A woman and her baby are caught in the scope of an opposition fighter’s gun as she flees the Saif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, August 2012. Photograph: Zac Baillie/AFP/Getty Images
In the distance, Aleppo briefly emerged from the smoke and dust of war, a low grey skyline on a brown summer plain. A heat haze shimmered over the road ahead, shrouding first an abandoned army barracks, then ransacked, smouldering factories, an empty crossroads, and finally, the city itself.
Even then, days after the eastern half of the city had been seized by armed Syrians opposed to the rule of Bashar al-Assad, many of Aleppo’s people had fled. Shops were shuttered. Twisted tanks and toppled buses blocked intersections and the few residents on its empty streets scurried past with their heads down.
These were the first days of August 2012, a momentous time in a civil war that had just seen half of Syria’s second city – and industrial heart – fall to an insurrection hatched by the working-class men of its hinterland. It was my first visit to the city, after several earlier trips to nearby towns where the rebel push for northern Syria had been gathering steam. It paved the way for the Guardian’s subsequent reporting on a conflict with no apparent end.
In more than 10 journeys to Aleppo, from that first visit in 2012 until my last in December 2014, I have chronicled the decline of one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities as it has been ground down by savagery. Modern warfare has done what uprising and invasion have failed to do throughout the ages, transforming half the city into a shell of its prewar self, and imperilling an ancient core that has weathered centuries of conflict and even a devastating earthquake.
Along the way, those who remained and fought for its destiny offered windows into a war that has ramifications far beyond the borders of Syria. Long a crossroads of trade and transport, and a hub of empire, Aleppo is again central to the fate of the region, even under the assault of Russian bombers, which have made much of the east uninhabitable over the past year.
The rebel-held east was the focus of all my visits; west Aleppo has remained off-limits, functioning with little disruption and firmly under the control of the Syrian regime, which refuses visa requests.
The lethal frontline
On that first trip to the divided city, we moved slowly past makeshift roadblocks to enter an area that had felt foreboding since the popular uprising against Assad transformed into armed insurrection. Aleppo had been a focal point of the initial civic protests, and was now an epicentre of a rebel push, the scars of which were everywhere.
Syrian flags painted across the high walls of government compounds had been machine-gunned. Concrete chips and copper bullet casings lay scattered like confetti on rubbish-strewn roads. Flaming oil drums guided us towards the core of a city that, even then, was largely deserted.
Night falls on a Syrian rebel-controlled area of Aleppo, November 2012. Photograph: Narciso Contreras/AP
We drove past a hospital complex that rebel groups were busy commandeering as a headquarters, then the Old City, the one area that still bustled with relative normality, towards the main frontline between Syrian troops and rebel forces, a suburb in south-west Aleppo named Saif al-Dawla.
There, the crackle of rifle fire, the thump of artillery and the screeching tyres of pickup trucks carrying gunmen signalled a battle just over a crest. Families had fled the area hours before. Syrian troops and rebels had gouged holes in the walls of narrow-packed homes to use as rat-runs. As we stepped through the remains, cooking pots – some full of food – sat on stove tops and laundry hung on rails. There was something disconcerting about treading through the intimate worlds of strangers who, a little while earlier, had been going about their lives.
Now these people were on the road to Turkey, joining tens of thousands of others whose lives had been upended. At a nearby intersection, not far from where the two sides faced off, strangers – non-Syrians – were instead arriving. Dressed in dishdashas and head shawls, some with leather ammunition belts strapped across their chests, a small number of Islamic fighters had come to join what to them was a holy war.
The new arrivals were the vanguard of the jihadists, who, since May 2012, had started to travel to Syria and assemble in the countryside. They had turned up promising support to willing though underprepared rebel groups who could take the fight to the Assad regime, but faced a serious challenge in defeating it. The newcomers stood warily next to the rebel groups, several mocking the attempts of a band from a nearby town as they tried to shoot a hovering Syrian helicopter out of the sky.
A wounded rebel fighter is carried to safety, October 2012. Photograph: Zac Baillie/AFP/Getty Images
“You donkey!” one of the jihadists screamed. “Give the dushka [heavy weapon] to me. I know how to shoot it.” Several days later, the jihadists disappeared down the hill into a suburb called Salahedin. Throughout the remainder of 2012, they were reinforced daily by others who had also journeyed across the porous Turkish border and had begun to change the tone of the war from nationalistic uprising into an ideological conflict that paid no heed to borders.
The jihadists and the regular opposition were barely co-existing. “We have to accept them because they are coming to help us Islamically,” said Sobhi Mohammed, a fighter from an Islamic unit at the time. “But we know they don’t want what we want.” Sobhi was based with his unit, all blue-collar workers from the satellite town of al-Bab, in the villa of a Syrian officer. With tank fire shuddering in the distance, the men tried to teach themselves to swim in a pea-soup coloured pool fenced by ceramic mermaids.
Later that year, Sobhi was killed in a battle nearby. As the ranks of the jihadists grew, the rebels slowly thinned. So too did the few remaining residents of east Aleppo. Scud missiles started to rain down on the city in late 2012, gouging giant craters where whole neighbourhoods once stood. By early the following year, entire suburbs directly east of Aleppo’s historic citadel lay deserted. Airstrikes were happening almost daily. Sniper fire regularly crossed a lethal frontline between east and west. And the regime’s vengeance towards those in the east was about to be showcased in other ways.
