ALEPPO, Syria: The dead pile up in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo, but times have never been so hard for Abu Abdo, a gravestone cutter for the Sheikh Saud cemetery.
The mound of rubble at the entrance to Bab al-Adib street, which also houses his workshop near the Old City, is all that remains of his home after a regime airstrike destroyed it in July.
“I was in the mosque, my wife and four children were at home. They died,” said the portly man with a jet black moustache that belies his 57 years in a somber voice.
“I have nothing left – only my workshop. I live with my brother not far away, and spend my days here, waiting,” he said.
Without any orders being placed, he is left idle. He sits on the pavement in shade provided by large trees, feeds his canaries kept in three small cages, and shares tea with the neighbors.
Anti-stress pills fill the shirt pocket of his traditional dishdasha robe.
“There are endless burials but the people of Aleppo can’t afford funerals anymore,” he said.
“You can either feed your children or buy a headstone. It’s an easy decision.
“I haven’t sold any since the beginning of the war here, on the first day of Ramadan” on July 20.
Behind Abu Abdo around 60 gravestones are lined up against the workshop wall, rectangular and with their tops cut into the shape of minarets. Some are almost finished, decorated in green with verses from the Quran.
All that remains is to carve in the names and dates for the deceased.
Abu Abdo used to cart the stones from a quarry 40 kilometers away and sell them for 3,000 Syrian pounds ($45).
“The dead are quickly buried hours after dying, during the night or at dawn. No procession, nothing. Just a hole in the ground of the cemetery,” he said.
“Maybe the families will one day put a headstone ... after the war.”
On the wall between two large illustrated eyes, a verse from the Quran reads: “And whatever you have of favor – it is from God.”
In the distance, artillery explosions and gunshots ring out.
The front line between regime forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army lies only about 3 kilometers away.
“When (the firing) starts to get close, I draw the curtain and stay here till it subsides. Then I go back to my brother’s,” said the gravestone cutter, who initially started to give his full name but then had second thoughts.
A shell smashed into the cemetery itself six days ago, and another hit the school next door.
Like all of Aleppo’s residents, Syria’s business capital where economic life has ground to a halt, Abu Abdo is living off his savings. “I have 80,000 pounds ($1,200). I buy only what’s absolutely essential.
“I had a beautiful life before, and have lost everything. My wife, my children, my home. Now I’m here, in God’s hands.”