Author: Saeed Al Batal
I almost fell out of the vehicle! We were sitting in the back of a small pick-up, we three and two large pots of cooked rice. The closer we got to the sign that read Jawbar: Only Entrance the more the twenty-year old behind the wheel drove like he was in the final stages of a rally race. This was the most heavily bombarded point in the district: not five minutes would pass without another shell coming over from Qassiyoun.
Today was different…
The battle for Maliha had come to end a few days before, after more than one hundred and forty days of continuous fighting and last-ditch defending to keep Al Assad’s forces from entering the neighbourhood. And now they had finally taken it back… as rubble.
“What’s Jawbar’s role?” I asked Abbas.
“Jawbar’s different. Jawbar’s tougher than Moscow… Ow! My backside!” The twenty-four year old Abbas, with the loud pre-emptory tone that I’d grown used to over time, had suddenly flown in the air and come crashing back onto the steel floor of the truck. The back wheel had hit a pothole left behind by some shell or bomb.
“My grandfather’s ninety-seven years old and half blind and he drives better than you, you idiot!” Abbas screamed at the driver. Then he turned to me and smiled, his hand massaging the place where he landed.
“You’ll never get to know Jawbar! It’s completely altered and the layout of the roads going in and out change every day.”
Abbas is a Palestinian. His grandfather worked with the residents of Douma during the 1936 revolution, smuggling arms and ammunition to the revolutionaries in Jalil, and so after the Nakba he relocated to Douma with his family instead of going to live in the camps. In his house, Abbas has a box containing the family documents that prove their ownership of land and property in Palestine, as well as a signed letter from Adib Al Shishakli to his grandfather, granting the family permission to work and move about freely within Syria. Al Shishakli had become friends with his grandfather during the Nakba.
About a year ago now, the roof of his house fell in on this box following an intense bombardment of thermobaric rockets (or “vacuum bombs”). I found him the same day, going through the ruins like a madman, his eyes full of tears and screaming, “The country’s lost! Palestine’s lost!” I never saw him cry again.
Abbas resigned from the newly constituted civil defense force shortly after Douma’s liberation (following the liberation of Douma and East Ghouta a few activists founded the core of a civil defense tasked with firefighting, combing the rubble for survivors and documenting martyrs) and joined up with the armed brigades. That day he raised the Kalashnikov to my face and said: “With this I’m going to safeguard the rights of my family and get back what belongs to them… not with a few tattered documents.”
We passed the sign, unharmed by shellfire but covered in bruises from the outlandish driving of our friend who didn’t miss a single pothole or bump as he sped along. To go carefully on this road means to die.
Starting in February 2013 I’ve been coming to Jawbar frequently, and I was never gone for long. It is Damascus, or at least one of its suburbs, and yet everything here is different.
Or that’s what I thought…
But I had never seen it looking like this! Or rather, I had never seen it changed so much on previous visits. I couldn’t make out the neighborhood at all. Though it was one in the morning and visibility was practically nil, I could still sense the sheer scale of the destruction. Whole buildings had disappeared and collapsed.
“Wait for dawn and with your own eyes and ears you’ll see and hear a bombardment the like of which Hell itself has never known,” said Abbas, his voice tinged with pride, when he saw me in a state of semi-shock. We got out of the truck and down into the basement of a building that, I recalled, had once had five stories but was now just two stories high.
The following day I hardly left the basement. It was almost impossible to do so thanks to a constant rain of munitions, the like of which I’d never seen or heard in my life before, though I’ve plenty of experience being under fire. We spent the day in the basement laughing and trembling at the sound of the bombardment and its aftershocks. Abbas kept up a constant stream of abuse and jokes: “Son of a bitch! He’d bring down the sky on our heads if he could!”
In the evening the shelling slackened off a little and Abbas and his comrades assumed control of the battlefield. I walked around the neighborhood with them for a while, moving from wreckage to wreckage. As was our habit, Abbas and I went to examine the house and factory of Khalifa, the biggest manufacturer of matchsticks in the area, if not the whole of Syria. The house and factory were already badly damaged but that day they were wiped from existence.