Some of the bodies of the executed men dumped in the river, January 2013. Photograph: Abdullah al-Yassin/AP
Massacre by the river
In mid February 2013, I returned to Aleppo to investigate the discovery of more than 100 bodies on a river bank. All had been shot in the head, and dumped in the river. As flood waters had receded, they had exposed the fate of the men, who had all been detained as they crossed the frontline. Many had commuted between the two sides for work. Others needed to travel to the west for official business – there were no longer government offices in the east. For more than a week, locals fished the bodies out of the river, erecting nets and grills to trap them as they washed down. Families in the eastern area of Bustan al-Qasr all confirmed that their husbands, fathers, sons and cousins had disappeared at checkpoints. Most had been held in regime prisons.
Even darker days were soon to follow. In April that year, the jihadists who had lurked with intent announced that they were now in charge, subverting the myriad opposition groups – and their cause – in the name of a global jihad. The Islamic State (Isis) had unveiled itself after a year long Trojan horse act of hiding in plain sight. A ruthless elimination of rival power bases followed, along with the imposition of an unflinching Islamic order. The front of the eye hospital, the rebel base at the start of the war, was painted black. The standards of the jihadists were planted everywhere. Streets were even emptier, women rarely seen.
Throughout the rest of 2013, east Aleppo was one of the most dangerous places on earth. In September, I visited again, this time under the escort of a member of a rebel group from al-Bab that was convinced it could ward off Isis. The east had been whittled down even further. Civic services had all but stopped. Local volunteers gathered rubbish and burned it on an enormous noxious heap near the south of the town. Medical aid was scarce, but still the hospital system was getting by.
Outside one hospital, down the hill from Saif al-Dawla, a clapped-out ambulance sat at an odd angle on a footpath matted with blood and a filthy pile of white burial shrouds. Above them, on a small ledge, lay a dead infant girl, wrapped in a pink towel and left anonymously. She stayed there for most of the day, exhausted medics dealing with the rush of the dying before they tended to her.
Outside the eye hospital, a lone Isis fighter sat on the back of a pickup truck with a heavy machine gun pointed at the sky. The jihadists were expecting US jets at the time. None arrived, but Syrian helicopters soon did, dropping improvised explosives packed into barrels over what remained of the eastern suburbs.
A child wounded in a Russian airstrike, October 2016. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A deserted wasteland
By early the following year, Aleppo had devolved even further. In January, rebel groups who had been sidelined by Isis for the previous nine months, turned their guns on the extremists, ousting them first from the city and then from the countryside. Isis retreated to al-Bab, which has since remained its most western position in Syria. The city, or what remained of it, was once again accessible, but this time under the noses of regime troops who had all but encircled the east.
A small gap, called the Castello Road, remained open to the north. It led to an industrial zone that used to be a central driver of Syria’s economy, but is now a wasteland of fallen silos and factories that have been repeatedly crunched with heavy bombs. The road was one of the most menacing strips in Syria. And once through it, the devastation of east Aleppo was almost overwhelming.
Near the city’s outskirts, no one remained, except for small groups of rebels with radios who kept tabs on pro-regime militia forces gathering beyond the city limits. Three hospitals that had been functioning on our last visit had been destroyed by airstrikes. Much of the northern city had been emptied. Long sweeping boulevards that channelled commuter traffic were silent and sinister.
The Old City, however, had remained a sanctuary. Here, market life went on. Butchers hung carcasses just out of reach of starving cats, and Turkish confectionery was piled alongside traditional Syrian sweet stalls. The cobblestoned roads were almost a safe zone for fighters and the remaining residents of east Aleppo. Here they could congregate as they always had, ignoring jets that mostly dropped their bombs elsewhere.
A man sits in the rubble of a damaged buildings after losing relatives in an airstrike, October 2016. Photograph: Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
The illusion lasted only half a mile though, where it ended in the enormous pile of rubble that marked a frontline. Here, Abu Assad, one of the original rebels of the countryside, had led a team of tunnel diggers, who had burrowed under regime lines and blown up a hotel on the edge of the Citadel. Nothing was left of the building, and the enormous blast had damaged the wall of the Citadel itself. The war that was supposed to spare Aleppo’s ancient core had crept closer than ever.
Jets prowl the sky
In December 2014, I returned to the city for the last time. Finding residents in the east was difficult. Those who had stayed this long had no plans to leave. Umm Abdu, a wedding dress seamstress turned nurse was one of them. She made her way from the Old City to a nearby hospital, a pistol strapped to her waist as she patched up fighters and civilians. She had lost a husband and a son in the relentless war. Everyone she knew had at least one tragic story. East Aleppo had no electricity and little running water. This time the road out of the city took us along muddy tracks gouged through farmland. A sand berm sheltered the road from sniper fire, and jets prowled the sky.
It has been all but impossible to reach east Aleppo in the year and a half since, a time in which the divided city’s agony has grown even worse. The Russian blitz has relentlessly targeted what remains of its basic services. Only two hospitals and two smaller clinics are still functioning and only 11 ambulances still service them. Umm Abdu has left Aleppo, and few of the others I met along the way have stayed behind. The Russian-led assault has demolished the east, and pro-regime militias are poised to move in. After 3,000 years, Aleppo is on its knees.