I went into Syria with a concept of war as something that happens far away, in deserts, in jungles, between two opposing military forces. Images of Total War à la Saving Private Ryan ran through my head as I approached the border from Turkey. Would there be just a storm of bullets and bombs? Would I need to run and duck for cover? Would I need the body armor I wore?

My goal in being there was not to be a “combat photographer” by any means. My vision was to make portraits of the people affected by and living with this conflict on a daily basis. It was not hard to find people who could share stories of dead relatives, or to find destroyed environments to shoot in. Every street in Aleppo has at least one bombed-out apartment building or walls riddled with bullet holes. And while the war was never out of sight or mind, I was struck more by how normal everyday life seemed in the midst of the carnage.

Amid the events that cause this damage, life goes on, and people continue about their business. They can’t do anything else.

I spend a night at the house of my interpreter, Abu Ahmad, in the country. His
family owns a small farm just outside of town. They grow olives and pistachios, and make olive oil. We sat up that night eat- ing and talking. I met his family. I walked through their pistachio orchards and felt like I was taking a walk in the Pennsylvania countryside. Until the jet came.

I could hear it prowling in circles above us. You see them during the day, people gathering around, pointing them out, wondering where they’ll strike. If you’re in a car, you pull over and watch until it drops its payload and you can move on. One day, I sat with a farmer and drank fresh cow’s milk as a helicopter fired flaring rockets at a target a few miles away. We seemed so removed.

So when we heard the jet circling, I wasn’t particularly startled or afraid…until the sky ripped open with the extended braaap of a heavy cannon. Abu Ahmad’s family farm is less than three miles from the Aleppo International Airport, where Opposition forces besieged Government forces. The jet fired several times from directly above us toward the airport. It was the most terrifying sound I’ve ever heard. And then it was gone, and we went back to our meal of fresh olives, hummus, and makdous.

April 18, 2013, Naqqarin, Aleppo.
I counted more than fifty rockets fired by Syrian Government forces that night. They arced silently up through the clouds toward the northern countryside of Aleppo.
April 18, 2013, Naqqarin, Aleppo.
I counted more than fifty rockets fired by Syrian Government forces that night. They arced silently up through the clouds toward the northern countryside of Aleppo.

We sat on the back porch enjoying the night air, when the missiles started to fly, piercing the cloudy night sky with long jets of fire. Abu Ahmad told me that the regime forces launch them from an air force base in central Aleppo. I lost count after fifty, arcing soundlessly to the north, toward Azaz, Marea, Minnagh, and elsewhere. With a photographer’s eye, I can see the beauty, how the light threads through the clouds as I frame my shot. But then I realize, guiltily, what those missiles are going to do.

You do not even hear the shelling after a while, unless it is close enough to affect you. I had dinner at an activist’s house one evening. Eating family style and chatting, we gathered around a football match on satellite TV. A whistle/whoosh sound started to drill down, distinguishing itself from all the other shelling in the background. We all paused, eyes wide, looking at each other, wondering, is this the one that will hit us? When we heard the explosion a few blocks down we all smiled in relief, but again, I felt guilty, because the explosion may have ended someone else’s casual evening.

This contrast between everyday life and instant death and violence is never far from sight. A new clothing store opens next to a building destroyed by shelling. A street strewn with rubble holds a squeaky clean, bright white pharmacy with an immaculate green sign and stacks of medications, all too expensive for most people. The pharmacist keeps a good stock, but must risk his life to cross over to government territory to buy more. And even then he cannot get some common medications.

April 18, 2013, Sakhour, Aleppo.
Members of a local FSA Khatiba [Free Syrian Army battalion] clean their weapons at their unit headquarters.
April 18, 2013, Sakhour, Aleppo.
Members of a local FSA Khatiba [Free Syrian Army battalion] clean their weapons at their unit headquarters.

Before I went, a more seasoned conflict photographer had told me you can edge up to the line and keep as much distance as you want (as long as the line does not move), so you can be in relative safety. And that turned out to be true. Most of Aleppo that I was able to visit is Opposition-held territory they call the “Free Areas.” Areas still held by the Government are called “Occupied Territory” on this side of the line. Within these free areas I live and move while I am here. And the people of Aleppo live there too. Just like people live in your hometown. They shop for food or go to a restaurant. Every day I buy coffee, and my crew buys cigarettes. When the car breaks down, we need to get it fixed.

This is not the anarchy that I thought it would be. FSA guys direct traffic. Vendors line up along the streets selling vegetables; butcher stores are full of fresh meat. I even see a cotton candy vendor and an ice cream parlor. In the middle of the destroyed Bustan al Pasha area, not 500 meters from the front line, a group of boys play football in the cleared yard of their bombed-out school. Down the street a widow rummages through the rubble of a building that seems to be spilling its guts onto the street to try to find something of value to sell so she can feed her kids.

