Renovation work at Aleppo's Grand Umayyad mosque in August 2018. Photo by George Ourfalian/AFP
AMMAN: East Aleppo’s a-Sukkari district was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and among the last to fall, during the Syrian government’s crippling siege and intensive bombardment of the city in December 2016.
Typical of the kind of informal urban settlements that spread out around Syria’s cities before the 2011 uprising and ensuing conflict, transforming pistachio groves to urban sprawl, there is little left standing now.
Drone footage of the Sukkari district in 2016, during the gruelling pro-government offensive, shows the deserted streets of a completely destroyed neighborhood.
A-Sukkari district seen from the air in late 2016.
By the time at least 40,000 rebels, their families and civilians forcibly evacuated from East Aleppo that December, whole neighborhoods had been left to waste.
And yet, current and former residents say little has changed since then.
When former a-Sukkari resident Muhammad was bused to the rebel-held western Aleppo countryside, he knew that he was not going to return anytime soon.
A retired university professor, Muhammad was lucky. Unlike countless other houses in the neighborhood, his was still standing—although the doors, windows and furniture inside were shattered by a bomb blast that leveled his neighbor’s home next door.
Currently living in an area of opposition-held countryside outside Aleppo, he says that he cannot afford to restore the house, and so he decided to sell it. His wife stayed behind to complete the sale of the house.
“Even if I managed to get hold of the money, the area is not suitable for living,” he tells Syria Direct. “There is no safety and it is full of checkpoints and [pro-government] militias who constantly fight and make trouble.”
Fearing for the safety of his relatives who still live in Aleppo city, Muhammad requested that his full name be withheld.
And yet he is not the only former East Aleppo resident looking to sell a home in a city that the Syrian government reasserted total control over in late 2016.
Despite the Syrian government’s promises of large-scale reconstruction projects and restoration of both services and security to what was once Syria’s largest city, and its economic powerhouse, current and former Aleppo residents say that the city is still in shambles.
The bleak prospects of restoring both structures and services—particularly in formerly rebel-held areas in the east of the city—as well as the overbearing presence of pro-government militias has left some displaced Aleppo residents eager to sell their properties as the hope of ever returning home fades.
‘There are many things the government promised to fix’
Aleppo was once Syria’s most populous city and industrial center—renowned for its textiles manufacturing and halabi soap rendered from olive oil and laurel that bears the city’s name.
Though it was slow to join the uprising that swept across areas of Syria in 2011, rebel groups would later seize control over swathes of the city and outlying countryside.
The city would later become the site of one of the Syrian conflict’s biggest, and bloodiest, battles.
East Aleppo was left largely deserted in 2016, after a massive pro-government offensive on the eastern rebel-held parts of the city put a definitive end to four years of siege. As part of the surrender and evacuation agreement that concluded the offensive, tens of thousands of fighters, their families and civilians in East Aleppo were evacuated to rebel-held parts of northwestern Syria in the green buses that would later come to symbolize the government’s “kneel or starve” strategy.
Before and since Aleppo, many times over, pro-government forces have besieged and bombarded opposition-held areas around the country before evacuating rebels and civilians to what is now the final remaining rebel-held stronghold in the northwest.
Talk of rebuilding Aleppo was quick. Less than a month after the Syrian government seized full control over the city, it announced plans for reconstructing the city and restoring basic services to “allow the people of Aleppo to live a normal life.”
Local authorities in Aleppo have also prepared plans for rehabilitation and reconstruction projects in and around the city. Some observers expect that the sprawling informal settlements of East Aleppo could one day become a case study in the kind of controversial reconstruction plans set out in a slew of post-2011 Syrian legislation designed to zone, raze and redevelop whole areas of Syrian cities—not least Law 10, which human rights groups have warned could dispossess unknown numbers of Syrians now displaced outside the country.
Yet, according to current and former Aleppo residents, very little has changed since the last days of the opposition in East Aleppo.
“There is no reconstruction [happening], except for what the residents do themselves on an individual basis,” says Abu Haitham, who owns a real estate office in the historic Old City.
According to former university professor Muhammad, “the situation hasn’t changed a lot.”
“There are many things that the government promised to fix, and yet it hasn’t happened,” he adds.
Though he left Aleppo as part of the forcible evacuations that followed the ceasefire agreement in late 2016, Muhammad’s wife stayed on for another year to go through the process of selling the house. He still remains in regular contact with relatives who remained behind. But aside from the lack of basic services, Muhammad says, the worst part is that “security is practically non-existent.”
“Every other day, you hear of a crime,” he says. “East Aleppo is like a gangland.”
Faced with defections and manpower shortages since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, the Syrian army has often turned to a complex patchwork of militias and proxy forces for support. Often referred to by local residents as shabiha, these groups have become dominant in Aleppo.
‘Hopeless for return’
Since the city was recaptured in 2016, whole neighborhoods have remained under the control of militias, some of them Iranian-backed, which have regularly been accused of looting and expropriating housing as well as clashing with other pro-government armed groups in the city.
Central government has previously made some efforts to rein in wayward militias, but residents and analysts say they are still a major part of life in the city, leaving civilians vulnerable to harassment, theft and worse.
The Hajj Bridge connecting the a-Sukkari and Firdaus district in Aleppo this week. Photo provided by an anonymous source in Aleppo.
In one recent bout of interfactional clashes last month, Iranian-backed fighters clashed for days with the pro-government Barri tribe. The source of the dispute was reportedly a fight for control of neighborhoods full of housing abandoned during the war years.
