People of eastern Aleppo reclaim their homes and lives
Some citizens return to city but major donations are needed to rebuild infrastructure
Children going back to school at Kheireddine Al-Asadi School in eastern Aleppo, Syria. According to Unicef, more children were killed in the Syrian conflict in 2016 than in any previous year of the war since records began. Photograph: Khudr Al-Issa/Unicef/PA Wire
Syrians stand in a queue next to a water reservoir in the once rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood in Aleppo. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
A woman walks past vintage cars parked outside the home of Mohammad Mohiedine Anis in Aleppo’s al-Shaar neighbourhood. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
People purchase vegetables in al-Shaar. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
People walking in al-Shaar. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Battered but not bowed, eastern Aleppo is largely populated by women in black caftans, heads covered, faces open to a harsh world. They walk alone or in twos and threes, arms linked, towing children, heroic survivors facing privation in flats which may or may not be their own.
There is no mains water or electricity and, although they pay no rent, most cannot afford the private generators providing power to government-held western Aleppo.
Men are far fewer than women. Men are at work, dead, or have fled as fighters to jihadi-held Idlib. When the armed groups who had controlled this area since 2012 capitulated to the Syrian army and allied forces at the end of 2016, 90,000 people left this, the poorer sector of Aleppo, once Syria’s second city and commercial hub.
The dramatic six-month struggle between government and largely fundamentalist insurgent forces for possession of eastern Aleppo, and the terrible suffering of its inhabitants, compelled world powers, finally, to seriously press for a ceasefire.
It is said about a quarter of the former inhabitants of the east have returned to damaged and looted homes, shops and small factories. In most neighbourhoods, the damage wrought by five years of war is uneven. Blocks of flats – holed by bullets, windowless and scorched, but inhabitable and recoverable – stand next to piles of debris from buildings brought down by bombs, rockets, and shells.
Front-line areas have been reduced to slabs of crumpled, melted concrete, fit only for bulldozers. Even in these areas, women in black, their cloaks flapping, make their way along muddy streets, chatting and oblivious to their surroundings.
Life has returned. Homes are cleaned, shops repaired, vegetable and fruit stalls are open, government bakeries hand out flat Syrian bread, police manage traffic. Men, women and children collect water from red plastic containers supplied by the Red Cross.
We pause to speak to a pretty, round-faced girl called Isra, who is burdened with a plastic container filled with water. Her head is covered but she is not wearing black. Isra agrees to take us to her flat to speak to her mother. Her home is up a slope, down an alley, and up a dark flight of stairs. Her mother, Umm Mohammad, a small, middle-aged woman with a worry-creased face, welcomes us into a cold, unlit bedroom while Isra, her sister-in-law and infant stay in the second bedroom and salon.
My companions, Joseph and Lema, switch on their mobile phone lights.
Umm Mohammad and her ailing husband – who works at a glass factory – have five children: two boys and three girls, aged from 35 to 16. They are refugees from the northern countryside, not from eastern Aleppo. Umm Mohammad says: “We were three years in Raqqa. We went there before Islamic State came. After they arrived, we had a very bad time. We [women] had to cover completely. We could not leave our homes.
“To escape we had to pay 500,000 Syrian pounds [about $1,000] and to walk a long way. We went from Raqqa to Majbij to al-Fursan to Jibrin. When the army entered [east] Aleppo we came here and stayed four months without money.” They are better off now as the sons are also working.
A sweet shop filled with dainty Aleppine pastries is a beacon on a dreary section of a broad street of recoverable buildings. Fahed Adeeb Hokan has had the shop for 20 years and makes all the sweets he sells in two rooms behind the shop down a rubble-filled alleyway.
“We work from four to 11 with light from batteries,” he says, proud and happy his workers remain and all his equipment survives with the exception of a gas bottle. He lives in the western sector, returning home across the front line after completing a day’s work.
A sign on a handsome building proclaiming Dawa wa Jihad – Enlightenment and Holy War – entices us through an open door into a room furnished with a desk, fat armchairs and a stack of books, all covered in dust. Wrinkled pamphlets call readers to join the battle against unbelievers. An unarmed soldier who comes to investigate says this centre belonged to Ahrar al-Sham, an armed jihadi faction close to al-Qaeda.
“One room was for meetings, the other was a bakery. They used to give bread to their fighters and, when some was left over, to the people. I didn’t like what they were doing so I volunteered to provide the army with information on where the fighters were based and where their arms depots were found. I grew my beard and everyone thought I belonged to that group. This is my home, I don’t want those people here.”
The Noureddine al-Assadi school celebrates international women’s day with a noisy, bouncy fete for women and children. Music blares and volunteer youths in khaki vests from the Syrian Society for Social Development lead chants, dances and games. Organiser Abdullah Assi says the aim is to give traumatised women and children psychological support. Serious cases will be referred for professional treatment.
The children join hands, forming two unwieldy rings and prance around, take the microphone to announce, over and over, “We are ready!” for an afternoon of games. Balloons hang from the basketball hoop, posters for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees form a backdrop to the stage. More than 1,500 children and 240 women, most in black, come to the party, far more than expected.
The school, one of 24 reopened here, is basic: rooms with desks and blackboards, dusty, cold. Headmaster Abdel Latif Najjar says classes from first to ninth resumed on January 8th, with 1,200 students, many of whom had missed years of education: “We had 16 days to clear the school of explosives and prepare.”
Two workmen are building a cement block wall at the side of the sports area while others assess damage on an overlooking block of flats.
Eastern Aleppo is not a wasteland but a place where Syrians are reclaiming their homes and lives, although Unicef representative Hanna Singer says that international donors are not providing the “mega, mega, mega investment needed for infrastructure and reconstruction”. For east Aleppo the reconstruction bill could be as high as $10 billion.