February 8, 2013, Bab al Salameh, Aleppo Province.
Kids play marbles in the Bab al Salemeh refugee camp next to the Turkish border.
February 8, 2013, Bab al Salameh, Aleppo Province.
Kids play marbles in the Bab al Salemeh refugee camp next to the Turkish border.

I walk down the street and start to recognize people. People are very friendly, and they want you to have coffee with them, or come back to eat at their restaurant. I realize that this can backfire on me, but there is a sense of community here, and in some way I am part of it despite being a foreigner. Though I try to vary my routine to avoid attracting attention, and I try to stay in different homes each night, I still crave some sort of routine and stability. Even with the constant sound of shellfire or jets overhead, you go about your day and hope it is not interrupted with violence.

People warn you not to walk down this street or that alley, because snipers can see you there.

When I go to the front lines, I crawl through holes in buildings, running behind buses crashed crazily, blocking snipers’ views, until I can peek out from the fighting holes and see Government positions only 50 or 100 meters away. And despite the ongoing potshots, the fighters offer you tea, or make you have lunch with them. And as you talk, you again realize that you no longer hear the bullets cracking overhead unless they are close enough to affect you, and you look around and people are laughing, joking, eating, watching TV, all the while carrying weapons. A game show blares as the watch changes and a new group of fighters goes out to relieve the guys on the line.

I was present at the funeral of an Opposition fighter killed not an hour before in a firefight. His brother had opened the shroud and motioned for me to photograph his dead brother’s face. His name was Ahmed Ibrahim. It is the last photo that anyone will ever take of him. The gravediggers finish the tomb, pile the dirt on, and go back to their fire to make a new pot of tea, laughing and joking. The graves are already dug, long rows, one for each neighborhood; they just add new tombs in the line and cover them up. I have had enough of death, and I just want to leave. But we have one more visit to the hospital.

February 7, 2013, Shaar, Aleppo.
A hospital worker rushes a boy wounded by Syrian Government shelling into a field hospital.
February 7, 2013, Shaar, Aleppo.
A hospital worker rushes a boy wounded by Syrian Government shelling into a field hospital.

This time there is no shelling. It is quiet at the hospital, and they invite me upstairs. I see a man who has had a heart attack. This hospital is equipped to deal with cardiac care. I did not even think about this type of care with the more violent happenings outside. A boy lies in bed, his father next to him. I ask what happened to him, the father says his son has a severe ulcer from stress. I get it.

In another ward, in another building, I find a nursery. Three newborn babies lie peacefully in incubators. The nurses hide their faces; no
one wants to be photographed, and I promise not to show pictures that will give away the location of this site. They cannot afford for it to be bombed, because even in the midst of this conflict, people are making babies, and people are still taking care of them.

Febru ary 7, 2013, Tarik al Bab, Aleppo.
Two boys stand for a portrait in a damaged school building.
Febru ary 7, 2013, Tarik al Bab, Aleppo.
Two boys stand for a portrait in a damaged school building.

I meet a man who is preparing his car for his wedding that night. I see people walking with their kids, and when I am invited into people’s homes, women show me pictures of their grandkids playing, just as anyone might do. But just to remind me, there is always a picture of the son or grandson they lost. The war is never far from heart or mind.

Most Syrians just want to live their lives. In the end, these are just people who wanted more freedom, freedom to have political discourse or dissent, and ended up having to fight for it. The war has gotten very complex, very sectarian, and very violent. I am no expert on geopolitics. What I see are the people on the ground doing their best to live their lives the way we all do. They may be sandwich makers, mothers, activists, fighters, refugees, shopkeepers, farmers, or imams, but they all have to sleep, eat, feed their kids, go to work—even if that is fighting—and even get married and have babies.

April 20, 2013, Sheikh Maqsood, Aleppo.
Two Kurdish fighters stand in a damaged garage on the front line with Syrian Government forces.
April 20, 2013, Sheikh Maqsood, Aleppo.
Two Kurdish fighters stand in a damaged garage on the front line with Syrian Government forces.

I am relieved when it is time for me to go. I breath a sigh of relief when I can see the well-lit streets of Turkey in the distance. But I feel that familiar tug of guilt because I get to leave, and my friends and colleagues stay and try to live their lives amid the death that hovers around them. I smoke my last cigarette with my driver at the border, say goodbye, give him an extra hundred dollars, and walk back to a world where violent death is a fluke, not a daily expectation.

Nish Nalbandian

Nish Nalbandian focuses on editorial photography with an eye for the humanity in the subject. His work is suitable for a range of editorial, NGO, and documentary outlets.

Nish has photographed in more than 35 countries worldwide, in a wide variety of environments and situations from wars to sporting events, from back alleys to luxury resorts, and from cities to remote deserts. He is skilled at gaining access to people and areas to photograph the story. As well as well-versed in providing imagery in a timely and dependable fashion from even the most remote locations.