According Alhakam Shaar, a fellow at the Budapest-based Aleppo Project that documents and maps the urban landscape of post-war Aleppo, militias represent “vassals of the state rather than them being the state themselves.”
“They don’t have that high level of autonomy, they’re basically just thugs of the state.”
At the same time, he explains, they do not target any particular groups but instead pose a threat to civilians in general.
“Regardless of whether you are in western Aleppo or eastern Aleppo, or pro- or anti-regime, you could be targeted or terrorized by them.”
In the long term, says Shaar, the militias contribute to insecurity in Aleppo and ultimately deter displaced Aleppo residents from returning.
Despite the fact that many fled even before the 2016 evacuations, some residents did stay behind—at least for a while.
Um Fouad is another Aleppo resident who sold her house earlier this year, leaving for Turkey shortly after. She says that poor security and economic conditions in Aleppo were one of the main reasons she’s left, “hopeless for return.”
“There’s neither work nor safety,” she says.
Originally from Hamdaniya in the traditionally better-off western half of the city, which remained under government control throughout the conflict, Um Fouad’s neighborhood was spared the levels of destruction inflicted on formerly rebel-held districts to the east.
Instead, Um Fouad faced a different kind of problem: an army officer had squatted the apartment above the one she was living in, after her son—the former occupant—fled for Turkey.
Located right on the frontlines between government- and rebel-held areas of Aleppo, she says it was not uncommon for military personnel to settle in her neighborhood after the Free Syrian Army entered East Aleppo.
“Most of the houses that have been left by their owners are effectively occupied,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if the owner is loyal [to the government] or opposition—just as long as the house is empty.”
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When Um Fouad decided that she would relocate to Turkey to join her children, she wanted to make sure that she did not lose her property to the officer occupying it at the time.
“We were afraid that he would settle there for good,” she says.
Selling the house wasn’t easy. Even after going through the drawn-out bureaucratic process of getting a security permit—meant to give authorities and security branches some official oversight over the housing market—from the local authorities, meanwhile paying bribes “here and there,” Um Fouad says she still had to deal with the officer. He wasn’t budging.
When she at first told him that she was planning to sell the house, he didn’t object, but simply asked her to show him the papers documenting the transaction.
“He thought that I wouldn’t be able to get a security permit,” she explains.
Even after showing him proof, it took him another two weeks to vacate the building.
“Thank God he left in the end,” says Um Fouad. “But even then, he looted the house completely.”
‘Skeleton’ homes left behind
Darwish Khalifa, a journalist from East Aleppo who has been living in Turkey since 2014, has started the process of selling his home—in the eastern district of Hanano—though not much is left given the bombing and looting it has faced.
“The house is just a skeleton,” he says.
“Even the electricity cables have been pulled from the walls and the water taps have been stolen.”
Like Um Fouad, Khalifa’s primary motivation for selling the house is to keep it from being seized by pro-government militias in his neighborhood, though he remains unsure of whether he will be able to sell it after all.
He’s not alone. According to real estate agent Abu Haitham, activity in the housing market is “weak”—supply is high, demand almost non-existent.
A routine obstacle that Aleppo’s residents face when attempting to sell their houses is finding someone to buy it in the first place.
“These days, you’re lucky to find someone who even wants to buy your house,” he says.
Demand is so low, Abu Haitham adds, that people often end up selling around 30 percent less than the original price. In some cases, the people buying are business people looking to procure cheap, badly damaged housing before restoring it to sell on at marked-up prices.
“[Owners] who can are waiting for a chance to get a better price,” he says, although he doesn’t necessarily recommend this strategy. “The prices keep falling more and more, and it doesn’t look like that will change in the near future.”
“Waiting is not in [the owner’s] interest.”
‘Aleppo has been destroyed so many times’
Some suggest that things are different elsewhere in what was once Syria’s largest city.
The very early signs of recovery in Aleppo’s Old City have left some residents hopeful that life will one day return. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City has attracted more attention for redevelopment than the eastern suburbs.
The United Nations Development Fund has conducted scattered “rehabilitation” projects around the Old City, as well as areas of East Aleppo to a lesser extent. And earlier this month, Syria’s Ministry of Tourism released a video showing drone footage of trucks clearing rubble from the streets; men in helmets and high-visibility jackets working on the reconstruction of some of the city’s most historic sites.
One former resident of the Old City, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, admits that while East Aleppo has been destroyed “beyond reconstruction,” the Old City could be a different story.
“Aleppo has been destroyed so many times, and was rebuilt [every time],” he suggests. “People never gave up on life, and created life out of death.”
According to the Aleppo Project’s Shaar, there are some signs of reconstruction going on in the city.
“There has been some movement to rebuild that we cannot ignore,” he says. “[But] outside the Old City it has been very limited.” Aside from efforts to reconstruct the major monuments, he adds, most houses remain “heavily destroyed.”
Though the vast majority of the destruction resulting from the 2016 offensive affected the housing sector, Aleppo’s industrial sector has suffered a big blow from the conflict, too: factions on both sides looted factories, while main trade roads connecting Aleppo to both suppliers and consumers around the city were cut off.
Many of Aleppo’s larger business families subsequently left the city, either moving to other areas of the country or fleeing Syria altogether.
Um Fouad’s family also used to own a textile factory but, like her house, she was only able to sell it for half of its original price. Still, she is satisfied with the way things have worked out.
“Selling the house has enabled us to start a new business here,” she says.
And while she still owns two properties in Aleppo, she hopes to sell them too, “sooner rather than later,” now determined to start a new life in Turkey.
Um Fouad is leaving Aleppo behind.
“It is better this way,” she says.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Infographics Training Project in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.