Thursday 19 July 2018

Independent.ie inside Aleppo: A tale of two cities

Special dispatch from two sides of a beleaguered city whose recent past points to a fraught future

Saad Al Bab (14) who saw friends die when his school was destroyed in East Aleppo.
Pic: Mark Condren
28.11.2017.
Saad Al Bab (14) who saw friends die when his school was destroyed in East Aleppo. Pic: Mark Condren 28.11.2017.

Jason O'Brien in Syria

Sometimes you notice it in the small things. Around here, the kids don’t collect toy cars or dolls. Toys are a luxury. Instead, they collect bullet shells.

These kids can tell you the make and model of whatever shells they have in their pockets. They swap with their friends - bullet shells are unusual in that there are plenty to go round. It’s not difficult to see why.

The rebel frontline at Saif al-Dawla was the last area to be ‘reclaimed’ - or won back - by government forces last December. This once-prosperous part of downtown Aleppo is now a vast mess of collapsed concrete, defiant lumps of metal and unclaimed bodies. Building fronts have been sheared off by rocket attacks, multi-storey apartment blocks caved in by bombs from above, and the few walls still upright are extensively pockmarked with bullet holes.

On street after street, for block after block, these brutal scenes are replicated so that the incredible almost becomes mundane. The devastation is total, and the scale of attack incomprehensible.

For a long, long time, this place must have been hell. For many it still is.

Saad Al Bab is 14 years old. He has seen 15 people die.

“I saw my friends and my teachers die in front of my eyes,” he says simply. Twelve of his close friends, and three of his teachers, were killed on a random day in early 2014 when his school was hit with a mortar.

“I started crying,” he adds, his brown eyes focused on the ground. “Some of my friends were asking for help but I couldn’t move because of the concrete. I couldn’t get to them.”

Saad is crying again.

That was Saad’s final day at school. He was 11. He still can’t pass the destroyed school building. “It is not easy around here,” he says with a defiant shrug.

This is east Aleppo. Sometimes you notice the difference in the big things too.

Seven years ago, Aleppo was a rich city and its 2.5m inhabitants largely lived a good life. There were good schools, restaurants, nightlife, decent homes and apartments with air conditioning and maybe a swimming pool, easy access to healthcare, and the city was known as Syria’s economic engine, with thousands of small factories offering jobs.

East Aleppo has none of that now.

While the west remained under government control, the east was held by the rebels from 2012 until late last year, and was besieged by government forces – and a largely Russian-led bombing campaign - for much of that time.

It had long since ceased to function before President Bashar al Assad regained control last December, its population plummeting from 1m to an estimated 40,000. The figures are scarcely credible.

One year on, and it’s difficult to imagine any other city in the world with a social divide as jarring and uncomfortable as Aleppo’s.

In the Chahba neighbourhood in the west of the city, for example, you could be in an affluent part of many European cities: the streets are tree-lined, the apartments are in well-appointed four and five storey buildings, and the lasagne is nice and creamy and sold in sleek restaurants for about €9.

It’s not that west Aleppo was unaffected by the conflict – it definitely suffered – but, relatively-speaking, its inhabitants were affected far less, while they had far more options in terms of getting away, and continue to have.

“I don’t have any friends my age,” a 28-year-old communications professional says. “Some were killed but most have left Aleppo. Either way, they’re not coming back. I feel like I’ve lost my 20s.”

The young woman lives with her extended family, and they briefly left for Turkey before deciding to return as they were more comfortable in their apartment in Aleppo, even as the brutal besiegement raged just kilometres away.

“It was okay, we learned to be safe,” she says. “Actually I went to Europe for a holiday in the summer of 2016 and my mother was very worried for my safety there.”

She doesn’t want to be named. Around here it’s really just a thin sheen of normality.

This is west Aleppo.

Pictures of President Al Assad – here with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, there with the Iranian Ayatollah – dominate the lampposts on this side of the city. The President would argue that most of the elements that made Aleppo prosperous seven years ago continue to function in the west today, although salaries and employment levels are down significantly.

He doesn’t need to look too far to argue they could be worse.

