The people of Aleppo needed someone to drag them into the revolution
Abu Ali Sulaibi was one of the first people to take up arms in Aleppo. Now he controls two shattered blocks on the frontline where he lives with his wife, four children and Squirrel the cat
The man stands among the blackened, shell-shattered buildings, and reaches up to encompass them in a broad sweep of his wiry arms. “This,” he proclaims, “is the state of Abu Ali Sulaibi.”
The ruined corner of downtown Aleppo does not, of course, constitute a state and nor does it belong to the man claiming it in his name. But as the Syrian civil war has stagnated and Aleppo has fractured into “liberated” neighbourhoods run by different militias, Abu Ali and commanders like him have become the rulers of a series of mini-fiefdoms. These two blocks of the rebel frontline in Saif al-Dawla are his.
Walking through the once prosperous streets, Abu Ali recalls the life he lived here, pointing out the places where he played as a child, went to school and fell in love. He now lives in a small apartment in the heart of the zone with his wife, Um Ali, three daughters, a son, and a cat named Sanjoob, or Squirrel.
Fifty metres from Abu Ali’s sector, across the Saif al-Dawla Boulevard, a similar array of shattered buildings is occupied by government troops. They are close enough that during lulls in the shooting they can continue the conflict by shouting abuse.
Half of the building where his parents used to live has been sheared off by a rocket attack, spilling furniture and a chandelier into the street. The remaining structure serves as Abu Ali’s command centre, where some of his fighters sleep. He stands in the middle of a small living room surrounded by fighters resting under thick blankets on the floor.
“I can’t believe that this is my mother’s living room,” he says. Then, to the men: “Wake up, you beasts!”
As no one stirs, he pulls a pistol from his belt and fires into the ceiling, bringing down a chunk of plaster. The men jump from their mats, grabbing their guns. “That was Abu Ali’s wake-up call,” he says.
Outside, Abu Ali sits on a broken plastic chair set amid the rubble. His fighters, bleary-eyed, sit around him, making Turkish coffee and smoking. There is no food. The men live on one meal a day and many have not eaten since lunch the day before.
A trickle of civilians who braved the sniper fire to reach Abu Ali’s headquarters now come forward, as they do each morning, to ask favours of the chief. Some are trying to salvage their food or furniture, others come to ask permission to scavenge or squat in the empty apartments.
On this morning, six civilians stand sheepishly in front of him: a man in his 50s and his teenage son; a lanky man in a coat that is too big for him; a young engineer in rimless glasses and a bald man with his sister, who wears a black hijab. The civilians stay at a distance out of respect or fearing his unchecked anger.
“What do you want?”
“We want to collect some of our stuff, Abu Ali,” the older man says.
“Not today. Come back on Saturday.”
“But you told us to come on Wednesday.”
“I changed my mind. You should know that this is the state of Abu Ali Sulaibi.” He roars out his catchphrase as much for the benefit of his men as the civilians.
“You are all informers,” he tells the scared civilians. “I know you cross back to government side and report on us.”
“We are not,” says the bald man. “Our hearts are with you.”
“When you say that, I know you are an informer.” Turning to one of his men he says, half-joking: “Wasn’t he the one who was chasing us when we were out demonstrating?” The bald man’s face turns pale.
Abu Ali keeps the civilians waiting for two hours. Then, like a true autocrat, he quickly changes his mind and summons two of his men to take them where they want to go.
Abu Ali’s neighbourhood is a nest of snipers, and to reach the frontline you must run across streets that are covered only by curtains to hide from the gunmen’s view. Elsewhere fighters have punched holes through deserted apartments to make protected routes to the front.
The returning civilians register that their homes have become sniper positions, and that everything of value has been stripped.
One man stops in his children’s bedroom. It is a mess, the window blown in and toys scattered on the beds. He starts sifting through papers in drawers and rearranging the books on shelves.
The walls are blackened, and broken pipes have flooded the floors. Gripped by a strange fervour, the man and his teenage son start to pack everything they can find into plastic bags and suitcases. Their faces are lit by slits of light that filters through the bullet holes in the blinds.
“Get some sweaters for your brother,” the father says.
