AMMAN: Residents of east Aleppo slept shivering in the city streets for a week of cold nights one year ago. Their belongings lay around them—pieces of home packed into a few suitcases, and they waited. A few fires broke the darkness as people burned clothes and scraps of wood for warmth in the shells of bombed-out buildings.
In mid-December 2016, more than four years of rebel presence in Aleppo came to a close in Syria’s most populated city, once the economic heart of the country. Following a popular uprising in 2011, rebel fighters—mostly with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but also Islamist brigades—first took control of parts of Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods in 2012, and the ancient city was split in half.
In the west lay middle-class and affluent districts controlled by the government of Bashar al-Assad. In the east, working-class neighborhoods, informal housing and factories where fighters held sway and to which revolutionary activists flocked.
In the years of battle and hardship to follow, bodies were thrown into the Queiq River, which runs north to south through the heart of Aleppo. Government snipers manned the medieval citadel. Syrian warplanes dropped barrel bombs on the rebellious eastern districts and their residents, and in 2015, Russian jets joined them. Opposition brigades lobbed shells at the west, killing Aleppo University students on their way to class. Hospitals in the east shook with the impact of airstrikes, and doctors worked frantically with few resources on wounded patients.
The beginning of the end of rebel control came in mid-2016, when Syrian government forces backed by Russian warplanes and a host of local and foreign militiamen captured the last road leading out of the rebel east, completed a long-attempted encirclement of the rebel-held districts. At the time, at least 110,000 people lived in the rebel-held districts, among them, an estimated 8,000 rebel fighters.
The tempo of Syrian and Russian airstrikes intensified in September 2016, and hundreds of people died in east Aleppo: 300 in the first four days of campaign alone.
The United Nations-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria would later conclude in a March 2017 report that all parties committed war crimes in the final battle for Aleppo with “cynical disregard.”
From September through December 2016, intense airstrikes pummeled eastern Aleppo. Starting in November, pro-government ground forces made a swift advance through the rebel districts. Every hospital was bombed out of service, with some hit multiple times before closing their doors.
At the same time, thousands of people fled for relative safety in government-held west Aleppo. Others, afraid of arrest or unwilling to leave, crowded into a smaller and smaller corner of eastern Aleppo that regime forces had not yet reached. By mid-December, at least 35,000 people crammed into five percent of east Aleppo.
Aleppo residents keep warm and wait for evacuation on December 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
The United Nations Secretary General at the time, Ban Ki-moon, called Aleppo “a synonym for hell” at a December press conference.
The battle for Aleppo finally ended in mid-December, with a hectic series of surrender and evacuation deals, by turn delayed by pro-government militias in Aleppo and hardline Islamist rebels in Idlib. During the evacuations, some residents waited in the streets for a week, afraid to miss buses and be left to face the fate of detention or death that they feared awaited them at government hands. In all, 35,000 civilians and fighters left on green buses under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).
The last buses left east Aleppo on December 22. The Syrian army declared victory the same day, calling the Aleppo battle an “important turning point” in the war. This week, preparations are reportedly underway for a military show marking the first anniversary of what the government calls Aleppo’s liberation.
If eastern Aleppo last year was a kind of hell, today the city and many of its residents—current and former—are in a kind of purgatory. In the still-battered eastern districts, people live in the shadows of last year’s violence. Some structures have been rebuilt, but the scale of destruction is immense. Thousands of residents who fled to west Aleppo city have not yet returned home to the east.
The bombs no longer fall. In the place of opposition fighters stand government forces, members of local militias and countless checkpoints.
As the December 22 anniversary of the end of the battle approaches, Syria Direct spoke with nine Aleppo residents both inside and outside the city. Residents inside describe a city stitched back together at the seams after a years-long divide, but still disjointed. Others evacuated one year ago are now marking a painful first anniversary of what they consider exile. All are working to rebuild their lives.
Whether living in Syria’s battered second city, the opposition-held countryside or Turkey, all the Aleppans Syria Direct interviewed for this report agreed: There’s nothing like home, and that is Aleppo city.
‘Still destroyed and desolate’
One year after the Syrian government regained control of east Aleppo, its districts are still filled with rubble, a testament to the violence of years of airstrikes and an intense final battle.