Ahmed Karah works in a factory in Maysaloun in east Aleppo that makes children’s jackets. He works a six-day week. He earns the equivalent of €2.20 for that working week.

He says he started working to help out his family, but he’s vague on the details. He initially claims he likes the work, but slowly the truth comes out.

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Ahmed Karah (11) who works in a factory in Maysaloun in East Aleppo. Pic:Mark Condren 28.11.2017.

In the factory he has a “master”, who gives the orders.

“He yells at me, he hits me when I don’t do the work in time or not correctly,” Ahmed says.

What happens then? “He goes home and has coffee.”

No, what happens to you? “I cry.”

Ahmed is 11.

At one stage, he reveals he’d like to be a teacher but later he says he thinks he will work in the factory “for my whole life”.

It’s very early days in the process of rebuilding east Aleppo but the lack of options is as stark as the lack of facilities.

Peter Power, executive director with Unicef Ireland, has travelled the areas extensively in recent days and is under no illusion about the size of task ahead.

“The destruction in the eastern part of the city is on such a huge scale it is hard to take in,” he says.

“Even though the siege of east Aleppo ended a year ago, thousands of often impoverished children remain effectively trapped in the city, in conditions that can only be described as inhuman.

“We are hearing heart-breaking stories, and our expertise in child protection services, education and humanitarian supplies will be desperately needed for some time."

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Unicef Ireland Executive Director Peter Power visits a school in East Aleppo. Pic:Mark Condren 28.11.2017.

The Sukkari neighbourhood used to be one of the most-crowded parts of the city, brimming with vibrancy, outdoor grocery stalls, small boutiques and restaurants. Now the shutters are down, the businesses are closed. Sheets of tarpaulin cover the windows for privacy and limited protection from the rain and cold – the glass long gone. Mounds of electricity wires attached to generators gather on poles while piles of debris make traversing the neighbourhood a nightmare.

There are lengthy queues for bread each morning; Unicef continues to provide water.

But home is home, and people have been returning in their tens of thousands since the siege was lifted.

Assad Al Bab (67) is a charismatic patriarch whose family complex here was destroyed by a bomb. It had been home to 40 or so, all relatives of his. Miraculously no one was home.

Now he’s renting a small space nearby as he thinks about how to rebuild.

“We built it once, we can do it again,” he laughs, while simultaneously admitting he has no money and is too old to get a job if there was one.

When he starts thinking about the lack of facilities for his grandchildren, however, his face momentarily clouds over. There’s the lack of street lighting for one thing. There’s the ongoing delay in the huge task of clearing streets for another.

And then there’s health – and the lack of contingencies, both for himself and his large extended family. “There’s no clinic here, there’s no pharmacy, and it’s a big distance to the nearest hospital,” he explains.

The nearest public hospital is in the west of the city. The hospitals in east Aleppo were destroyed, in various military operations that brought worldwide criticism.

University Hospital offers care free of charge, which is a major reason why many are willing to travel and able to attend.

Reema Sawas brought her granddaughter Nour Mashour in last night. She is 10 months old, but weighs less than 7lbs. She is painfully thin, severely malnourished. At this age she should be at least 20lbs, the doctor says.

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Nour Mashour in the University Hospital in West Aleppo. Pic:Mark Condren 28.11.2017.

“Her twin brother Mahmoud is feeding well but she is not like him,” Reema says. “It’s difficult for us economically to get the medicine, and also the food.”

Nour’s mother is at home minding her other two children. She doesn’t come to the west side of the city too often. She was injured in the war five years, and is now deaf.

Her husband, Nour’s father, was injured in the war six years ago. It means Nour’s family has no obvious source of income.

The doctors and nurses here dote on tiny Nour. She has been diagnosed with renal failure, but they are confident that they can nurse her back to health within a month to six weeks.

The doctors and nurses are predominantly from west Aleppo. That’s how it goes right now.

Saab – the young man who saw 12 of his friends die in school – has recently returned to education. He has missed three years of school. But he is a bright kid and, when pushed, he admits he dreams of being a surgeon.

Is it possible that he could cross that particular divide over the next 10-15 years? It seems unlikely. But, around here, it would be a huge statement.

Because around here, right now, it’s a tale of two cities.

Visit UNICEF here

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