It’s August 16. A man holding a camera runs between tall concrete buildings. A dark gray cloud breaks the blue summer sky of Aleppo. He moves towards the smoke while men run in the opposite direction. A man carries an injured man on his shoulder. A horse pulling a cart trots by. A man leans on a comrade, cradling his injured arm.
Signs of normalcy are scattered among gorier scenes: a voice reciting the Friday prayer, a cart piled with yellow cantaloupes, a scale and a tray of green cactus fruit, a red umbrella covering street fare for sale. These are signs of lives interrupted.
The man with the camera gets closer to the scene, and the screams grow louder. A man is dragged by five others. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. Another holds a child to his chest. Bodies are scattered on the street. Watermelons are scattered on the street. The honking of cars merges with the collective wailing. Bodies are covered with colorful woven tarps. The dusty street now has crimson stains.
Three minutes and 25 seconds in, the man holding the camera finally arrives at the source of the chaos. He calls it a Scud attack. Others think it was a surface-to-surface missile attack. Still others claim it was an air strike. There is no argument, however, about what it has done.
There is a gap between the multistory apartment buildings in the rebel-controlled area between the two neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and al-Kallaseh. Bustan al-Qasr is the center of regime resistance in Aleppo, and home to peaceful protests against both the regime and the extremist militia groups. A space that was just occupied by residential buildings is now reduced to two massive hills of rubble, dust and stacked concrete floors.
Men scale the mountains of debris. They try to rescue victims trapped underneath. Who are these buried people? Families who’d simply been preparing Friday lunch? Perhaps they felt lucky that they were still safe. That they were not refugees. That they still had roofs over their heads – until those roofs crushed them on a sunny afternoon.
Now the camera focuses on a group of bare-handed men lifting stones and clearing pieces of concrete. Something white appears in the gap they’ve opened. It’s a body. I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman, dead or alive. The shirt has been stained dark pink. The body is dragged away.
Children cry. Men hold their heads in despair. “Climb to the top.,” a man screams, referring to the rubble. “Climb to the top.” A man’s silhouette appears in the dust, carrying a body on his own. I think that person is still alive.
A man addresses President Bashar al-Assad. “Is this bravery?” he yells, “to strike civilians?”
In a shorter 20-second video from the same day, a father holds his head and cries for his lost children. “The children are gone,” he wails, “the children are gone. They are under the earth. What can get them out now?”
Syrians attempt to analyze the attack on social media. Most agree that it is the regime’s retaliation for a deadly car bombing in southern Beirut the day before, widely thought to have been carried out by rebels. But after many months of the same attacks on Syrian towns and cities, does Assad’s scorched earth policy have a rational explanation?
Over 30 dead have been counted on this day in Aleppo. The rest are still buried in the concrete rubble.
By nightfall, civilian rescuers were still digging with their bare hands. In any other country, these men would have been treated like heroes. But here, they aren’t even noticed. No one watches these videos from Syria anymore. They have become the norm.
Heartbreaking pleas for machinery, ropes, floodlights and first aid kits saturated online platforms after the attack shown in the video. They didn’t ask for weapons or food; they begged for ropes to pull out their dead. Activists shared plans to train civilians on rescue missions to prepare for the aftermath of the next attack. They know there will be a next time.
One week later, rebels claim that over 1300 are dead from a chemical weapon attack on the eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus. The media is moved once more to share the images of our dead children. And the men in Bustan al-Qasr still dig in the rubble, unnoticed. Twelve more bodies are excavated, only to be buried again. There are still more to be retrieved. The men continue to dig.
Remember three years ago, when we watched the fate of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground? Remember how the world united in that moment? We rooted for survival, for humanity, for an ending that somehow proves our collective resilience. For an ending that somehow defies all odds. In Syria, such an ending was written off long ago.
There is nothing left to prove in Syria anymore. Nothing to offer but cowardly ambivalence and cold political calculations. World leaders know that the words “never again” are mere words, empty promises reserved for the sanitized spaces of memorial dedications or an exhibition on genocide years after it comes to an end.
Maybe one day, decades from now, an American politician will stand on the ruins of Aleppo, at the opening of a museum dedicated to the bloody memory of the Syrian revolution. Maybe this seven-minute video will be playing in black and white on a screen behind him as he looks straight into the cameras and solemnly swears: “Never again.”