World

Syria: Searching for hope amid the shattered ruins of Aleppo (Photo Essay)

One of the longest sieges in modern warfare ended in December 2016 when the city of fell to Syrian government forces. More than four years of brutal conflict, which pitted opposition groups against troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, reduced large parts of the city and its historic centre – a Unesco World Heritage Site and jewel of the Islamic world – to rubble. Such was the devastation inflicted on Aleppo by indiscriminate aerial bombardments and shelling of neighbourhoods, hospitals and schools, including the use of chemical weapons, that it would be dubbed “Syria’s Stalingrad”. In November 2017 SUSAN SCHULMAN travelled to Aleppo to document how those who remained were faring and what was being done to rebuild their city.

Photo: A sign bearing a #Believe in Aleppo hashtag written in big blue letters, erected outside the fortified walls of the Citadel which has stood guardian over the city for hundreds of years. One of the most potent symbols of the war’s wanton destruction, the world-famous 13th century Citadel sustained severe damage in the fighting. A year after Syrian forces retook the city, visitors are trickling back.

Photo: Today, the Syrian flag flutters atop, as relatives of martyrs (government troops killed in the fighting) ascend the stone steps and pass under the ubiquitous image of Syria’s president.

Photo: At a café which opened in mid-2017, women chat over coffee; nearby, a vendor sells nuts.

Photo: Another vendor sells bright pink candyfloss.

Photo: A short distance away, workmen cut through stones and rubble, repairing the adjacent buildings and the 150-year-old Carlton Citadel Hotel.

Photo: At the time of the author’s visit in November 2017, the eastern and western parts of the city had effectively become different cities, bearing little resemblance to each other. In the west, handsome five-storey buildings with generous balconies overlook streets busy with cafes and restaurants. Humming generators provide electricity day and night. But signs of Aleppo’s revival are scarce in its eastern part, mostly in ruins. In the east, the city rattles like an empty, destroyed shell. Buildings and homes have been obliterated. No generators hum. At night, there is just smothering darkness.

Photo: In the shadow of the citadel, a new layer of tarmac is being laid to a street, while the blackened destroyed buildings lining it fall to pieces and owners work to salvage their individual units.

Photo: Nearby, on what used to be known as the ‘streets of cafes’, an apocalyptic scene of destruction spreads to the horizon.

Photo: Abu Muhammed, 57, had a successful book store which provided a solidly middle-class existence for himself and his family. He had travelled to Mecca four times. The war destroyed his house and his business. He now rents a house – ‘a ruin with no walls or doors’. Today he is bent over the rubble, picking out small pieces of wood that he is collecting to build a fire. ‘Everything has been destroyed completely’, he despairs, eyes glazed. ‘Now we are at zero. Zero’.

Photo: Throughout the east, the displaced have sought shelter in perilously broken buildings, which they have to pay rent to live in. Atop a multistorey building, shorn of its entire front, a woman is sitting at a desk. She is the wife of Ahmed al Hafar, 58, a gravedigger displaced in the war. He lives here with his 10 children, the youngest only two, along with five other families. ‘In my home, I was very rich,’ he remarks. ‘Now we are looking to just live and we don’t even find that. The war has devastated our lives.’ The meagre salary he earns making oil drums in a factory is not enough to support his family. Son Ibrahim, eight, has had to go to work while they remain dependent on aid.

Photo: In the Khalliseh neighbourhood, a black-cloaked woman walks down a street of ruins towards a stall of brightly coloured vegetables, vivid against the monochrome, where the vendor awaits customers with his head in his hands.

Photo: Across the street, Soubhi Shaikh Khamis, 32, stands in front of his tiny shop selling building supplies. He glances at a coil of grey PVC piping. ‘I had a factory that made the pipes and machines… but the factory – as well as my house – were completely destroyed. Before, we could produce 60 tons a day every day and we employed 40 workers. We’d make between $400-$500/day. Now we are using someone else’s factory in Tartous and I opened this shop but we are only making $100-150/day – and now we have five families to support — and seven to eight workers, and costs have sky-rocketed. It is very difficult.’ Expectations that business would boom on the back of the building supplies trade have not been met. People can only afford incremental repairs.

Photo: Fatmi Bosch, 43, arrives to buy a roll of silver duct tape for her destroyed home. Her family was well off before the war, living off the income from a shoe workshop and a bakery. But both were destroyed and with all six of her brothers now either dead or scattered abroad, there’s no income. ‘We’ve come to zero point — like 1,000 years ago,’ she sighs. Fatmi leaves and Mr Khamis explains that money is in some ways the least of his concerns. ‘I am very, very worried about the children. Not only about their health but about their minds,’ he warns. ‘The children now are always afraid — just always terrified. And I am really horrified too by the injured children. It is just not right’.

Photo: Nearby, Mahmoud Masary, 16 , sits in his wheelchair, waiting among the thronging crowd pleading for aid at a nearby distribution site. He was a football player before his legs were blown off when his Aleppo house was hit.