One east Aleppo resident told Syria Direct that people in his district still depend on local wells as they did during the siege, and a Red Crescent tanker truck brings potable water. Electricity still comes from shared networks of large, diesel-fueled generators. The difference, one resident told Syria Direct, is that now the generators are Russian-made, and quieter.
Thousands of east Aleppo residents who fled during the battle, alongside others displaced throughout the war, have returned. By April 2017, roughly four months after the end of the battle, an assessment by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) found that more than 150,000 residents were registered as living in east Aleppo, while 50,000 others remained in the city’s west.
One man who returned to east Aleppo is Sameer, a resident of the formerly opposition-held al-Fardous district. Last December, the 43-year-old father of five young children closely followed the news of government troops and their allied militias advancing through the opposition districts.
When the frontline was about to reach al-Fardous, Sameer took his family and fled west to the nearby, government-held New Aleppo district. There, they stayed with relatives who had previously left al-Fardous during government airstrikes three years before.
“The bombing was so severe,” Sameer recalls. “I had to get my children out.”
Residents of government-held Aleppo city asked not to be identified by their real names in this report because of fears of reprisal for speaking to the media.
For one month, Sameer holed up with his relatives, “in a single room, not going or coming,” he says, afraid that if he went outside he could be arrested or taken to serve in the military.
Hundreds of military-aged men from east Aleppo who fled during the battle or remained in the city after the government reasserted control were reportedly detained and conscripted into the Syrian military. As the government seemed set to retake east Aleppo last year, opposition news site Zaman al-Wasl created a search engine for young men to check whether their names were among some 66,000 in the province wanted for mandatory military and reserves service.
Sameer emerged from hiding in west Aleppo in January of this year. The battle was over. He returned with his family to their home in al-Fardous. Many of his neighbors were gone, but the surroundings at least—bombed-out buildings and stone-gray rubble—were much the same.
“Places like al-Fardous, a-Sukkari and al-Maadi are still destroyed and desolate,” he tells Syria Direct. “Just as they were.” Some of Sameer’s neighbors are working to rebuild their homes, he says, in the absence of larger-scale reconstruction efforts.
A-Sukkari district was the home of Abu Abdullah, who still lives in a tent in a park in New Aleppo since seeking safety in the west one year ago. Each Friday, the 48-year-old journeys back to the east, passing through government checkpoints to take a “stroll amid the rubble.”
Debris still chokes the roads in a-Sukkari, he says. “Nothing has changed.”
Since returning to the eastern districts, resident Sameer says he rarely ventures back into the west. Friends of his have been arrested for reserve duty, Sameer says, and with ubiquitous checkpoints, he doesn’t want to risk moving around too much.
The city feels more tense and divided to him than it was before the uprising began, Sameer says.
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo’s historic souq during preparations for its reopening on November 16. Photo by George Ourfalian/AFP.
“Before the revolution happened, things were better,” he says. “There was no such thing as ‘this guy’s from east Aleppo,’ or ‘that guy’s from the west,’ no ‘this guy’s Shiite’ or ‘that guy’s Sunni.’”
The road to reconstruction
While Free Syrian Army and Islamist rebel brigades shelled and bombed neighborhoods in neighboring, densely populated west Aleppo, the vast majority of death and destruction took place in the eastern districts. As a result, the task of rebuilding the battered east is a far more daunting challenge.
According to UN planning documents reviewed by investigative journalist Emma Beals for a report published by an American news outlet in mid-November, the Assad government is taking the lead in rebuilding east Aleppo and the Old City.
Out of 15 “priority areas” marked by the Syrian government for reconstruction, the same investigation found that eight were not in east Aleppo at all. Instead, the priority areas were western and central districts of the city that did not undergo the same massive destruction as the 52 eastern districts recaptured by government forces and their allies one year ago.
The report called the Old Aleppo reconstruction campaign “similar” to that adopted for the Old City of Homs, which underwent similar levels of destruction during a government bombing campaign and three-year siege that led to the withdrawal of opposition fighters and civilians in 2014. Homs residents told Syria Direct last year that reconstruction had prioritized neighborhoods historically supportive of the government first, and not the most-damaged, formerly rebel areas.
