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ISTANBUL — The bombs that crash into the Syrian city of Aleppo have become so familiar to residents that some identify them by sound. Among the most feared are the so-called elephant rockets, which thunder into neighborhoods, obliterating anything they hit.
“Everything about them is huge — huge size, huge sound, huge effect,” said Ahmed Daire, a local council member on the rebel-held side of Aleppo. His job is to troubleshoot the myriad daily crises that plague civilians living in war.
The problems are innumerable and getting worse. Besides the near daily bombings, there are fewer doctors, repairmen or experts of any kind to respond to tragedies and keep basic services running.
Once a city of more than 2 million people, Aleppo is now a shadow of its former self. Daire, who spoke via a spotty cellphone line, said well over half the population of the rebel-held eastern section of the city — the target of the relentless government bombings — had fled. It has become virtually unlivable for those who stay.
Because of conditions like these, Syria has seen nearly 20 percent of its population flee for other countries, driving the mass refugee migration to Europe and overwhelming camps in neighboring countries. But more than 17 million people remain in Syria, most in dire conditions, according to the U.N. They are spread out among territories controlled by various warring factions, each with its own brand of horrors.
In interviews, civilians from six Syrian cities — some still there and some who recently fled — described the formidable challenges of everyday life. They complained of crushing poverty, crime, surveillance and lack of essential resources, which are in limited supply and even intentionally cut off when militants want to exert pressure on their enemies. Most spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety or the safety of family members in Syria.
While some haven’t left because they feel they are needed, many want to but are unable to flee. Still others have made the depressing calculation that there is no place better to go.
That’s the case for members of one family in the northwestern province of Idlib who have spent the last five months living under the hard-line religious laws of Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. The family patriarch, a farmer in his 70s, spoke by phone, catching cellphone service from across the nearby border with Turkey. His phone is one of his few windows on the outside world, which has mostly disappeared from his view since fighting between warring factions boxed him in.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) “is doing suicide and car bombs. The U.S. coalition and Assad regime are bombing from the air,” he said, referring to U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIL and government attacks on rebel-held areas. “But here is safe. All the bombing is [4 to 6 miles] away.”
Before violence choked the region, he and his sons sold produce in neighboring towns and cities. Now they rarely venture beyond their village, leaving them unable to make much money or access medical care.
“If you want to leave, you can’t. If you want to get anything from outside the village, you can’t,” he said. Leaving means risking getting caught up in the violence or running afoul of a Nusra checkpoint.
Though life is difficult for his family members — who are struggling financially and now forced to “live and pray as Nusra likes,” he said — he can’t see himself leaving his land behind. “My source of living is here,” he said.
After four and a half years of war, Syria’s infrastructure is battered, and food, fuel, water and electricity are in short supply. Opposing groups control different portions of the country’s utility systems and sometimes cut electricity or water flow into enemy territory for days or weeks at a time to cripple those areas.
“Think about a hospital. Without electricity you cannot use an incubator. Without water, there is no proper hygiene,” said Pawel Krzysiek, a Damascus-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been raising the alarm about groups in Syria using water and power as weapons of war.
‘If you want to leave, you can’t. If you want to get anything from outside the village, you can’t.’
farmer in Idlib
The problem has been particularly severe in Aleppo, which had no power or running water in some areas for nearly a month this summer as temperatures soared above 110 degrees.
Residents there pooled money to fuel community generators and organized convoys to distribute water from a few dozen emergency wells dug by groups like the Red Cross.
But not every area can count on emergency aid. A new mother who fled to a village outside the southwestern city of Daraa this summer said that wells there are not always reliable. “We are buying water for washing and drinking,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “But the winter is coming, and it will be harder to secure [everything]. The regime has blockaded us.”
Those living in areas under ISIL control face the added fear of running into trouble with the notorious group.
A 28-year-old from Deir Ezzor said ISIL members running his city regularly executed people in public to show residents they had no tolerance for dissent.
Anyone who broke the 8 p.m. curfew, communicated with suspected government supporters, complained about ISIL or failed to pray or dress according to the group’s rules could wind up in jail — or worse.
“We were under constant psychological pressure,” he said.
He kept a low profile for months, rarely leaving his house to avoid run-ins with ISIL, but he made it onto the group’s radar nonetheless. He said an ISIL member recently tried to persuade him to take a job with the group, which he declined. Fearing reprisals for rejecting the offer, he fled to Turkey last week. “I can’t go back to Syria until [ISIL] is gone,” he said.
Those still in ISIL-controlled areas suffer in silence, since most find it too risky to share information with the outside world. Two retirees in the ISIL-run city of Palmyra, for example, resort to extraordinary measures to send periodic messages to their son in Turkey.
When they want to reach him, they have a trusted taxi driver deliver a handwritten note to a nephew living outside ISIL territory. The nephew types the message into his cellphone and texts it to the couple’s son.
“They can’t say that much because the letter can be intercepted by ISIL, so all they say is, ‘Everything is fine,’” their son said. “But [ISIL members] are terrorists, so of course, I don’t need them to tell me. I know by myself that they’re not OK.” The only thing the notes confirm for him is that his parents are still alive.
Even in government-held areas, free from barrel bombs and the public beheadings favored by ISIL, fear and the effects of brutality run deep.
Mohammed, a 30-year-old small businessman, found life in the government stronghold of Damascus terrifying.
He moved there about a year ago after barrel bombs destroyed his home and electronics shop in the city of Homs. Though Damascus was not immune to the sort of food and resource shortages that make life difficult throughout the country, it was comparatively stable.
Still, Mohamed found that his affiliation with Homs — once called the capital of the revolution — had turned him into a target.
“Since I was from Homs, they saw me as a terrorist. I was always being stopped and asked, ‘Where are you going? Who are you staying with?’ I had trouble finding work there. I needed to get security permission to rent a house,” he said.
His anxiety about being viewed as a threat intensified when he realized that other people suspected of opposing the government occasionally vanished and sometimes never reappear.
One day Mohamed vanished too, when a group of men whisked him to a government prison without warning or explanation. There, he said, they shocked him with electricity and stretched his body with ropes in a move his torturers called the flying carpet.
They wanted him to admit that he was against the government, which he never did, and after 22 days they let him go.
The experience broke his nerves, and he decided he had little choice but to flee to Turkey, where he now rents a bed in a house with other Syrians while he ponders what to do next. “The conditions are really bad,” he said. “This is like a prison too.”