In Syria's Aleppo, reconstruction makes slow start

Once the country's powerhouse, Aleppo was devastated by Syria's civil war before Russia-backed government forces expelled the rebels in late 2016 after a devastating siege.
Tuesday 01/10/2019
In this photo taken on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, A local police officer guards as volunteers clear the Old Market district of debris in Aleppo, Syria. (AP)
In this photo taken on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, A local police officer guards as volunteers clear the Old Market district of debris in Aleppo, Syria. (AP)

Among the destroyed buildings of Aleppo, a battered sign between two army checkpoints welcomes visitors to an area earmarked to become a beacon of postwar reconstruction.

"The industrial city of Aleppo thanks you for your visit," it reads.

Once the country's powerhouse, Aleppo was devastated by Syria's civil war before Russia-backed government forces expelled the rebels in late 2016 after a devastating siege.

As some of the city is slowly rebuilt, the Russian Army recently showed journalists around, seeking to highlight its role in the reconstruction of the war-torn country.

Several factories have reopened since the fighting ended in Aleppo, large parts of which were flattened. At Katerji Engineering and Mechanical Industries, 1,000 people are employed in metalworking jobs. About one-fifth of the workers recently returned to Aleppo.

"We started work again a year ago and today we have four operational warehouses," said Salah Mitar, the engineer in charge. "We hope to expand to 11 by 2020."

Mitar said international sanctions against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and associated businessmen meant the factory cannot import sophisticated machinery. The two main shareholders of Katerji Engineering and Mechanical Industries -- Hussam and Baraa Katerji -- are targeted by European Union and US sanctions, respectively.

The factory was under rebel control until Aleppo's recapture and production ground to a halt during the fighting. For the past eight months since the factory reopened, employee Khaled, a 38-year-old father of five, said he had received a good salary but "very high prices in town" still make life difficult for him and his family.

After fuel shortages the government blames on sanctions, the value of the Syrian pound fell to its lowest level ever on the black market in September.

Aleppo's UNESCO-listed historic centre and its centuries-old covered markets are also returning to life. The front line once ran through the old souks but large parts of the historical trading centre have been restored.

Workers still shovel rubble in some alleys, as coffee shops and stalls -- most empty -- prepare to receive merchandise.

Among them, Abdel Rahman Mahmud, 59, said he could not wait to see shoppers back in his 2-decade-old shop, where he plans to resume selling soap and spice.

"Customers will return, I'm sure of it. We just need to wait a bit," said the trader, who lost a son in the war.

The civil war resulted in the death of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests but, Mahmud said, "our lives have changed a lot these past few years. Things are a lot better -- we have electricity, water."

Assad's government won back large parts of the country from rebels and jihadists since Russia intervened militarily on its side in 2015. After blistering military campaigns and Russia-brokered surrender deals, Damascus controls more than 60% of Syria and is looking to rebuild with Russian support.

Moscow says it has delivered thousands of tonnes of water pipe and hundreds of kilometres of high-tension cable to improve water and power supplies.

Its military police have deterred looters, Russia said.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a long-time Kremlin protege with vast resources, offered to fund the restoration of Aleppo's centuries-old Umayyad Mosque after it was damaged in the fighting.

However, in eastern Aleppo, residential neighbourhoods once under rebel control still largely lie in ruin. Flattened apartment blocks lie on either side of deserted streets, dotted only by army checkpoints and, just 10km away, fighting has continued.

The city is east of the jihadist-run region of Idlib, where a Russia-announced ceasefire has largely held in recent weeks, despite sporadic bombardment. The governor of Aleppo province, Hussein Diab, said fighting wounded 123 people in the province in September.

(AFP)