Thousands returning to east Aleppo to live among "indescribable destruction" as rebuilding plans begin

AMMAN: One month after the Assad regime reasserted full control of Aleppo city, thousands of residents of the battered, formerly rebel-held eastern neighborhoods have returned to live amidst “indescribable destruction” while a lack of basic municipal services and the fear of detention are keeping others away.  

One recent returnee is Ahlam, a university-aged young woman from Aleppo’s eastern Sukkari district, who fled with her mother and siblings from then-rebel held neighborhoods to west Aleppo roughly six weeks ago. They left to escape the intense fighting and bombardment that killed Ahlam’s father, a civilian, last November.

After arriving in regime-held west Aleppo, Ahlam could not find work. The family could not afford the cost to rent a room. So, two weeks ago, with the fighting over but east Aleppo in ruins, Ahlam and her family retraced their steps and went home. . .what was left of it.

“Now we are living amidst the rubble and destruction,” Ahlam told Syria Direct. “It is as though we are in another world. Our home is partially destroyed, so we all gather in the two intact rooms for shelter from the cold.”

“The government has not rehabilitated the neighborhood yet,” said Ahlam. “There is no life yet. No electricity, no shops, no medical center, no schools.”

“You rarely see or hear anybody.”

 Rubble-clearing operations in Aleppo’s al-Kalaseh neighborhood on January 16. Photo courtesy of Aleppo City Council.

Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s government regained control of Aleppo city in mid-December 2016 after weeks of heavy ground fighting, hundreds of airstrikes and, ultimately, evacuations. It was a major victory for the regime, ending four years of rebel control of half of Syria’s northern second city.

Now, with the city’s east empty of rebels, the fight is over, and reconstruction begins.

On January 7, the Syrian parliament agreed on a plan to reconstruct and return services to Aleppo city, prioritizing clearing roads of rubble and providing electricity and water “to allow the people of Aleppo to live a normal life,” Syrian state media agency SANA reported.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported last week that more than 56,000 people have “remained or re-registered in east Aleppo.” Roughly the same number of east Aleppo residents are currently residing in west Aleppo and the Jibreen shelter for the displaced.

Syrian lawmakers in early January also allocated initial contracts valued at SP1.1 billion (roughly $5.1 million) to begin the reconstruction of Aleppo, SANA reported. The amount is a fraction of the total sum likely required.

The regime’s Aleppo City Council posted pictures on its Facebook page in recent days of its operations to clear rubble and rebel fortifications from streets in the city’s eastern districts.

 A street cleared of rubble and earthen berms on Tuesday in the Sayf al-Dawla district of east Aleppo. Photo courtesy of Aleppo City Council.

Aleppo Province Governor Hussein Diab stated on Sunday in a session of the Aleppo Provincial Council that that the priority in reconstruction efforts was to remove rubble and open up main thoroughfares in the eastern neighborhoods, SANA reported.

Despite government efforts at reconstruction, many areas of east Aleppo remain in ruins. Local and international aid organizations in recent weeks worked to fill the gaps, setting up water tanks, repairing water networks, operating mobile medical clinics and distributing food, blankets and plastic sheeting to returnees and the displaced.

While many parts of east Aleppo remain uninhabitable, the regime in recent days has encouraged displaced residents currently living in west Aleppo to return to their homes.

A video posted online last week by a local pro-regime news page shows a vehicle driving through west Aleppo broadcasting a message from the general command of the army and armed forces, asking east Aleppo residents to make a “swift return” to their newly secure districts.

One east Aleppo native who would like to do just that is Abu Samer al-Halabi, a man in his fifties from east Aleppo’s a-Shaar neighborhood. He fled his home to stay with relatives in west Aleppo during the final battles for the city late last year.

One week ago, al-Halabi returned to a-Shaar to check on his home and hopefully stay. To his joy, he found his home intact. But its surroundings were an unrecognizable ruin.

“The features of the streets have been obliterated,” al-Halabi told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity. “The destruction is indescribable.”

Basic municipal services such as water and electricity have not returned to al-Halabi’s neighborhood, so he could not move back into his home.

 Aleppo governor Hussein Diab (center, in black) inspects reconstruction efforts in the Bustan al-Qasr district on January 13. Photo courtesy of SANA.

“Tears filled my eyes when I realized that I could not live in my home,” he said. “There is nothing to support life here; it is a ghost town.”

“There is nothing but destruction, devastation and desolation.”

Not all east Aleppo residents who would like to return can do so safely. Two east Aleppo residents currently living in the rebel-held western countryside told Syria Direct that friends and relatives who tried to return to the city in recent weeks had been arrested or disappeared. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the accounts.

All the Aleppans interviewed for this story alleged widespread furniture-looting, or ta’afish, of empty east Aleppo residences by shabiha, local, pro-regime paramilitary groups. 

“Even the houses that have not been destroyed have had their contents stolen and sold in west Aleppo,” Adel, a resident of the western districts told Syria Direct. “We have all seen it.”

Ahlam, who returned to her east Aleppo home with her family and is living amid the destruction, says the violence of the past clings to her silent neighborhood.

“Wherever I look, there are memories: the sound of the planes, booming in my ears, the wails of the bereaved, the crying of scared children,” said Ahlam.

“Everything is alive in my memory—in every corner is a sight that will never leave me as long as I live.”

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.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.