His nickname is “Black Eyes.” He is 21 years old and joined the Free Syrian Army after months of demonstrating, after the authorities had lost their patience with those young people demanding the fall of the regime. He walks around the al-Mashhad district with a revolver. “I’ve lost ten of my best friends; six of them during peaceful demonstrations and four in battle,” he tells me as we are sitting on the grey sidewalk facing a shelled building. The neighbourhood’s stores have no chairs for guests. “Black Eyes” defines himself as a natural poet. He is one of those who wrote the slogans for the marchers. But he is also a student of engineering. That’s life. He wears his hair like a young Elvis Presley. But Elvis Presley did not have black eyes.
Asrar as-Sham is a militia with Islamist combatants fighting to liberate the remaining forty percent of Aleppo that is still under the control of al-Assad’s forces. I pass by one of the fighters on the sidewalk: he is dressed in black from head to foot. Even his eyelashes have been darkened withal-Kohl powder. Walking from shop to shop before the sunset, women are dressed in black coats which make their pale visages stand out in sharp relief. At the out-of-service al-Hajj flyover, the hilly landscape of a lunar dumpsite makes accelerating drivers as much of a threat as the regime snipers. Thousands of dirty, small, black bags leak stinking poison and rage – the humid winter has not burnt them off completely. Like the ghosts of this city, they seem to be wailing obsessively, for they have not received a proper burial. The same with the 115 bodies which the Qwayq River returned back to the city a few days ago. Muddy, grey, tragic masks of young and old men with open skulls and smashed ocular bulbs who were executed in Aleppo’s outskirts.
“Ryan Ryan” (another nickname) has taken passport-like photos of each one of them. In the early days, when the revolution was peacefully gaining ground on the streets, “Ryan Ryan” was one of the most wanted men. He was the brains of the local protest movement, and notwithstanding three attempts of capture, he is a tireless activist: “Look at me, I’m limping because I was shot in my leg. But despite the pain, I continued the struggle after one week only,” he says. The location of his office is still unknown to most. It looks like a radio studio, with black fake leather cushioning covering the room’s walls, and you reach it through a humble door in a narrow street.
Umm Jaʿfar, on the contrary, has learnt how to fire back. Only 22 years old, she is a proud sniper, one of seven angels of death: the female members of the brigade “The Voice of Justice”. Black is her headscarf, black are her paints, but she smiles because her daughter sits next to her on the sofa. “My father was mad at me when I joined the opposition,” she says. “He was part of the regime administration before he retired.” Nowadays, she does not talk to her father; only to her daughter.
Aleppo’s liberated areas have been cut off from the electricity network for four months now. No fridges, no heaters, no lamps. Unless you have a generator, you have to buy scarce fuel from the black market. There is darkness in the neighbourhoods. Darkness is the colour of Aleppo, its souls, its automatic rifles and the coffee served on the street from old Italian espresso machines fuelled by gas bottles. Dark are the streets during the day, when a plumbeous sky reflects the dust of the canvas veiling terraces and the opaque uniformity of the closed shutters. Obscure is Aleppo’s night, as it should be, when the only fragments of light you come across emanate from flashlights. Unless you want to reach the front lines situated in between housing blocks; there you will see light from firearms and lighted cigarettes.
Doctor Othman al-Hajj knows what a dark night is. “I’ve treated so many wounded persons, day and night, that I cannot count their numbers any more,” he says. While his assistants, with camping lights strapped to their foreheads, care for a child in an improvised first aid room at the al-Shafa’ hospital, he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out two candles. They will be enough to lighten Aleppo’s darkness for a few minutes.