“Is there any money left?” asks the son.
“No, everything has been stolen.”
The two fighters wait in the staircase watching the street and urging the people to move quickly. “I know they hate us,” one says. “They blame us for the destruction. Maybe they are right, but had the people of Aleppo supported the revolution from the beginning this wouldn’t have happened.”
The wind blows hard, and shards of glass from the broken windows cascade on to the street below, sending up a faint jingling sound.
In the kitchen, the son finds a half-empty bag of lentils, a bag of rice and some stock cubes. He picks up a jar, opens it, sniffs and places it back on the shelf, making a disgusted face.
At the sound of heavy machine-gun fire, the civilians hurry out into the stairwell, each carrying bundles of plastic bags. The father is carrying more bags than the others and a flat-screen TV. As they rush back from the frontline, he becomes dizzy and leans against a wall for support, sweating heavily. The group pauses.
“This is all my life,” he says to the fighters. “I worked for 30 years to buy an apartment. Will I be around for another 30 years to buy another one?”
When they get back to the command centre, Abu Ali is still in a foul mood. “You were going to kill my men for this?” he says, gesturing at their bags. “All of you, get out of my area. I have a war to run.”
“We just wanted to check if anything was looted,” the engineer says quietly.
“Every single house has been looted,” shouts Abu Ali. “And the [government] army has never been to this area. It is us who looted them!”
Chez Abu Ali
Later, we walk to Abu Ali’s house behind the frontline. He stops at the bottom of a flight of stairs and stands for a while in the cold next to a huge pile of rubbish, watching the distant bombs flashing over the dark city. Then he climbs up to his apartment. “Girls!” he shouts. “Girls!”
The shrieks and screams of children carry out of the apartment. They come running to meet him, and he lifts the smallest on to his shoulder while another clings to his legs and the elder pulls him into their bedroom.
“Father, we made a house for Squirrel,” they shout excitedly. Squirrel the cat is shivering and scared, either from the continuous sounds of gunfire or from the bath the girls subject him to daily.
Abu Ali sits on the floor, the three girls hanging from his neck like three little limpets. Um Ali arrives with a tray of food. Her kind, round face is wrapped in a pink scarf. Apart from the sound of shooting from down the street, it could be a typical Syrian family scene, with Abu Ali playing the harassed dad to a tee. The adult conversation is interrupted constantly by requests from the girls. The boy watches TV silently.
“The kids live in the most dangerous area, but I feel safe. She makes me feel safe,” he says, indicating his wife.
“Daddy, make me a sandwich,” says one of the girls.
“Can’t you get it yourself? I’m trying to talk to your mother.”
“Baba, can I talk into your radio?”
Abu Ali’s brothers had actively opposed the rule of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, joining the Muslim Brotherhood in the 80s. In their fight against the state, one of the brothers was killed and another spent 15 years in jail.
Abu Ali chose a different path, training to be an assistant engineer. He got a job with the government. Life was good. “I had a good income, my own car and my own house,” he says. “My kids used to go to the best schools and we had a perfect family life.
“When Bashar [al-Assad] came to power I disagreed with my father and brother. I said he would be good, that things would change.”
But little did change, and when the revolution came in 2011, Abu Ali was one of the first people to take up arms in Aleppo. With a group of friends he formed a small armed unit to target security forces.
“See this pistol,” he says, pulling the weapon from his belt and placing it on the floor. “The first bullet in Aleppo was fired from this pistol.”
The small girl grabs at the shiny gun but he snatches it away. “I knew there wouldn’t be a revolution without violence, and the people of Aleppo needed someone to drag them into the revolution.”
“He was the first who carried weapons and I encouraged him,” says Um Ali, who trained as a mechanical engineer. “His parents and family blamed me and still blame me. He was hesitant in the beginning because he had three children, but I encouraged him.
“He used to go out without telling me where, but I knew it was to do with the revolution. I used to pray for him and felt ashamed in front of God because I was praying only for him.”
He has been hit several times in the fighting: he shows two shrapnel wounds on his head and pulls up his T-shirt to reveal a depression under his right shoulder blade where a machine gun bullet struck him. He is often referred to as the “majnoon” – the madman – for his reckless bravery.
