Swing Sets and Death in Syria A Visit to an Aleppo Playground

Every day, children from the Salaheddin district of Aleppo meet at the local playground. They play war as the real one rages just a few meters away. But the graves are slowly encroaching.

Majid, what are you doing? "I'm watering mommy." Majid drags a large, blue bucket -- so full that he can hardly carry it -- across the withered grass. But why are you watering your mother?

The 13-year-old looks puzzled, as though it were the kind of idiotic question that only outsiders might ask. "Because she's right here," he says and pours the water onto a mound surrounded by a few stones meant to mark the site as a grave. An old pine tree offers a bit of shade, but so far, nothing seems to have taken root at the place where Majid's mother is buried. "I have to water it. Then something will grow for sure," he says with a steady voice as he heads back to refill his bucket.

Majid's mother died in the summer, but nobody in the family had enough money for a proper gravestone or even a border for the site. She died "because of her heart," Majid says "in her mid-30s." He can't be more precise than that; nobody in Aleppo really asks anymore why someone is dead. Majid drags a third bucket-full to the grave, as though seeking to atone for something he played no part in, as if he could score a tiny victory against all the dying.

He then returns to the other children playing in the sand nearby. The playground has a swing set, a teeter-totter, a slide and a small pile of sand, and it is the last one remaining in the Salaheddin district in the heart of Aleppo. They come every day, sometimes a dozen, sometimes 15 kids from the neighborhood. The younger ones fill up plastic bottle-halves with sand on the pile. "We're cooking!" yells the five-year-old Juju. The older children play war. Together, they swing on the bars and race down the slide.

Nearby, shots can be heard, sometimes isolated, other times entire salvos. Periodic explosions shake the surrounding buildings. But Majid, Juju and the others don't pay any attention. Not because they underestimate the danger, but because they know it so well. "Mortar," 11-year-old Emad says in response to a muffled boom. "Tank rounds sound different." They have a higher pitch, he says.

Peculiar Rules for Survival

The children of Aleppo have ears trained for the noises that accompany death, especially those who play in Salaheddin's last playground. It lies directly on the front. The next street over is in the firing line of regime snipers, which is why a barrier has been erected at the intersection next to the playground. The playground wall facing that side of the city is like a borderline between life and death. The odor of decomposing bodies sometimes hangs in the air nearby.

Peculiar rules for survival have been established in Syria. One of those is that the closer you are to the front, the lower the risk is from "barrel bombs," those steel containers full of explosives and metal balls that can weigh up to one ton. These bombs are thrown out of helicopters flying at an altitude of thousands of meters and are frequently blown off course by the wind. The helicopters avoid places where government troops and rebel fighters are separated by only 100 meters. And here, a place separated from the other side by just a single housing block, not even tank shells are a risk.

Everywhere else in the eastern half of this metropolis, a city that once had over 2 million residents, death rains down from the sky more often than ever before. The number of barrel bombs has doubled since October and even tripled in other cities in northern Syria. And once again, the Syrian army is on the cusp of surrounding the rebels in Aleppo.

On the playground, however, the situation is strangely normal. Within view of the war, children are sliding, swinging and teeter-tottering -- and one of the words they use most is "adi," meaning normal. The fact that they are playing directly adjacent to the snipers' line of fire: "adi." The fact that the burial sites are coming ever closer: "adi." The fact that many of their fathers, brothers or cousins have disappeared or been killed: "adi." That they themselves have often seen death: "adi."

Emad, Majid and their friend Ahmed, 13, don't play in the sand anymore. That's for babies, they say. "We play Assad's army and rebels," Ahmed says in his high-pitched voice. Puberty still lies ahead of him. "We fight, stage ambushes and take prisoners!" Sometimes they sneak out from behind the shack, he says, other times they stay close to the wall for protection, but they never leave the playground premises. And they don't venture into the ruins of the neighborhood. "Mommy says we're not allowed," he says.

Shrinking Playground

He says that his parents have been able to easily see the playground since their building was bombed: "The wall with the windows is now gone," he says. And he says that he and his friends play fair. "Sometimes one side wins, sometimes the other -- depending on who has the better ambush!" Only one child in the group has a real toy Kalashnikov. The others are left to assemble weapons out of sticks, twine and bits of plastic.

Thousands of people in Aleppo, many of them children, have been blown up, shot or crushed under the rubble of their collapsing homes. But for those who have managed to survive, kids who have experienced nothing but war for much of their lives, the surrounding inferno has become a prosaic fact of life. They just keep on playing. Here, at least.

But the space available for their games gets a bit smaller each week. The once idyllic park with the old pine trees is one of the last remaining open spaces in the area -- and the dead have to be buried somewhere. Now, they have found a final resting place here. And when Ahmed and the others aren't in the middle of a game, they water the methodically arranged graves, many of which don't even have a name plate. The martyrs, the fallen rebels and district residents can be found right near the entrance. In the back right, near the wall separating the park from the snipers' firing lines, are the regime soldiers and the "shabiha," the militia predominantly recruited from among the district's petty criminals.

