Driving through the outer districts of the city, a ghostly wasteland begins. The streets and the half-destroyed residential buildings are empty and the only sounds come from shredded metal signs moving in the wind -- and the occasional thunder of distant artillery.
Eastern Aleppo has been virtually abandoned, as have most residential districts located away from the front. Those left in the city prefer to crowd into housing right up against the battle lines, which have remained virtually static in the last two years. Paradoxically, people feel safest living within range of enemy tank and sniper fire. Such are the rules of Aleppo.
The reasons are pragmatic. For one, the lower floors of the buildings along the front still offer some protection from artillery shells. More important, however, is the fact that no "baramil" fall here, those half-ton barrel bombs dropped from helicopters flying high overhead. The bombs are murderously effective, but they are so imprecise that the Syrian Air Force refrains from using them too close to its own troops.
The rest of eastern Aleppo, though, is fair game. Filled with explosives and shrapnel, the bombs can destroy entire buildings and the Syrian army has tried out various designs in the city. Some even have tanks of gasoline attached so as to start fires when they detonate; others are so heavy that they are rolled out of the helicopters on small gun carriages.
The helicopters appear in the mornings and late afternoons, usually at the same times each day, and circle for a while at altitudes of 4,000 to 5,000 meters (13,000-16,000 feet), little more than tiny dots in the sky, before dropping their payloads. The 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.
Even if there were, effective shelter is at a premium. And there is no one left shooting at the helicopters from the ground. Doing so would be largely pointless anyway because the helicopters fly too high for the Syrian rebels' old Russian anti-aircraft guns.
Stay Put and Wait
The rules of Aleppo are matter-of-fact and unsettling. It's as if someone had devised a murderous experiment: What do people do when death can rain down from the sky at any moment? Almost 90 percent of residents have fled since late 2013, when the systematic bombing began. Since then, the explosives have claimed the lives of some 2,500 people. Nevertheless, 200,000 to 300,000 people still live in the eastern half of the city.
Some say that they don't want to leave, while others say that they can't. There are also those who claim that trying to escape would be pointless. If death has an appointment with them, he will find them, they say. If he doesn't, he won't. So they stay put and wait.
Three-and-a-half years after the uprising against the Assad family dictatorship began, and two years after fighting erupted around Aleppo, the city is divided in two. The Syrian regime controls the more affluent neighborhoods in the west, along with the intelligence and military headquarters there. Some 2 million people are crowded into that half of the city. Many of those now there fled from the east to the west, desperate to escape the prospect of death from the skies.
In the east, it is more difficult to say who controls what is left of the middle-class and poor neighborhoods there, in addition to a large section of the historic city center. There were only a few rebel brigades at first. Then there were more than 400 small rebel groups. And now there are half a dozen large brigades. The radical Islamist group known as Islamic State came as well, but was driven away again. There is no central government in the eastern part of the city, but there is a city council, and there are police units and civil defense volunteers who respond after bombing attacks to recover the dead and rescue the trapped.
This month, rebels stopped Islamic State militants shortly before they reached the town of Maraa, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Aleppo. Assad's troops, for their part, would only have to advance a few kilometers, repel the rebels and close their circle around Aleppo. Then they would be in a position to starve out the eastern part of the city.
The situation is dramatic, but it's been that way for months. The constant news of battles, territory gained and withdrawals made reaches the ghost town, but it seems muted and far away. When there is no shooting, the city is eerily quiet, as residents silently go about their daily lives. Normal sounds are missing entirely: traffic, voices, music, birds.
Woman in Black
It's early in the first week of September and everyone is still alive: store owner Abu Abdu Zakarias, his young neighbor Samar Hiyasi, Muhsin the electrician, an old woman dressed in black and 12 day laborers from the working class neighborhood of Haidariya. They are 16 people from various parts of the city who, on this Monday morning, have nothing else in common aside from the fact that they are still in Aleppo.
On Monday afternoon, rebel police and civil defense radios begin crackling. These are the institutions that maintain a rudimentary order in the midst of the inferno. A woman is walking on the Sachur Bridge, a deserted highway onramp. Walking up it is potentially deadly. "My God, what is she doing there?" someone says over the radio. "She must be crazy!"
Underneath the bridge, it is still safe and its thick concrete provides shelter to one of the city's last remaining taxi stands as well as to fruit vendors. Snipers, though, have the topside of the bridge securely in their sights. Barricades of burned out buses and debris have been set up to deter people from attempting the route. But the woman in black sidesteps the barricades and begins walking across the bridge.
It takes a few seconds for the first bullet to zip through the air. The voices on the radio become increasingly agitated as the shots continue. "What should we do? Shoot back? No, that would only goad them on. My God " The woman bends over and then keeps walking. There is a seventh shot and then an eighth shot. The woman falls to the ground.
No one knows what she was doing up there. Gathering used plastic bags to sell? Or perhaps she was trying to get killed? Or had she simply lost her mind? People shrug their shoulders. No one knows her name. They recover her body in the darkness, and then her trail is lost.
"We are still alive, but for how long? A day, a week? We are the living dead, like those creatures in the movies, zombies!" says a civil defense volunteer on guard duty. "Yes, zombies! Would you like your coffee with or without sugar?" Eastern Aleppo is a city of polite zombies, an eerie place that seems too exhausted for despair.
On Monday, Zakarias had been drinking his coffee in the garden, as he does every morning. The 60-year-old tailor lives alone in his centuries-old house. He used to run a shop, which he had rented out, but unfortunately the tenant is now dead. Zakarias tends to the plants surrounding the well in the inner courtyard. He usually goes to visit his old friend Johannes in the morning and brings him a jug of cold water from the refrigerator.
An Unusual Way to Die
On Tuesday morning at nine, Zakarias is once again drinking his coffee in the courtyard. When he suddenly hears the hissing of a bomb, he runs into his room, hoping he will be safe there. But it's the wrong direction. The bomb isn't big, but it hits the 60-year-old man, and it destroys half of his house and that of his neighbor Samar Hiyasi, the 38-year-old widow of a stock market employee. He died five years ago, say the neighbors. Of natural causes, they add, as if it were an unusual way to die.
Zakarias might have survived had he jumped into his cellar on the other side of the courtyard as his neighbor did. The civil defense volunteers, who arrive with a generator, a jackhammer and wire cutters, find him quickly. But it takes them two hours of sawing through a mountain of debris to reach Hiyasi's body. Two steel balls, one the size of a cherry and the other as big as a walnut, are embedded in what is left of her skull. They had been stuffed into the bomb to increase its destructive power.
As the men continue to dig, Zakarias' old friend Johannes shows up. Someone tells him what has happened. He nods. No screaming, no eyes wide open in horror, no astonishment, nothing. Just a nod. He buys some bread and returns to his house, the last Catholic old age home in eastern Aleppo, the Maison de Repos Saint-Elie.
"I have to sweep the courtyard," he says as he walks away, and adds, in the same gentle singsong voice, that he had already guessed what had happened. First there was the explosion, and then Zakarias didn't show up with the water. "Now he's dead, too," he thought.
There are still seven residents in the Saint-Elie home. The others have left or have died, and at 75 Johannes is now one of the two youngest. Magi Anastos, sitting in the dappled shade of trees in the courtyard in front of a sky-blue statue of Jesus, is 80. The residents, some of whom have lived here for 20 years or more, had thought these last few years of their lives would be quiet.