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Rania Abouzeid

They are a familiar sight to anyone who has been on the frontlines in the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo: striped sheets—formerly store awnings, curtains and drapes—that once blocked the harsh sunlight or a neighbor’s prying eyes, now acting as shields against more lethal threats.

The sheets are strung between buildings (what’s left of them, at least) and across streets. They are meant to obscure a sharpshooter’s line of sight, providing a small measure of protection from an assassin lurking in the shadows of these often abandoned and devastated neighborhoods. For residents, even the simplest task, like going to a bakery or visiting a neighbor, can be a harrowing dash across a street with nothing but a piece of fabric for cover.

The billowing fabric provides unexpected bursts of color in urban landscapes that have otherwise been reduced to a near-ubiquitous gray: the gray of crushed cinder blocks from pulverized buildings, the gray dust that covers household belongings strewn about the rubble, the gray of a once-vibrant city that has been reduced to a stalemated battleground where it can sometimes seem as if the only other color on view is blood crimson.

The sheets also highlight the asymmetrical nature of Syria’s battlefield. The conflict, now in its third year, pits the army of President Bashar al-Assad against a hodgepodge of disorganized defectors, armed civilians and makeshift militias. One side has tanks, helicopter gunships and body armor; on the other side there are anti-aircraft guns and other weapons, often sourced from the black market, and handmade weapons fabricated in local workshops. The sheets are one more tangible testament to the rebels’ ability to improvise.

Photographer Franco Pagetti, who has covered conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other hotspots, captures the beauty of these sheets, and the terror they represent, in this series of haunting images. There are no people in these photos. The curtains serve as a witness to and a barrier between the two sides of this unending civil war. Like so many aspects of the conflict, the curtains are quotidian realities that have been stripped of their mundane origins. Today, they fulfill a purpose very different from their original roles.

Pagetti says the curtains reminded him of the miles upon miles of concrete barriers that crisscrossed Baghdad during the worst of the sectarian violence there, in 2006 and 2007.

“Aleppo’s sheets serve the same purpose: they protect lives,” he says. “But you’re always aware how fragile they are.” As he moves through the neighborhoods, Pagetti says he has to be acutely conscious of the direction of the sun and wind. “If your shadow falls on the sheet, the sniper can see you… Boom, you’re dead. If there’s a gust that blows the sheet up for a moment, you are completely exposed… Boom.”

Franco Pagetti is an Italian conflict photographer represented by VII.

Rania Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Follow her on Twitter @Raniaab.

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Syria has always been a tough place to cover for journalists. Confidently authoritarian with a ruthlessly formidable security and intelligence apparatus, Syria has long been one of the most policed of Arab police states. So when some Syrians defied their government to take to the streets in the southern city of Dara‘a in March 2011, the temptation to cover the story was overwhelming for many, including myself.

The story of the Syrian uprising is ultimately the tale of regular citizens silencing the policeman in their heads, breaking their own personal barriers of fear to speak, to demonstrate, to demand, to reject, to no longer be afraid, to live in dignity. It’s about what these people will do, what they will endure, and what they are prepared to become to achieve their aims.

It is also the story of a significant portion of the population that considers the regime of President Bashar Assad the country’s best option, because they believe in its Baathist secular ideology or directly benefit from its patronage or don’t have confidence in Assad’s opponents and fear what may come next. Understanding what this segment of the population will accept in terms of state violence, the narratives they choose to believe and their concerns is a critical component of the story, though one that is harder to obtain, given the paucity of press visas issued by Damascus.

The only way to tell the Syrian story, really tell it, is to be on the ground with the men, women and children who are central to it, whether in Syria on in the neighboring states that many Syrians have fled to. It isn’t easy to do — the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York City, has dubbed Syria the “most dangerous place for journalists in the world” — but it is essential. Nothing beats being there. There is no compensating for seeing, feeling, touching, capturing, living the story.

The images here are a testament to the power of being on the ground, of sharing and capturing a moment for posterity, of translating an element of a person’s life through imagery.

Take a look at the photos. Can you place yourself in these situations? Can you imagine what it must be like? What do you feel when you look at the images? Are you drawn into them, or are you repulsed? Can you relate to them, or are they too alien? This is the power of translating on-the-ground reporting to an audience. This is why we must and will continue to document the Syrian uprising from inside the country when we can, and we — members of the foreign press corps — are not alone. Sadly, as is often the case, local journalists (both professional and citizen) have disproportionately borne the brunt of the casualties in this crisis. Still, this story is not about members of the media and what we go through to tell it; it’s about the Syrians who entrust their testimonies, their experiences, their hopes, their fears, their images to us in the hope that they will help explain what is happening in one of the most pivotal states in the Middle East.

—Rania Abouzeid

This collection of testimonies is the third in a series by TIME documenting iconic images of conflict. See “9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” and “Afghanistan: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” for more.

Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Reporting by Vaughn Wallace.

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