Underneath the pile of sand where the younger children play are the remains of three jihadists who detonated themselves nearby at the beginning of January. "There might have been four. There were so many parts, it was hard to tell," says Emad. "The guys from the revolution poured sand on them." They didn't like the jihadists anyway, the others say. "They always hit us and constantly wanted to push us into the mosque to pray. But we wanted to play."

The mound, and the sand which is so good for playing, is only there because fanatics from Islamic State preferred to blow themselves up than to retreat when Syrian rebels sought to drive them out of the city at the beginning of the year. But because people didn't know which arm belonged to which led, they couldn't be buried in proper graves. So the bloody body parts were buried under sand, and then more sand, until eventually, a mound was formed.

The Whole Story

"But we only water the martyrs!" the kids say. It is an important detail and Emad repeats it several times. Just as Majid carries bucket after bucket of water to his mother's grave, the others care for the graves of their family members as well. It is as though the small gesture gives them a sense of stability amid the chaos surrounding them: "Don't water the wrong graves!" It isn't their war. But it is their fathers, brothers, cousins and mothers who die. They lie here, only a stone's throw from those who fought alongside the murderers. Those graves don't get any water from the children.

Ahmed's older brother went off in search of bread once when the local bakery was unable to bake more. That was two years ago. He never came back. Ahmed's cousin wanted to have his hair cut. He too disappeared, as did Emad's brother. They could have gone looking for them; there is even a center in Aleppo where pictures of anonymous corpses are collected. A retired policeman at the center collects their possessions in small bags and enters the date and place they were found in a notebook. But such a search costs money, time and energy, valuable resources that most in Aleppo need for survival.

Does he believe that his brother might someday return? Emad clicks his tongue and tosses his head back. He is silent for a moment before clearing his throat. "My brother went away and didn't come back. That is the whole story."

It isn't a taboo to speak of such things. It is just hopeless to expect an answer. Majid's father was arrested and never came back. The fathers of two other children were likewise simply taken away at checkpoints.

'I Just Want My Daddy Back'

Only five-year-old Hassan doesn't want to say why his father was taken away, or even admit that he is gone. He is close to tears when another boy says quietly: "But he's been dead for a long time now." Hassan hears him and becomes furious, cocks his fist and then lets his arm fall to his side in resignation. "I just want my daddy back."

Even as the growing number of graves eats away at the playground from two sides, a lush vegetable garden approaches from a third. One of the neighbors planted the garden in the spring, which angered local rebel leaders, who had declared the entire site as a cemetery.

"They want me to go away," complains Bakri Mahsoum, "but I have been watering the park here for years and take care of the garden every day. The zucchini, tomatoes and okra are for everybody in the district." The fact that his garden grew over two graves a while back, with the zucchini plants winding around the steles, hasn't made things any easier.

Death and gardens, graves and zucchini, sandboxes atop body parts, this small place has everything that has characterized Aleppo for months: unfathomable lunacy beneath a thin veneer of normalcy.

A shot rings out. A cat had climbed up onto the roof of a damaged shed near the dangerous side and a boy who is new to the area climbed up after him. He was briefly in view of the other side. Luckily, nobody was hurt and the cat jumped back down. The gardener yells from behind his shrubs that they shouldn't climb up there, it's dangerous.

Not even a minute later, though, the incident is forgotten. Ahmed says that his friend Samir had been shot in the arm the day before when he was trying to help his father -- who had been trying to pull a wounded neighbor out of the field of fire. They used to go out with their families on Fridays, they say. They would go to the countryside to visit their grandparents or maybe just down the street for an ice cream. "Yeah, that was nice," Majid says quietly. He is almost whispering, as though it was somehow dangerous to revisit the old memories.

Missing School

School too has faded into the past. Early on, two-and-a-half long years ago, classes continued despite the fighting, Majid remembers. "But then the rockets came and we moved from one school to the next, and then into the cellar." But at some point, fewer and fewer children showed up. Their families had fled or been killed, or they were simply too scared to allow their children out of the house any more. Majid says he misses school. More than that, though, he misses the 16- and 17-year-old sisters Nur and Riim who used to teach them reading, writing and English here on the playground. "They were nice to us!"

Now, the two sisters are lying beneath them, in the nicest grave in the playground. It is marked by a marble slab engraved with the names of all those family members killed by a bomb last spring. Their mother comes every day, sometimes bringing along a friend, as she has today. The two talk about what is worse: losing children, as she as, or losing a husband, like her friend. They haven't reached a consensus by the time they depart, leaving the marble to the children. They like to sit there in the afternoon autumn sun.

Where will you go when the whole place is filled with graves or if you have to flee from Assad's troops?

"Then we'll go play somewhere else," they shout, almost in unison. But they'll have to come back periodically, Majid insists, and the others nod as though they had just remembered something that had momentarily slipped their minds. "I have to bring water for mommy," Majid says.

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