. Interview interrupted. Shells are falling directly on the town of Khan Assobl, and war roars through the once tidy calm of a rural home.
Khan Assobl is one place among many. A rough-hewn northern Syrian town in a rustic province called Idlib. As Syria moved beyond revolution to stagnated civil war, this old landscape of flinty crests and gnarled trees was put toward new use, excavated by both civilians and rebel soldiers for underground protection from aerial bombardment and shelling from the nearby Syrian Army outposts. If there was a time when war might have passed through Khan Assobl—the territory claimed by one side or another—that is over. Now the war never leaves. Rebels lob artillery into government positions, and the regime strikes at everything it can—mostly civilian areas like Khan Assobl.
Dr. Safah begins to stand; the initial shellshock fades, and duty kicks in. Someone could be hurt out there. Mahmood, the ambulance driver, is already out the door. Steady shellfire goes on as he rushes toward his vehicle, through ashen smoke, blasted earth, and the smell of freshly shattered stone. The engine sputters to a start on shabbily refined petrol. Lights flash, sirens howl, and the sayyarat issaaf—“car of the emergency”—shifts into motion, its rear sliding door still open.
“When we go on a mission, we expect to die,” says Mahmood. “It is a good death. Yes, a good death, because I face death to help people.”
Dr. Safah and I follow Mahmood’s ambulance, driving toward the place where we think the shells have struck. We swerve past potholes on country roads altered by war’s presence. The past is here. Signs point toward the Ebla ruins, the Idleb Hotel, camping sites. They are echoes of a life before the war. The present is here too. Bullet holes fill road signs, their jagged edges rusted with the passing of time. In quieter hours, country boys running errands on horses touch their heads when you pass, and old men herding sheep raise their staffs and greet you with the old Ottoman word “Effendi.”
We reach flat, parched grass on the road’s edge, and I look to Dr. Safah. He is a big, bull-like man, whose broad shoulders, heavy hands, and long Sunni beard are offset by kind eyes that fill with tears each time a child is killed.
A child has been killed. When we reach a Chinese-made pickup truck near where the shells landed, we see him. His name was Hussein Safah. He was 6.
We find Hussein on the back of the pickup, placed by neighbors to take him to the cemetery field. His skull is broken and hollow. His body has been split in half. A knot of men in baseball caps look sullenly on, their hands on their hips, their heads held low. Just minutes earlier, the boy had been playing in his garden nearby. Now there is blood on the wall, a single shoe, and the smell of explosives.
Wrapped in a cheap rug, Hussein is being lowered into one of a dozen open graves that the people of Khan Assobl keep ready for their family, neighbors, and friends. He is buried quickly so that his mother doesn’t have to see him this way. There is another reason there will be no funeral: the regime bombs funerals—they kill more people that way.
Government-ordered indiscriminate shelling. It means that day after day, civilians have become unwitting players in a conflict that was not theirs, victims of a kind of collective punishment by a regime targeting its own citizens. I’ve seen war before, but I don’t understand this strategy. Citadels of government force lie surrounded by valleys of a rebel population, both martial and innocent. Rebels fire crude artillery toward encircled regime military bases. When the regime fires back, it is erratic, aimed at nothing but people, whoever they may be.
Amid talk of chemical weapons, red lines, and jihadists, what is forgotten is that the largest numbers of Syrians being killed are people outside combat, in their gardens, in small towns like this one. We are now in the third year of bloodshed. There have been 93,000 killed, according to the United Nations; as many as 120,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The truth is, we don’t know how many, because there are so many, most of them civilians.
“Syrians have just become numbers,” Dr. Safah says. But the numbers have names. Hussein is one. Killed by a single shell, one of 40, another number, dropped on this rural place one afternoon, a quantity utterly insignificant in the wreckage. How many more numbers will there be? Syrians already know the answer. “Mu muhem,” says Mahmood. It does not matter. “We are alone.”
It was my third trip to Syria since the war began, and it started with a hard crossing. Days earlier, twin car bombs had devastated the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, killing at least 50, blurring the boundaries of Syria’s expanding war, and temporarily shutting down border posts. The only way to enter Syria’s vast northwestern province of Idlib was illegally, through a local smuggler. Abu Abdu was his name, and he grabbed the straps of my heavy bag when the Turkish Jandarma border guard chased us through a muddy field with his rifle drawn. In the forbidden military zone on the Turkish side of the border, we leaped over a mound of earth, our fall broken by swampy water, before we clambered up toward the wire. Barbed knots ripped my jeans and Abu Abdu’s hands as he held apart a hole for us to crawl through.
