The Aleppo Project: Looking beyond conflict
London - At a time when Russian air strikes are raining bombs on the Syrian city of Aleppo, adding to the destruction wrought by nearly five years of civil war, one group is looking to preserve what has been lost and build for the future.
The Aleppo Project, launched by the Centre for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery (CCNR) at Central European University in Budapest, bills itself as an “open collaboration among Syrian refugees, students, academics, policy experts and others to come up with ideas on how to rebuild urban life after conflict”.
It is looking to the post-conflict future and the reconstruction of Aleppo.
“The Aleppo Project aims to come up with policy tools and ideas that enhance the power of communities to determine their own future and helps donors do more with less,” said CCNR fellow and proud Aleppian Armenak Tokmajyan. “The core principle is to help people, particularly refugees and women, who are often shut out of decisions on aid and reconstruction, find a voice.”
Tokmajyan, an Armenian national, lived in Aleppo since early childhood, only leaving the city when he went to university in Damascus. “I have both life experience and scientific knowledge about Aleppo and Syria,” he said. “What is particularly great about the Aleppo Project is that it is not just about facts or life experience. It is about the connection between these two.”
The recent history of Aleppo, which had been the largest city in Syria, is the history of the Syrian war, changing hands a number of times over the course of the conflict. Syrian rebels took control of large parts of Aleppo early in the conflict, and government forces subsequently besieged the city.
Since then, the north-western Syrian city has been in contention between President Bashar Assad’s forces and various Syrian rebel factions, resulting in widespread destruction, particularly after the government’s much criticised barrel-bomb campaign and the ensuing toll on Aleppo’s infrastructure and civilian population.
Aleppo’s Old City, including its historic covered souks and hammams, has largely been destroyed, while both the citadel and Grand Mosque of Aleppo have been damaged by shelling.
The Aleppo Project is developing crowd-source mapping software in cooperation with the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Columbia in New York. This software, which project personnel said they hope will be ready in December, will allow visitors to mark damaged buildings, relate stories and upload pictures. This will help preserve important elements of the cultural heritage of Aleppo that can be used for reconstruction.
The interactive map is to be created in collaboration with the general public, with Aleppians — those still in the city and those who have been forced to flee — drawing attention to properties that have been destroyed and posting pictures of what the city looked like before the conflict.
“The aim is to create a living memory of the way Aleppo was. This will also help the reconstruction process to identify the way things used to be and confirm the level of destruction that has now happened,” said CCNR fellow and US Foreign Service Officer Jay Heung.
Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict complicated the situation, with few believing an end to the conflict in near. This, however, has not sapped the enthusiasm of those working for the Aleppo Project, who want to ensure that reconstruction efforts have been prepared before the end of the conflict.
“Other cases, such as Sarajevo, show that thinking about reconstruction started rather late, roughly after the end of their conflicts. One of the aims of this project is to avoid that mistake and start thinking about reconstruction related issues while memories are fresh,” Tokmajyan said.
Most importantly, the Aleppo Project seeks to empower Syrians in the reconstruction process.
“Reconstruction will be problematic and. at worst, illegitimate if local actors are excluded or given little say,” Tokmajyan said. “We try to empower existing and emerging Syrian experts to get involved in this process and prepare. Locals are more familiar with their neighbourhoods, streets, lifestyle and city-specific issues and sensitivities and can significantly boost the chances of success.
“We don’t know when the war will end or when reconstruction can begin but we need to make sure Aleppo is prepared when peace comes.”
He said visitors to the Aleppo Project website can make contributions by submitting Aleppo-related articles, photographs and stories. The contributions are posted on the project’s blog in English, Arabic or any other language used in Syria.
“The aim of our blog is to stimulate discussion about the history, (the) present and the future of Aleppo,” Tokmajyan said.