On the Road to Aleppo
People Have Abandoned all in the Shadow of Isis
21, 2016 "Information Clearing House" - "The
Independent" - You can drive these days from Damascus to Aleppo
but the road is a long one, it does not follow the international
highway and for almost a hundred miles you whirr along with Isis
forces to the west of you and, alas, Isis forces scarcely three miles
to the east of you.
moral of the story is simple: you will learn a lot about Syria’s
tragedy on the way, and about the dangers of rockets, bombs and IEDS,
and you must drive fast – very fast – if you want to reach
Syria’s largest and still warring city without meeting the sort of
folk who’d put you on a video-tape wearing an orange jump suite
with a knife at your throat.
old road north as far as Homs is clear enough these days. Syrian air
strikes keep the men from Isis away from the dual-carriageway. But
once you’ve negotiated the Dresden-like ruins of central Homs –
the acres of blitzed homes and apartment blocks and shops and Ottoman
houses, still dripping with broken water mains and sewage – you
must turn right outside the city and follow the signposts to Raqqa.
Yes, Raqqa, the Syrian ‘capital’ of Caliph Baghdadi’s
cult-kingdom where no man – or no westerner, at least – fears to
tread. And then you drive slowly through Syrian army checkpoints and
past thirty miles of ruins.
are not the gaunt, hanging six-storey blocks of central Hama. They
are the suburbs and the surrounding villages where the revolution
began almost six years ago and where it metamorphosed from the ‘Free
Syrian Army’ of which Dave Cameron still dreams – all 70,000 of
them – into the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and then, like
a Victorian horror novel, into Isis. For all of those 30 miles –
perhaps 40 if you count some outlying hamlets in the dust-storms that
blow across the desert – I saw only feral children, two makeshift
sweet stores and a few still-standing homes. The rest is crumpled
concrete, sandwiched roofs, weed-covered and abandoned barricades
from wars which no reporter witnessed and of which there is
apparently no visual record. They are the homes of the poor, those
who had no chance of salvation in their own country.
strange how the visual disconnect interrupts you as you speed down
the bumpy, pot-holed road. Where have all the people gone, I kept
asking myself? Why are those who live here not rebuilding their
homes? And then I remembered the thousands of Syrian refugees I saw
and met streaming through the hot cornfields of northern Greece last
summer en route to Macedonia, and the pictures of those tens of
thousands walking the frozen railway tracks north to Germany, and of
course it made sense. This is the midden which those people left,
the “Ground Zero” they abandoned. This is the empty bedlam which
drove them to despair and to Europe. These are not the homes of the
internally displaced. They are the homes of those who have abandoned
“Raqqa 240 kilometres,” says the official blue road marker which flashes past us, and I look at my driver – his name is Mohamed – and he casts me a look of both humour and palpable unease. Straight north of Hama is the international highway we should have been travelling on, but – I missed all reports of this – Isis has cut this road in several places. So we head on north east on this uneasy road in near silence.
Then the wreckage starts. A burned-out bus on my side of the car – “38 passengers were killed in that bus,” Mohamed says, but he can’t remember if it was hit with rocket-propelled grenades or drove over a hidden mine left for the army. Mohamed’s wife is in the back of the car and points east across the grey desert to a swaddle of concrete two miles to the east. “That’s al-Mabouji,” she says quietly. “Isis went in there six months ago and massacred 65 civilians and took eight women away as slaves. No-one has seen them since.” Another road sign. Raqqa 219 kilometres.
So now we know that Isis is to the west of us on the old highway and that Isis is scarcely three – at the most eight – miles to the east of us. I begin to count the Syrian army checkpoints, teenagers with Kalashnikovs and the Syrian flag flying over their concrete huts. This is how the government keeps the road open – conscript soldiers and a series of flying columns, open-top trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and soldiers cowled behind scarves to protect them from the desert wind. Most of the transport trucks are travelling in convoy – patrols at both ends – and a military column races down the road towards Homs, trucks and armour with rifles pointing like hedgehog quills from the military lorries.
There’s another village close by – Khanaifis – which Isis shelled several weeks ago in an attempt to cut our road, killing 45 civilians, mostly women and children. “Raqqa”, says the next infuriating sign. “167 kilometres”. And I remember that somewhere over there to the east, on grey sand looking identical to the stony earth around us, Isis put to death those poor Western men on the videotapes with knives to cut their heads off. The Syrians have built little fortresses beside the highway now, tiny castles of sand and concrete sprouting with machine guns, a few Katyusha batteries and an occasional tank. It becomes an obsessive task to count these little protective ramparts. Could they really disgorge a Syrian version of the US Cavalry if the black flags of Isis suddenly appeared on the road? The black flags did appear about a month ago but the Syrians drove to the road-block and killed every armed member of the world’s most fearful cult.