“Burada tamam abi,” Abu Abdu called to the Turkish border guard, 20 steps away, once we reached the other side. “We’re fine here, brother.” Syria. Your jurisdiction has just ended. The Turk raised his gun and kept us in his sights as we walked away. I hoped that boredom, malice, and the failure of his sweaty run wouldn’t lead him to move his finger.
I meet Mahmood, the ambulance driver, in a breeze-block bungalow. He is 28 years old, with striking green eyes, curly hair, and a handsome face that could be on television. He’s layering the walls with concrete as part of a three-man crew; a radio hangs perpetually by his side, waiting for a call. It is the lifeline between the injured and the local man they depend on, their courier, their neighbor, and their friend. His ambulance, parked yards away, is under the cover of a blue tarpaulin to obscure it from regime aircraft, which deliberately target ambulances, doctors, and hospitals—when they bother to target anything at all. Behind us, the minaret from Khan Assobl’s mosque stands perilously erect, chewed apart by tank fire—a broken monument to a once peaceful place now under siege.
Khan Assobl is known for its quality stone—arsali and abdini—and like most men in town, Mahmood works in construction, his skills more recently employed to dig makeshift shelters and reinforce homes. His duty as the ambulance driver for 10 villages in the area is unpaid, as are the duties of the other volunteers of the medical coordination committee—a physiotherapist, two pharmacists, a nurse, and the local imam, who learned basic medicine during a 23-year prison sentence for antigovernment activities in the Muslim Brotherhood. They are simple men, religious, set apart from their rural neighbors by some education and a belief in the duty to help those around them. When the revolution started, Mahmood joined demonstrations and then the Free Syrian Army, until he found his calling as an ambulance driver. He said there were thousands of fighters but only one driver, and that solitary vocation gave him a sense of purpose.
When the regime fires back, it is erratic, aimed at nothing but people, whoever they may be.
Life here is punctuated by the pounding thuds of falling shells that come without warning. Their timings are irregular, to increase the chances of casualty or death. Your first warning is the first explosion. If you’re lucky, it will have fallen far, giving you plenty of time to find shelter. If you are unlucky, you are killed where you stand. If your condition is too critical to be treated in the crude clinics inside rebel territory, you’re taken to the Turkish border in the back of Mahmood’s ambulance, where indifferent border guards and security parameters may or may not let you through.
“They are pushing people to hate the Free Syrian Army. It is punishment for supporting the revolution,” says Mahmood.
They are failing. People do not hate the war, the revolutionaries, or their Islamist mujahideen allies. They hate the regime. They hate Iran. They hate Hezbollah. They hate the Shia. And they hate America for standing by and allowing this to happen. Innocents who might have been, for want of better terms, moderate have become polarized. And Mahmood sees them daily as he races toward the bombing sites, watching the regime’s brutality hardening face after face.
Mahmood helps, but he is also a symbol to both sides. “The ambulance makes the regime angry—because it shells people to kill them, and the ambulance saves their souls.”
In January Mahmood found himself on the frontline at the rebel-encircled military base of Wadi al-Deif, 15 kilometers from his home. An unconscious Libyan fighter for the Free Syrian Army was in the back of the ambulance, his leg blown off from shelling. After a close call with falling rockets near the front, Mahmood was on his way to the Turkish border crossing when a helicopter gunship began tailing them, unleashing staccato bursts of machinegun fire across rocky hills. Mahmood swerved off the road and into a copse of trees, shielding the ambulance from the helicopter’s vision. For two hours, they waited, while the Libyan bled, before the gunship finally gave up the hunt and Mahmood was able to continue on toward Turkey. His patient survived.
But Mahmood’s benevolence had been damaged. Asked whether he would pick up a wounded regime solider in his ambulance, Mahmood says yes: “Just to let him die.”
The desire to live a normal life is strong in Khan Assobl. Stores are still open, crops are harvested, and the call to prayer continues to bring out the faithful. Still, the fear of death from above does not abate. Planes and helicopters circle above, and the thuds of shells echo across concrete buildings and stone quarries every day. This year, out of the town’s remaining population of about 6,000, nearly 30 have been killed from shelling. Nearby, in the ruined city of Maaret al-Numan, the figures are much higher. Locals say that 10 percent of the town’s population has been killed by artillery bombardment.
“One little shell is still a lot. It can kill a whole family,” says Dr. Safah.
And so the quest for normalcy has driven many here, literally, underground. Mahmood takes me to meet Abu Alaa. Abu Alaa’s neighbors called him crazy when he started digging in his garden 18 months ago. Each day with a hammer and chisel he chipped away at the hard, thick stone in the ground outside his home. First for a few hours a day, then whole days, his strange behavior straining his relationship with his family after he enlisted his 13- and 15-year-old sons to take shifts burrowing deep into the earth. The town was still under the control of the regime Army at the time. Clashes at the Syrian Army checkpoint meters from his house had left him plagued with a dark, dreadful vision of the terror to come.
