Major shifts underlie population’s return to Aleppo

Sunday 23/07/2017
Life goes on. A Syrian boy sells sweets amid destroyed buildings at Aleppo’s formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood. (AFP)

Aleppo- During the night, his neighbourhood is like a ghost town. Abu Adel’s steps echo off the cob­blestones and bullet-riddled façades leading up the hill to the citadel, where the flag of the Syrian Army waves in the wind.

The sound of artillery can be heard in the distance as Abu Adel pulls down the rolling metal shut­ters of his shop door. He climbs stairs two floors to where he lives with his family and enjoys his new home.

For a long time, Aleppo was the epicentre of one of the 21st cen­tury’s most violent conflicts. Some districts were wiped out and still lie in ruins. However, six months after the withdrawal of rebel forces, people are returning and starting to rebuild their city.

Some, though, question to what degree the direction of that return has been left to accident and how much might be orchestrated by Da­mascus.

“The first days I was living here, I felt like an animal,” Abu Adel said. “Life was hard. We didn’t have any water, electricity or bread. Now it is getting much better.”

Abu Adel is not originally from Aleppo. The house he moved into was on the front line between the rebels and the Syrian Army. Not far from where he lives stood the city’s historical market place and the Umayyad mosque, both of which are in ruins.

Abu Adel went to Aleppo when the rebels took over the countryside where he lived, he said. He talked about how he was kidnapped three times. To avoid a fourth, he said, he and his family left their village and moved to Aleppo. Not long af­ter the “liberation” — as he calls the withdrawal and defeat of the rebels in eastern Aleppo — he opened the kiosk he works in today.

Six months after the rebels left eastern Aleppo, people are gradu­ally returning to this formerly pros­perous part of eastern Syria. Not a single house along Aleppo’s former front line is without bullet holes, if the walls are standing at all. Com­plete streets appear to be nothing but deserts of rubble, with only concrete skeletons pointing to the sky above.

The streets are filling with peo­ple again, however. The United Na­tions said more than 200,000 peo­ple have moved to eastern Aleppo since the rebels left.

“When Aleppo doesn’t work, the whole country doesn’t work,” said lawmaker and President of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry Fares al-Shehabi, a fervent supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “The biggest challenge,” he said, “is to revitalise the city.”

He estimated it will take $30 bil­lion-$40 billion to rebuild the city’s industry. Government figures con­firm that thousands of factories across the country have been de­stroyed in the fighting.

In Aleppo, the city’s infrastruc­ture has been all but destroyed. The electricity supply is not consistent; large generators sit in the streets. Residents have tapped overhead power lines, with big knots of cord dangling from cables overhead. During the night, most streets are dark.

The water network is hardly bet­ter. Large red tanks have been in­stalled throughout the city, where residents can collect the water their homes need.

During the hostilities, many in rebel-held eastern Aleppo either left the city or moved to the less-volatile western region. After the city fell to regime forces, the United Nations estimated that 40,000 of those remaining, many suspected of being sympathetic to the rebels, fled the city. Into the vacuum, oth­ers, such as Abu Adel, moved in.

However, researchers said, a larg­er shift is under way. They spoke of “demographic engineering” and of the deliberate reshaping and re­building of Syria’s war-ravaged cit­ies upon sectarian lines.

“Through a strategy of siege, starve, destroy and transfer, the Syrian government — aided by its al­lies Russia and Iran — has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians from rural and urban centres in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs that rebelled against the rule of Bashar Assad,” said a study by Dutch NGO PAX and the Washington-based Syria Institute. The report con­cluded that, given a free hand, the Syrian government would likely try to manipulate the sectarian demo­graphics of the country’s key cities.

Shehabi denied such plans, point­ing out that even high-ranking mili­tary personnel have been removed from occupied houses in Aleppo to make way for their original inhabit­ants.

In any event, he has another problem. Militias loyal to the re­gime have started to take the law into their own hands, blackmail­ing residents at checkpoints. Two people have been killed. “They are acting like Mafia,” Shehabi said. Russian military police patrol the streets of Aleppo.

However, for now, Abu Adel is happy. Few people have returned to his neighbourhood “but they are coming back,” he said, “and there is the military, who are buying soft drinks and sweets.”