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Looking out over Syria—where no lights shine

Aleppo is not the end

By Jay Elwes  

Standing on the border between Lebanon and Israel there were two very deep, very big booms. One low pulse, and then another, like two points of thunder. I asked an Israeli soldier what he thought it could be. He shrugged.

Thirty miles east we crossed the Jordan river and entered the Golan Heights, a mountainous area that Israel took from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day war. The land on either side of the road up to the Golan was scrub. An occasional animal grazed in the distance.

Long sections of the road were lined with yellow signs, carrying the message: “Danger. Mines.” Another legacy of the ’67 war. A few years back a family went hiking in these fields. It had snowed that day and they didn’t see the warnings.

In recent days, Islamic State has retaken the historic Syrian city of Palmyra from the Syrian military—and in the city of Aleppo anti-government forces have been defeated. A slaughter is underway. In the week before, viewed from an old look-out post, Syria looked peaceful. A haze hung over the brown fields and, to the north, the mountain peaks were capped with snow. Out ahead was the town of Khan Arnabeh, through which the road to Damascus ran in a broad boulevard. To the south west was Quneitra, laid waste by Israel in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war and never re-built.

Earlier that day I had met a young man from Quneitra. He was in a wheelchair. He told me that he had fought for the Free Syrian Army and that a month or so ago, he had crawled over a land mine and lost both of his arms. “We are going to fight, and win,” he said in a placid voice, his smile a mouth-full of chipped teeth. Do you know anything about your family? “Nothing. It was a war life. Bombs all the time. Tanks and bombs. No government.”

He was recovering in a hospital in the far north of Israel, 30 kms from the Syrian border. The Ziv hospital has taken in several hundred Syrians and treated them for war wounds and other more conventional complaints. As I spoke to the man in the wheelchair, the bathroom door opened and a second young man emerged. He came out of the shower on crutches, struggling to tie his hospital robe. He was bearded and no more than eighteen years old. He only had one leg.

From his bed, another young man said he had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He pulled back the covers to show his leg which had a long scoop missing from the shin, and said he had been wounded while fighting against the Syrian government army. Back home he used to design supermarket window displays.

What if Assad takes the whole of Aleppo? “The Free Syrian Army will stop,” he said, “but the Islamists will fight on.” And would you then join Islamic State? “In my area it is not just IS.” He then said that Jabat al-Nusra and other groups operated there. Did you see any Russians? “No. We saw just Russian commanders. In Halab [the Arabic name for Aleppo]. And Hama.” What can the west do now? “If they don’t want to help with military, help us with humanitarian,” he said. “It would be good to talk with Russia before the end of the war.”

And can IS ever be beaten? “All the world talks about IS,” he said. “But Assad is doing the worst things. When IS came to Syria the world started to help—but Assad is doing worse things than IS.”

“Who are they? We don’t know and we don’t want to know,” said Anthony Luder, Director of the Center for Paediatrics at the hospital. “Who they fight for is not our business.” The hospital has treated around 700 Syrian patients. None of the wounded had showed signs of exposure to chemical weapons. Luder was worried that polio was re-emerging in Syria.

“They get to the border, I don’t know how,” said Luder, before adding that the injured arrive by bus. At this point a representative of the Israeli Army interjected: “We don’t really talk about the busses.”

“This whole issue has been surrounded by a grey area, a sort of a fog of things that you aren’t allowed to say,” said Luder. Has anyone from IS been treated in the Ziv hospital? “I don’t know,” he said. Another hospital representative later said that one Syrian fighter had become abusive towards some of the female nurses. He had been immediately sent back across the border.

Back on the outpost the light had begun to fall. There were long bursts of gunfire and the thump of artillery. It was cold and the shadows of the mountains were cast out across the land in long triangular patches. Then came another detonation—and then another, most likely a Syrian army bombardment. The echoes made it hard to tell the direction.

A bus arrived and a crowd of Chinese tourists spread out across the outpost, climbing across the trenches and photographing themselves to the distant sound of machine gun fire. As we left, it was evening. Looking back into Syria the towns were in shadow. No lights shone there.

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