“Revolution, ah, what do you know of the revolution?” he asks her. “I said from the start that it wouldn’t finish until the whole country was turned into ruins.”
He stirs his tea with the sugar spoon, and she admonishes him. “Sorry, sorry, I forget that here I am not the military commander any more.”
“This is what I know of the revolution,” says Um Ali in her quiet, deep voice. “You run from shop to shop looking for things. But the pharmacies are empty. The grocery stores are empty. We toured half of Aleppo to try to find a bucket of yoghurt. This is revolution.
“You don’t have to work for the regime to be a shabiha,” she says, referring to the hated pro-government militias. “The grocer who raises the price of the vegetables is a shabiha.
“The fighting is there,” she nods her head towards the window, “but how do you feed your kids and give them a normal life in the middle of this? We used to know how our days started and ended. Now I can’t afford to think ahead. We just want to end the day alive.”
Her voice is calm but her hands tremble as she fetches another cigarette. The children are now mesmerised by the TV.
“War is a moment of life frozen. Our lives have stopped. They haven’t been to school, but life is moving on for them. Even before the fighting started I used to go to sleep waiting for the security forces to come and arrest him. I gave the kids cough medicine to sleep so they wouldn’t wake up when they stormed into the house.”
Sarah, the little daughter, is asleep in her mother’s lap, wrapped in a brown shawl. Abu Ali lifts her and carries her to bed. “I deserve a rest,” says Um Ali. “I am too tired.”
Abu Ali goes to the small kitchen and squats before a small stove, boiling another pot of thick Turkish coffee. “Now I will sit with her,” he says. “We will lie on the mattress, turn off the light and talk about what happened today. This my favourite moment of the day.”
He goes back to the room carrying the pot. Um Ali is staring at the floor, her cigarette burning slowly between her fingers. Outside, the pop-pop sound of gunfire has ceased.
“I am scared of the silence,” she says. “I feel something bad will happen. When they are shooting, I know we are safe.”
Abu Ali decides to attack the government forces, not only to give the impression they are strong and not lacking ammunition, but also to show the other battalions he is still active. “I tell you I face two enemies now – the battalions and the government.”
He stands with five of his gunmen behind a wall. He is carrying a heavy machine gun, its bandolier of bullets wrapped around his chest. The plan is simple and bold: attack the government forces face to face. They will not be expecting that, he says. “All our fighting had been with snipers for the past two weeks.”
As the battle rages and the volume of gunfire rises to deafening levels, Abu Ali stands in the middle of a window, exposed to the army, and fires his machine gun. His men are hiding behind walls trying to support him. Bullets fly all around him.
Afterwards, back in his parent’s half-ruined house, the men’s morale is sky-high. In his adrenaline rush Abu Ali jokes and laughs with them. He sits on the floor listening to old Syrian musicians singing love songs, and the men talk about the battle.
“I still can’t believe that this was my mother’s room, and now look at all of the men sitting there,” Abu Ali says.
“Ah, how I jumped when a bit of exploded bullet hit my ass,” he laughs. “I swear we killed at least four.”
The Taliban and al-Qaida should employ him, he jokes, because of his experience. “Mullah Omar and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri should buy me for all the battles I have been through, just like Barcelona bought Messi.”
He continues in a serious tone: “For a week I told them not to shoot, but to preserve their ammunition. Now when they see we have burned 500 bullets in half an hour, they will think we have new supplies. It’s a game of poker.”
By the time he reaches home, Abu Ali’s elation has left him. He sits with one leg on the ground, the other resting on the sofa, lost in thought. Sarah comes up to him and he pushes her away.
“We had a fight today,” he tells his wife, like someone reporting the day’s work.
“I know, my love. I know the sound of your bullets.”
After dinner he becomes reflective: “I mix everything. Filth with honesty. Street language with religion. I have mixed all the revolutions in me. I am the Bolshevik revolution, the French revolution. I am the modern Guevara.
“Do you know, I am so special. My wife hates it when I say this, but I have had angels fight with me. Many times. In battle, I can feel myself flying,” he says. “Flying above the ground.”