Aleppo Governor Hussein Diab called on service directorates in November to increase the pace of work to resupply lighting and sanitation to all of Aleppo city, Syrian state media agency SANA reported. The priority, Diab said, should be “inclusivity and equality in providing basic services to all the residential neighborhoods” with a focus on those “districts to which safety and stability was returned” in the east.
Syrian state news outlet SANA reported in July that the government had allotted contracts worth SP25 billion ($48.5 million) for reconstruction in Aleppo. The figure is only a fraction of the estimated tens of billions of dollars needed to rebuild.
One priority for reconstruction is Aleppo’s Old City and its historic market. Badly damaged during years as a frontline between government and rebel forces, the oldest part of Aleppo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourist attraction and the heart of the city’s history.
The first part of Aleppo’s souq to be restored is Souq al-Jumruk, known for selling fabric and thread. In mid-November, Aleppo Governor Diab cut a ribbon at the reopening, launching a four-day festival of cultural and artistic events in the restored area, called “Love of the Homeland.” The reopening of the market and festival was “one way of affirming that Aleppo is healing from terrorism,” according to a report by SANA.
Iran, a backer of the Assad government whose forces took a leading part in the battle for Aleppo, also has a role to play in the reconstruction. An Iranian company signed a contract this year to supply electricity to Aleppo, one of several similar contracts to repair the power grid across Syria. One month after the Iranian-backed recapture of Aleppo city, a body called the “Iranian Reconstruction Authority” publicized an initiative to renovate 55 schools across Aleppo province.
Russia, whose warplanes wreaked havoc and killed hundreds in the eastern districts, is also likely to play a role. On December 11 of this year, President Vladimir Putin announced the “partial withdrawal” of Russian forces from Syria, but one week later Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stressed the importance of Russia as a “partner in the process of reconstruction.”
For now, much of Aleppo’s east lies in ruins. Abu Abdullah, who strolls through the rubble each week, says he can’t imagine returning permanently. “There’s no life,” he says. “No water, no electricity, no people and no friends.”
Late one night this week, Hisham Skeif sat down in his house in Gaziantep, Turkey and let the memories of the last days in his hometown one year ago wash over him.
“I was in Aleppo,” he recalled, speaking to Syria Direct, “and I was leaving, stripped bare, with no memories, no friends, nothing.”
Aleppo residents before evacuation in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Adeeb Mansour.
Skeif, 41, was evacuated from Aleppo city one year ago before making his way to Turkey. In east Aleppo, he lived in the Mashhad district, but he came from the city’s western neighborhoods, which he left early in the uprising due for fear of arrest as a supporter of the opposition. “I was displaced twice,” he says.
[For a series of reflections on last year’s evacuation by evacuees, click here.]
In east Aleppo, Skeif was part of the Aleppo Revolutionaries’ Union, the political counterpart of the Aleppo Revolutionary Council, a grouping of FSA factions. He says his work was organizing events such as demonstrations, and focused on matters of public interest. Now in Turkey, he still works with the union.
“I made my stand in Aleppo, and I left,” Skeif told Syria Direct. “Now I’m alive, but I have nothing.”
During the evacuation, thousands of east Aleppo residents like Skeif traveled by bus or private vehicle to rebel-held Idlib province, the western Aleppo countryside, or Jibreen, in government-held territory. Nobody was allowed to remain, though some of the evacuees have since returned to their homes.
In a review of the final months of fighting for east Aleppo, the United Nations-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that the evacuation agreement “amounts to the war crime of forced displacement.”
Skeif and six other evacuees who spoke with Syria Direct all say they are marking a painful first anniversary of leaving Aleppo.
“It’s a terrible pain, it burns the soul,” says Muhammad Qadsi, who worked as the head of the Aleppo local council’s education office in the city and now lives in Idlib.
“I don’t know if I’ll return to my city one day,” he says. “But I’m not sad, since we did everything we could. We stood against the regime.”
With reporting by Adeeb Mansour and Muhammad a-Shafai.
This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of northwestern Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.