The following night I returned to Douma.
Trawling the Internet I came across a photograph that had been taken that day in Damascus, showing Jawbar under bombardment. I shivered. Not because I’d just stepped out from under that rain of destruction, slipped outside the frame of that image, but rather—perhaps—because it reminded me that there were people on the other side I’d forgotten. There was someone watching, listening, thinking, dreaming, and photographing the shells and rockets as they’d rained down on our heads. Someone with their own cares and concerns: my reflection, my other possibility of being; humans as self-absorbed as I was. And I started to reflect that we were alone in this world and that the “other” squatting on the other shore was Death, by shell, or bomb or bullet.
I wonder, will my pictures—the ones I have taken, squatting on this shore—prompt similar emotions when you who live on the other side will see them, even though you’re caught up in your own cares and chaos? I wonder, has everything made you forget our existence, too?
The game of capturing sunlight is a dangerous one. It removes the possibility that what rays of light illuminate today will pass away and be ended, no matter how long you close your eyes.
I stared at the picture for a while. The camera at rest beside me with its distinctive pattern of scratches seemed to have a personality all of its own.
“No, we’re not alone, but when the pain gets you in its grip and presses down, then blinds you till you cannot see, well, then you are sad, and sadness renders the heart blind, my friend. But we’re not alone.” Shirko said this to me when I told him what was going through my mind, one afternoon in Douma and a few days after my trip to Jawbar. I remembered the building where we’d taken shelter from a bombardment. That day was followed by three days straight of attack from warplanes and artillery that claimed the lives of more than three hundred residents.
Death and destruction run free here, a complete lottery, and we’ve had our fair share of both. The house where we live has returned to the state we first found it in: no windows or doors; dust and rubble everywhere. These days, when people hear the whistle of a plane or incoming shell, they crouch where they are and wait for the crash of its impact, look about themselves (“It wasn’t my turn today!” you say to yourself) and keep walking.
“Whose turn was it today?” you ask. Or you don’t ask: it makes no difference. This is the arbitrariness of death in this city. For no reason other than that you—against your will or by chance—are a resident here.
It occurred to me that I should get out and never come back. Has moving out become a universal obsession?
The idea of moving to live in another city terrifies me: moving somewhere that does not know bombardment, whose streets are crowded, whose highways are well-lit. I was genuinely scared of a calm life, worry-free. I don’t think I’m normal any more!
It’s madness then. Is that better than a life lived with eyes tight shut, worry-free?
I can never accept another person, walking unconcerned and unafraid in a world so terrible that it seems to be on the verge of collapse. The idea that there’s someone out there, where cares are simple, where death pays fleeting visits and does not stop to stay: It infuriates me.
Sleeping on the ground is now more comfortable than the thought of a safe and cosy family. That’s why I think I’m not normal.
I see myself inspecting my hands, asking myself what these things have to offer this world, these paddles that excel at lifting rubble, that know the touch of blood so well… I wonder, will they find a place over there where there is no rubble and no blood?
O reflection of mine, you who live over there on the other shore, watching my hell from distance: your terror is far greater than my fear; the bombardment’s wrath strikes you harder than it strikes me. For this immoderate display of force is directed primarily at you, and intimidation is an art.
Will a day come in which we two can meet without either of us losing our dignity or desire to live? I’ve no idea, but I think you’re very different to me, as though from another country, or another planet.
I’ve no idea!
I used to feel that you were very close indeed and now a deep chasm divides us. I see you as someone asking, Where is the way out of this hell?
Do you know what it means for there to be hope?
I once knew, really.
The street that day was full of people, all the people, shouting, demonstrating, dancing, singing, scampering… and dodging snipers.
Nothing’s certain. If it were certain I wouldn’t call it hope. Those things that are uncertain are the happiest of things… and not eyes shut, worry-free.