Aleppo, Syria

Don’t Forget Aleppo: The Aftermath of a Burning City

There was a house once, where there are now only broken memories. There was laughter between walls and children playing all day long. There were family visits and grandparents telling stories and Mama’s kenafa and biscuits with tea after dinner. There was life once, here where there is nothing left now except pain and ashes.
Long after the fire has breathed its last and where the embers burn the brightest, the child will be cushioned in blankets, seated in the remains of a crib and reaching out for a mother who can’t reach back.
The man who finds this child will wonder how such a small thing survived the building’s collapse. He will almost walk past, in search of his own children, but her soft cries will soften his heart, and he will have gained a daughter that day.
The boy is nine years old. His name is Mohsin, and he is clutching a limb that is no longer there. He screams for help but there is no one to hear him except for the vultures circling above him. He is nine years old and already he wishes for death — anything is better than this phantom pain. Besides, his father and his brothers are gone. There is nothing left for him here. He wants to give the vultures something to feast on; they have been circling for days.
This is not what he had signed up for, killing women and their babies. What if he killed his own mother? What then? He can see their faces, at night when it is no longer his turn to keep watch and he tries to sleep.

Their tear-stained, blood-soaked, innocent faces wait for him every time he goes to close his eyes. He is not sure if there is betrayal in their expressions or if it is just his imagination. Either way he is…not guilty.

Guilty would mean he still had the ability to feel, but he has long since been hollow inside. He often asks himself if he deserves to live, having taken so many others’ lives. The rifle across his knees provides a heavy weight, a comfort. As long as he has it, he knows the choice is there.
The schoolyard is silent. One would think that in the aftermath of an explosion there would be chaos, but there is stillness and heat. There is one teacher who keeps returning to her classroom. She cleans each desk and wipes the chalkboard, then writes the assignments for the day in bold, swooping letters. She brings a small flashlight with her, because the sun hasn’t risen in weeks.
She sees them still: Sami and Nour and Hadeel and Adam. Sara and Ayman. Laith and Lana—the twins. Omar. Summer. Hana. And little Amani, her favorite. She sees them each at their desks, chatting away and causing mischief when she’d asked them time and again to keep it down. She knows, of course, that they are gone, but she keeps coming back for herself, because at home it is even more silent, and more still.
Somewhere in Aleppo the call for prayer echoes over the remains of a city. It is difficult to tell which prayer, for the sky is always dark. But through the haze of smoke and confusion, there is life still.

There is a promise of rebirth where some are desperate to stifle all signs of hope. Shadows of injured men stumble toward the minaret visible in the distance. Tall, proud, it calls for them to come, to relieve themselves of their burdens and sorrows. It tells them to remain strong, to keep going.

And so they stumble forward, the athaan echoing in their ears even after it has stopped. They go forth to pray, and even as they do, there is a promise of light on the horizon.
Contributed by Nihau Mubarak