“I know what the regime is. I expected that they would use everything to kill people,” he says.
When the shelling started last year, it gave meaning to his fears and conviction to his focus. Abu Alaa and his boys began to dig faster. After an entire year of dust, broken rock, and hammering, he had completed his task: a cavernous bomb bunker to protect his family from the horrors he had believed would come.
“They don’t call me crazy anymore; now all the other people are crazy,” he says in a voice that lingers with the grave lilt of the town stoner, an impression amplified by his hand-rolled tobacco, self-whittled cigarette holders, and lateral thinking. A stone staircase leads underground, and Scooby-Doo plays on the television in the subterranean living room. Cushions line the cool floor. There is a mantelpiece for the telephone and a deeper bedroom in the back for when the planes and helicopters circle overhead. Abu Alaa’s family’s life has been transplanted beneath the rock of his one-story concrete home above.
“What is this, the Four Seasons?” says a friend of Mahmood’s as we are led into Abu Alaa’s cave. We sit to drink coffee, roll cigarettes, and admire the work. The pops and thuds of artillery are a strange comfort. They are a reminder of what has been built with this cave: protection. “I have made my sons safe,” Abu Alaa says. “I am very happy.”
People hate the U.S. for standing by and allowing this to happen.
Many others in town have followed Abu Alaa’s example and begun living in freshly dug caves. If they have the time, money, or familial manpower, they can create a space that seems like a home, endowed with electricity, telephones, televisions, and soft bedding. If not, at least they have a place to hide when the shells fall. Across Khan Assobl, a bulldozer can be seen making holes, sculpting stone to provide makeshift shelter. Abu Bilal, a once prosperous man, built his family’s cave after he was unable to continue living in his home. A regime airstrike killed his neighbors, damaged his house, and cost his son his leg. The family now spends most of their time in their shelter below the shell of their former house, a cave masquerading as a home. “Civilized people fly to the moon, and we Syrians go underneath the ground.”
Darkness falls on Khan Assobl. We are in Mahmood’s house for dinner alongside Dr. Safah. Mahmood’s five children scramble over his prone frame, eating cherries after a fine hefty dinner of meze, lamb, and liver kebabs. This war, filthy as it is, has not yet shattered the grace of heartfelt Syrian hospitality. Dr. Safah tells the story of Waji Abdullah over iced coffee that Mahmood learned to make when working as a laborer in Greece. It is one of a thousand similar tales in a place where war stories have become daily dinnertime conversation. Waji, 60, had been visiting the neighboring village when a rebel ambush struck a regime truck carrying a battery of Grad rockets with rocket-propelled grenades. The operation was a success, and the truck ignited, launching stray rockets erratically across the countryside. Waji, who had spent 15 hard years in prison for suspected antigovernment activity under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s father, was petrified. He ran the eight kilometers home as fast as his old legs would carry him. Later that night, he died, apparently from fear and exhaustion.
When the first shell of the night drops, Mahmood’s youngest girl, 2 years old, looks around the room for assurance with two wide eyes, one crimson red from shrapnel damage when a tank round tore through Mahmood’s home last year.
“There is no problem,” says Mahmood. “It’s ours, going to Qarmid,” a Syrian Army base a dozen kilometers from Khan Assobl.
“But they will fire back,” says Dr. Safah.
Dark smoke rises above the Qarmid brick factory, and Mahmood’s radio crackles. “Shtaallit il nar, shtaallit il nar, shtaallit il nar.” They’ve started a fire.
Fire back the regime does. The response is furious, again the relentless collective punishment. Under a mosquito net in the home of Mahmood’s cousin, I lie awake at night, hearing the shells fall closer. The television, showing the pro-revolution Orient channel, flickers images of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s speeches amid a montage of murderous government acts; it is set over the theme of HBO’s Band of Brothers—“How many more times can we condemn them … We are deeply concerned … Such violence is unacceptable”—until the television turns off. I lost count of the shells that night. A friend later tells me he stopped counting at 150.
Morning. Mahmood gets an ordinary call any ambulance driver might get. Yet, it is a call that he was not expecting. A pregnant woman has gone into early labor; the shelling could not have helped. I drive to meet him at a field hospital with the graffiti “Your clean hands and noble hearts produce new life” scrawled on a wall. There’s another doctor here; as we talk, another interview interrupted by shelling. And another little boy, bloodied, to be carried in someone’s arms.
“The shelling is daily and random,” the doctor says, asking that he and the hospital remain nameless, out of fear of targeted regime airstrikes. He takes long heavy drags from the cigarette between his thumb and middle finger. He laughs, “I only smoke after shelling. And before. I smoke 30 a day.”
From our July 5, 2013, issue.