In divided Aleppo, crossing a bridge where a sniper waits
A woman carries groceries in a stroller back to the government-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria. The bus marks the end of rebel territory.
Los Angeles Times
ALEPPO, Syria - Battoul makes her way around the smashed bus full of sandbags and steps into sniper territory. A man balancing a large box of produce on his left shoulder, cilantro peeking out, is close on her heels.
"Hurry, hurry," he says. "This is not the time to walk slowly."
She tries to blend into the crowd making its way over the 300-yard stretch of no man's land that divides the two Aleppos: one held by the rebels, one by the government.
Every day, a government sniper holed up in City Hall picks off at least a few people. On good days, no one dies.
People call it the crossing of death.
Once, Battoul and her sister saw a 4-year-old boy pleading with his mother not to take him over the bridge that spans the Queiq River, the scariest part of the crossing.
"I don't want to die," he said, crying. The boy continued to beg his mother, who was holding a baby in her arms, until Battoul's sister scooped up the boy and carried him, crying and screaming, across the bridge.
The first time Battoul crossed, she kept replaying all the terrifying stories she had heard. But once across safely, her fear slipped away.
"Life has to go on," she says. "People cross and someone gets shot and they pick up the martyr and keep going."
For months, the Karaj al Hajez crossing has been the only link between the two sides of Aleppo.
It used to be a main road connecting two neighborhoods. Now it's a dangerous walkway, with the bridge in the middle.
Despite the risk of being shot on the bridge or detained at the checkpoint on the government side, thousands cross each day, attempting to navigate what remains of their old lives in the shadow of war: making their way to jobs, college, hospitals or just to buy groceries.
The government holds Aleppo's western and southern neighborhoods, and rebels have seized the rest, creating a misshapen yin/yang of control. A documentary by activists exploring the divide described the city as the "Berlin of the East."
Most of Syria's cities, and indeed much of the country, now find themselves partitioned. Residents are cut off from families and jobs by front lines and dangerous crossings.
With no victor or peace accord in sight for a war well into its third year, the fragmentation promises to be a long-term prospect for the country.
In Aleppo, the ebb and flow of life is often dictated by what happens at the crossing.
For a week in early July, rebels with the Free Syrian Army prevented residents from taking food and fuel to government-held districts. Protests led to a relaxing of the ban, but rebels still limit how much food can be carried over the bridge.
Since then, rebel groups have threatened to launch an offensive against government forces and close the crossing.
Recently, rebels attacked City Hall, where the sniper is perched, with three tank shells, six rockets and 60 mortar rounds.
Hours after the attack, the sniper began firing again, killing three people.
In a dusty alley at the entrance to the crossing on the rebel side, Um Abdo and Dr. Sami sit waiting for the first shot of the sniper.
The pair used to wait at a triage center a few blocks away, but a month ago, after too many victims had bled to death before arriving, they moved here to be able to treat patients immediately.
Um Abdo, an evening-wear saleswoman turned volunteer paramedic, looks at her watch.
"It's almost 2 - by 3 p.m. at the latest," she says, referring to when the shooting is likely to begin. Then she adds hopefully, "Maybe the day will pass and there will be no shooting."
A few minutes later, the crack of gunfire sends a group of crossers ducking for cover. Then they rush to make it to the other side.
Dr. Sami, a cardiologist, looks at his watch. "He has begun his shift. He is telling the people that he has arrived."
Those who depend on the crossing often theorize about the unseen person behind the scope. Like detectives figuring out a serial killer's method of operation to predict murders, the residents parse the victims and their wounds to find patterns and, within those patterns, ways to avoid his bullet:
The sniper begins shooting in the afternoon because he stays up all night and sleeps in the morning.
He mostly shoots women and children.
He targets the genitals, but also likes kill shots to the head and chest.
He is more active when there are clashes in the city.
Whatever the theories, it doesn't much matter; people continue to cross.
When residents arrive at the crossing during a gunfight between rebels and government forces, they dutifully wait until the fighting subsides and then pass through.
Debo, a factory worker, was returning home from his shift in a government-held neighborhood at 3 p.m. when he was shot in the stomach. He was taken to the hospital in the back of a pickup.
Despite the serious injury, he says, "I'll go again to make a living."
"There's no work here, so it's a necessity," Debo says from his hospital bed, tubes in his chest and nose, his breathing slow and labored.
In a city where death makes regular house calls, residents reason that crossing conflict lines isn't always riskier than staying home.
Recently, a shell struck the modest apartment building where Battoul and her family live. A 9-year-old girl was killed.
A few days later, Um Muhammad, Battoul's mother, made the crossing with her other daughter, an economics student, for university exams.
As Um Muhammad was returning, the sniper fired one shot, then followed it with a spray of bullets.
"Everyone hit the ground; the eggs were on the ground and the vegetables were spilled," she says. "The women were frightened and the little children began crying. It breaks your heart."
Rather than wait for the shooting to end, Um Muhammad sprinted toward the parked bus that marks the beginning of opposition territory. Later, she heard that an elderly woman had been killed.
"But I don't know," she says. "You don't look back. You just keep running and looking ahead at where you are trying to go."
Those who avoid getting shot still risk getting stopped at the checkpoint on the government side of the bridge.
At the checkpoint on a recent day, government militiamen dressed in track suits and carrying Kalashnikov rifles randomly stopped men and asked to see identification. "What do you do?" one of them demanded of each man that arrived.
"Every day when I leave, I tell them that maybe today I will be caught," said Hamam, a government electrician and opposition activist who makes the crossing each weekday.
Hamam, a father of two young children, lost a hand a few months ago in an airstrike on his neighborhood.
Recently he was stopped by a militiaman who thought Hamam's injury seemed suspicious, like a battle wound. He accused Hamam of being a member of the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and took his identification.
"In that moment I was looking at Aleppo and smelling the air and saying goodbye," he said.
A few minutes later the man returned and told Hamam to get lost.
At the other end of the crossing, rebels at the opposition checkpoint maintain their limits on how much food leaves the district.
The rebels' checks on the people heading back to the government-held side, some with wheelchairs and baby strollers packed with food, at times seem to verge on harassment.
Abu Jameel, a rebel in charge of the checkpoint on a recent day, yelled at a boy pushing a large wooden cart carrying several duffel bags full of clothes. He ordered him to stop and groped each bag.
"This boy says he has clothes in these suitcases, but sometimes they hide meat and cigarettes in them," he said.
Once allowed to pass, crossers walked briskly but carefully.
Amid the hubbub, a beggar sat in the middle of the bridge, squarely in the sniper's sights. Dressed all in black with nothing but her soiled feet visible, she extended her hand, hoping to profit from people's fear.
"Five liras, may God protect you, just five liras."