A citizen journalist, writing under a pen name, describes the effect of a barrel-bomb in northern Syria

‘A helicopter came and dumped a barrel of TNT on to a building’

The World Today Published 6 February 2014 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ
A man walks amid the devastation wrought by the prolonged air bombardment of Aleppo which has killed more than 600 civilians. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

A man walks amid the devastation wrought by the prolonged air bombardment of Aleppo which has killed more than 600 civilians. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

A helicopter hovers over the town and then soldiers in it light a fuse to an old barrel and it falls on to the town. These barrels can flatten two or three buildings at a time.

This barrel only killed a small boy and his mother. It was miraculous that it did not kill more people.

If there is one thing Syrians hate more than anything, it’s these barrels. You watch the helicopter hovering overhead. Anti-aircraft guns can’t reach it – but they still shoot, since if they don’t, the locals berate the Free Syrian Army for ‘not doing anything’. Amir, who mans an anti-aircraft gun, is always frustrated with this since each shell costs $15.

Then you see a small barrel lobbed out the back and it takes several seconds to fall. People try to run, but you don’t know if it’s falling above you, or 1,000 metres away. You don’t know whether to run forward, backward or to the side. If you live in a building, it’s not enough time to get downstairs and out, but it’s more than enough to hear everyone screaming ‘barrrrmeeeeeel’! (barrel) and realize that you will not make it. The wait before death is the dreaded part. An instant death is one that everyone I know wishes for.

The shelling goes on all day and all night. There is no real target other than the town itself. One day, while we were drinking tea, an artillery shell fell right outside the house, I flinched – more like ducked – and realized that not a single person apart from me even stopped sipping their tea. And here I am writing about this single shell while I would bet that no other person in that room remembers it. Maybe they would remember what we ate that day.

One of the major changes is that Al-Qaeda (as represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS) is now in many more places.

A group called Jabhat al-Nusra (The Victory Front) used to be the ‘scary ones’ on the side of the opposition, but this has changed dramatically since al-Nusra split and spawned ISIS. The fighters of ISIS are almost all foreign and are what you would call the most hard-core extremists.

ISIS is feared because they have chosen to ‘rule’ many of the towns and villages that the Free Syrian Army has liberated. And by ‘rule’ I mean it in the same horrible way Assad ruled. Many people think that ISIS is a tool of the Assad regime. The same brutal tactics but with different clothing.

We stopped at many ISIS checkpoints. Almost all those that man the checkpoints are foreigners. Many are just kids no older than 15 or 16, black scarfs around their head to hide their identities. They do this because they know what they are doing is wrong – and to instil fear.

One very frustrating and offensive thing ISIS does is to deny entry to Syrians or even kidnap them for any reason they see fit. I wanted to go to Aleppo but was told that I could not pass. Some Tunisian guy denies me entry!

When ISIS first came, they repaired water and electricity stations, gave out bread for free, distributed cash and wiped out many fake revolutionary groups that robbed people. However, this was a charade in order to take power. Can you blame Syrians for letting them in in the first place as no one came to help us?

It seems that after Assad gassed people with sarin, his standing improved remarkably in the international community and Al-Qaeda celebrated the ‘no-strike’ by Obama as much as Assad did.

I don’t have a vision of what a solution would look like. I feel like vomiting whenever someone says, ‘What about the Geneva talks?’ They might as well be conducted on Mars between a Canadian and a Japanese. It means nothing to anyone in Syria. To think Assad will negotiate his own departure is ludicrous. What I do know is that the fighters battling against Assad will do so until the last bullet. There is no ‘going back’ for them.

For civilians, most just want an income. They want the pride of working again to earn their living, instead of begging.

In the cities that Assad still occupies, residents pay local Free Syrian Army brigades not to attack Assad’s forces in the town. At least this is the case in Hama. The city’s residents have been given two choices by Assad.

Either live under his oppression or face the same fate as Homs or Aleppo, razed to the ground or end up like Raqqa, ruled by Al-Qaeda. When faced with the choice to live or die, most will choose life even though it’s not much of a life.