Taking refuge in abandoned buildings, civilians battle ‘bitter Aleppo cold’

Finding IDP camps full and feeling the chill of winter settling in, tens of thousands of civilians have fled the intensifying fighting in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama over the past two months for the relative safety of unfinished apartments in Aleppo city.

Since the beginning of October, the UN estimates that Russian bombing and new regime offensives displaced more than 120,000 civilians from Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces. Many have sought refuge in houses and apartments whose construction was abandoned in the early days of the war.

Last week, the Syrian Red Crescent led a winterizing effort providing lumber and other materials for 90 families living in unfinished apartments in regime-controlled areas of Aleppo city.

Souhaib Misto, a reporter from Aleppo city, told Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani that while people prefer living in skeletal apartment buildings to the exposed tents of the ad hoc camps, the situation is still far from ideal.

“People use tarps to cover the window openings and cloth is sometimes used for doors, which doesn’t keep out the bitter Aleppo cold.”

Q: When did Aleppo start seeing people taking up residence in unfinished houses?

This phenomenon has been spreading significantly, especially in the western Aleppo countryside. A large number of displaced people, up to 100,000, have arrived since the beginning of October due to the increase in fighting between the opposition and the regime, as well as Russian airstrikes.

The camps in the countryside can no longer accommodate this huge number and people consider these houses safer than the camp with the arrival of winter.

Q: Why weren’t the buildings completed, and what about the owners?

These are apartment buildings whose owners were unable to finish constructing them due to the circumstances of the war: there is always the risk property might be bombed, and besides that nobody has money for new houses when they are focused on getting bread.

Some people rent these houses from their friends who own the building and pay a cheap monthly rent of between 5,000-10,000SP [20-45 USD]. Others let displaced people stay there for free out of sympathy for their difficult situation.

Q: What are these houses like to live in?

Because the houses are unfinished, people use tarps to cover window openings and cloth is sometimes used for doors, which doesn’t keep out the bitter Aleppo cold. There is no electricity or running water in these houses. It is an especially depressing situation, a misery tinged with the pain of war.

The Red Crescent is rehabilitating unfinished houses in regime areas with lumber. Those houses are the priority, and then whatever assistance remains goes to the opposition-held areas, but it is not enough to meet people’s needs.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

James Bowker

James Bowker graduated from Tufts University in 2013 with a double major in Arabic Language & Middle Eastern Studies. He has previously worked with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) study-abroad program and as a remote translator for the Article 25 Right to Health campaign.