Photo: Clutching green cards, the crowd are waiting for blankets, nappies, foam mattresses, plastic tarpaulins, foodstuffs and other essentials supplied by the WFP and UNHCR. For six days a week, about 400-500 people wait hours in the queue, numbers of which according to Muhammed Ali Soubahan, 29, who works at the distribution, are rising as people trickle back to the city. Here too, as people wait hours to receive essential assistance, children’s mental health stirs profound concern. ‘I am really worried about my children,’ Mona Quarkoush, 42, says, as the women around her nod in agreement. ‘They now have psychological problems from the war. Now they are afraid all the time. I can protect them in the house but not when they are out’.

Photo: Streets in the east are full of people clasping small white buckets awaiting aid and full of children working, forced to work to put food on the table, dreams destroyed in war are now endangered in ‘peace’.

Photo: Mahmoud, 11, was injured by a mortar during the war. His family fled twice – first to a town in the Aleppo countryside and then to Raqqa. ‘It was so scary; hiding in our houses, so frightening’, he explains, ‘We saw so many dead bodies. I have nightmares in the night – we saw them killing people – we saw terrorists cutting heads.’ They have now returned to Aleppo where Mahmoud’s dreams to return to school have been dashed. ‘I love school. I want to be an engineer. I want to go to school but my family won’t let me – they need me to work. They don’t have money now. They did before the war,' he tells me, his green eyes forlorn. ‘I still have the same dream.’ His 13-year-old friend Zacharias nods. He too has been forced to work. All over eastern Aleppo, it’s the same story.

Photo: In the devastated area of Bustan al-Qasr, Maher, 13, and Ali Shobak 11, are helping their father Abdul Aziz, 50, renovate the apartment belonging to Hossein Hamoud. School is not an option; they too need to help feed their families. Ali doesn’t know how to read, having been too small when war forced the family to flee and leave school. ‘I dreamed for my son to be a doctor or a teacher. Both boys want to go to school but, now, it seems impossible'.

Photo: The horror across eastern Aleppo manifests in countless forms, yet there is also hope. Individual efforts leave you humbled and inspired. Muhammed Mira, 50, lecturer in electrical engineering at Aleppo University, watches as his neighbour makes his way up the darkened hallway of their destroyed building. His own apartment not yet fully repaired, he has used his own funds to revive the pre-school below. He stands proudly in a bright playground, a burst of hope and optimism cutting through a ravaged neighbourhood.

Photo: Aleppo was the industrial powerhouse of Syria before 2012. There were 40,000 factories of all sizes, which employed 800,000 people. Now, the main industrial parks lie flattened.

Photo: Fares Shehabi , 45, is the Head of the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Federation of Industries. The number one target were the factories, he explains, since ‘Aleppo was the captain of industry, they thought they’d be cutting the bloodline of the state...’

Photo: At the Allarimoun industrial park, deserted ruins spread into the distance.

Photo: Yasin Nazi shows us the knitting factory begun in 1950 by his father. Completely destroyed, with machines still in situ scorched and damaged, the building was used as a prison, he explains. A mural with a red river and a shocked looking man covers a wall, peppered with graffiti spelling out ‘Brigade 16, Groups of Martyrs of Badr’. Yazi estimates it would cost 1-trillion Syrian pounds to get the factory back up and running. ‘Who has it? Aladdin? ‘ he shrugs. Past block after block of destruction, a man perches at a first-floor loading dock. This is the lone factory in the area being jump-started back to life. Inside, knitting machines are being readied for a resumption of work. This is on the very edge of the area controlled by the regime – mortars occasionally land here, launched from the trees beyond. When I stepped out to have a look, I was quickly yanked back. Snipers were still active in the vicinity.

Photo: ‘We need factory owners who have gone abroad to invest. We need their money,' Fares Shebahi explains. ‘We need them to get factories back up and running again. But they need security. Lack of security means people do not want to invest.’ He believes there has been a change of mood in the country. ‘Now everyone wants an end to the war – and even a lot of people who wanted Bashar out’ .

Photo: But whether the country can recover and its people find a way to forge some harmony is another question. There is an official policy of reconciliation but ‘it will be difficult to all live together again but we will – maybe in five years,' Soubhi Shaikh Khamis says. ‘We come back and we are with the very same people who destroyed everything. It is hard to be next to them of course. I’m human'.

Photo: Aisha Burkhawi, 41, and Najed Amir Ali, 54, have just returned from seeing Najed’s destroyed home. They voice the same problems and dependency on aid heard everywhere in eastern Aleppo before I ask about reconciliation. They hesitate. Perhaps conscious of the government minder accompanying me, they feel necessary to exclaim: ‘First of all, we don’t interfere in politics.’ But they evince little confidence in the future. ‘As far as forgiveness, maybe the money will come back, but the person who is disabled and injured, we will always see them. I don’t think we can forgive’.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Masary, 16, waits in the crowd for aid, sitting in his wheelchair. He wants to get prosthetic legs but first needs to have an operation – which he needs to pay for. But for now, all he can do is ride the nightmares that plague him. And hope for the best. DM

Susan Schulman is an award-winning video/photo/print journalist. Originally trained as a fine artist, Schulman moved from her native New York to London in 1990 and worked as a filmmaker and editor before turning to photo-journalism full-time in 2000 and video in 2008. During the past 15 years she has chronicled many of the world’s forgotten tragedies, from the horrors of childbirth in Sierra Leone to the wretched plight of gold miners in the Amazon Basin.

Main Photo: A vendor sells bright pink candyfloss.

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