‘We are used to death,’ said Ismail. He had been to the funerals of four friends in a single week, all killed by aerial bombs. ‘We’re used to bloodshed. We’re adapted to the situation and this style of life now. It’s normal. If you lose someone, then the next day you say, OK, life must go on.’
Ismail spoke to me from eastern-Aleppo, where as many as 250,000 people are under siege by the Syrian regime and ‘living on rice’, as he described it. He is in his late twenties and is one of the White Helmets, the civil defence volunteers who dig people out of the rubble after an attack. He could not endure the despair on the faces of the injured who knew they would not survive, he said.
In just two weeks, since a ceasefire ended in a ‘rain of bombs’, the White Helmets have documented some 400 civilians killed in Aleppo, more than a third of them children. Their work is extremely dangerous because of the regime’s tactic of sending the planes in again after rescuers arrive. ‘Double tap: it’s famous now,’ Ismail said. ‘All the guys we lost [were] in that scenario… They [the regime] do not discriminate. They kill everyone; they don’t care… They are monsters.’
The bombing has escalated now, because the regime has begun an offensive to retake Aleppo, the last city the armed rebels hold anywhere in the country. One account says that so many incendiary bombs are being dropped that a child woke her mother in the middle of the night to ask if it was morning. Syria’s Guernica has produced one of the war’s iconic images of suffering, five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting in an ambulance, dazed and bloodied, white from masonry dust. This one unbearably distressing picture reignited the debate over whether the West can stand aside while Syria bleeds.