City of Ghosts
by Henry Howard

When night falls on Aleppo,
in what little is left of Syria,
the bombs stop just long enough
for the ghosts of the dead
and the living skeletons of the nearly-dead
to begin their slow-motion parade through the ruins.

Hand in hand, the invisible and the forgotten
move silently in the soft glow of candlelight,
for the power went out long ago
along with the light in their eyes.

The ghosts of Aleppo search the crumbled land
for the remnants of their lives,
while the still-breathing lifeless
stumble and pick their way through broken concrete,
and fathomless holes of bomb craters
descending all the way to hell.

Starving in every inch of their bodies and souls,
the ghost-people raid an abandoned bakery,
but there is no bread in sight,
not even a solitary bag of white flour,
only an inch-thick layer of white dust.

On the top shelf a tempting crust beckons invitingly,
but it is guarded by an equally hungry spider,
who readies himself to pounce on the intruders.
Survival of the fittest.

The streets are as lonely and empty as a vast cemetery,
and the burned-out buildings stand like forlorn tombstones
over the countless dead.
With the rising sun,
the roar and whine of artillery eclipse the screams
of those still trapped.

The sky splits.
The air bellows.
The ground convulses.
The earth moans.

Meanwhile, who speaks for the children of Aleppo,
the defenceless slaughtered, or modern-day Anne Franks,
in hiding from capture by soldiers whose side in the war
is as unknown as their names?

There is seven-year-old Bana, with mischievous eyes
and a gap tooth smile,
who pleads with the world through her texted words
that this might be her last night on earth,
and why won't the world rescue her?

Or there is little Qumran,
who sits in the back of an ambulance,
his face bloody, his eyes staring like lifeless marbles.
Only he is alive, but too traumatized to even cry,
an image that leads a veteran newscaster to cry for him.

We the viewing audience, watch transfixed,
as 30 seconds of horror
slowly fade from our television screens,
and our own tears, unshed, pool at the limits of our vision.

Aleppo is our generation's Guernica,
a slaughter of the innocent in a peaceful Basque town,
spurring the worlds' conscience to action,
but allowing us the escape of inaction
until there is no one left to kill.

Who will remember Guernica today,
as the men of Aleppo are shot or beheaded,
and the women and girls are raped
or sold as brides for the Islamic Caliphate of ISIS.

Ten years from now,
we will read commentaries in newspapers,
and safely relive the horror in documentaries,
and President Assad will spread his power far and wide
throughout the Middle East,
and become a great trading partner with us,
for that is the way of history, rewritten by the victors.

And the little spokespeople of the United Nations
will bow and scrape and press each other's hands for photo-ops,
then carry their briefcases full of notes to conferences,
and congratulate themselves for talking Aleppo to death

but saving the last 200,000 citizens
who disappeared in long lines of gray and blue busses
to an unknown fate.
Out of sight and out of mind, their human status
diminishes inexorably
from "Residents" to "Evacuees" to "Refugees."
whose past is a dead city,
and whose future is an endless question mark,
because the journalists and camera crews have all gone home.

At last the long guns will fall silent and rusty over Aleppo,
and the bombers with their payloads of death
will fly high and remote like sleek carrion crows
in search of fresh road kill.
The grass will grow tall and untended over the ruins of Aleppo,
and the tombstones will crumble in the dustbin of history,
for when do the living ever remember a city of ghosts?

From SING TO ME OF A WORLD TO WIN (Vagabond 2018)


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