In crumbling Aleppo, Syrians scramble for shelter

Many buildings in Syria's Aleppo are standing on the brink of collapse.
Thursday 21/02/2019
A view of buildings that were heavily damaged or destroyed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on February 11. (AFP)
A view of buildings that were heavily damaged or destroyed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on February 11. (AFP)

ALEPPO, Syria – In the Syrian city of Aleppo, Izzat al-Dahan climbed up to his sixth-floor apartment in a crumbling building, and pushed open the wooden plank which serves as a door. This is home, but not for much longer.

His heart heavy he entered the cold and dark apartment, and surveyed the damage wrought by the fierce bombing which rained for years on the city.

This flat with its blackened walls is the home he has owned for 22 years, but now he has to pack to leave once again.

“We have already been displaced four times during the conflict, and we thought we would never have to move again after the clashes and bombings ended” in late 2016, he said.

“But today I was told… we must move again.”

Dahan, 50, his wife and seven children are the only remaining residents of the building, one of many blocks in the Salaheddin neighbourhood badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former rebel stronghold.

The other residents have all fled. And now the municipality has asked Dahan and his family to evacuate too, saying the block is not safe to live in.

With little reconstruction going on in Aleppo since the army took back rebel districts with Russian support in late 2016, many buildings in the area are standing on the brink of collapse.

Earlier this month, 11 people, including four children, were killed when a five-storey block came tumbling down in the neighbourhood.

The crisis has prompted Syrian authorities to form so-called “inspection committees” tasked with determining whether a building should be demolished.

His back hunched, Dahan walked from the corridor to the living room, his long winter coat trailing behind him.

He pointed to a wall he recently renovated and made his way to the balcony, which he began to cover with a tarpaulin sheet.

“We first left this house in 2012, moving from one neighbourhood to the other in Aleppo, to escape the clashes,” he said.

They later returned in 2016 and “started renovating everything that could be refurbished, hoping we could stay,” he said.

Behind a large piece of cloth used to separate the kitchen from the living room came the clang of pots and pans, followed by the muffled sound of a woman crying.

Dahan’s wife, Umm Mohammad, says they have nowhere to go.

“We know that this place is dangerous, and the building could collapse at any moment, but we have no other choice,” she said from inside the kitchen.

“We have nowhere to go and no money to rent a new home,” she added.

Outside, a cloud of dust rose into the sky.

The entrance to the neighbourhood has been sealed off as bulldozers demolish a series of buildings.

Salaheddin mayor Hasan al-Jok, 44, stood by as workers sealed the entrance of one building with blocks of stone to prevent anyone from entering.

Residents tell him that they would rather stay, but the mayor says the risk is too high.

“Two months ago, we succeeded in completely evacuating one building and only four days later, it collapsed,” Jok told AFP.

“We feel we’re responsible and we should make people aware of the need to evacuate so catastrophic incidents don’t happen again,” he said.

Jok says the municipality is moving evacuated residents to shelters in two other districts of Aleppo — Bustan al-Basha near the centre, and Masaken Hanano in the east.

But “most people don’t want to go to the shelters and they try to rent a smaller apartment in the same neighbourhood,” he said.

The inspection committee has not released figures on the number of buildings in the district at risk of collapse, but the mayor says more than 20 buildings have been evacuated and dozens of families have been saved.

“The demolitions are only a first step,” the mayor said.

A major reconstruction plan is being prepared for a number of districts in Syria’s second city, he added.

“There are a lot of areas in Aleppo where modern housing is planned,” he said.

“They will be reconstructed with towers and multi-storey buildings”.

Abdelmonem Omar, 50, was sitting on a chair outside his apartment block, smoking a hookah pipe and watching passersby.

“When the area was recaptured, people started rushing back, before it was properly inspected” for damage, he said.

A while back, “a rock fell on a woman’s head, killing her instantly,” he added.

“Now we’re scared to even walk, and constantly looking up at buildings, fearing they’ll collapse.”

After years of war, “death is now following us into our homes and shops,” he said.

(AFP)