Shattered Aleppo is slowly rising from the ashes


A rocket smashed the mosque’s roof and part of the back wall during the fighting that raged in Aleppo during the past few years of fighting. But now, the smell of fried onions and roasted chicken wafts through the battered building instead of blast dust.

Rows of young volunteers at long tables put together meals of meat, rice, and carrots for 13,000 people and pack them in small boxes. Later in the day, they will bring them to the Syrian city’s worst damaged eastern districts, where people who have returned to the ruins were celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the ceremony to mark the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

“It’s a bit schizophrenic,” says Ghaith, one of the volunteers. “Everything is destroyed, and young people here are laughing and just want to help.”

Beyond the damaged mosque where the 31-year-old does his bit for the new start, the reconstruction of Aleppo is under way all around.

People shovel and sweep rubble into piles and plaster over innumerable bullet holes in the facades. Others are opening up simple kiosks and small workshops in bomb-damaged buildings. Little by little, the people of Aleppo are clawing back a semblance of normal life from the ruins.

Years of fighting have deeply scarred what was once Syria’s economic metropolis.

In the east, where rebel forces held out until the end of December and tens of thousands of civilians were encircled, many houses are almost completely destroyed.

The front line to the west, controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, is also a wasteland of rubble. According to UN figures, about 1 million people were displaced in the province of Aleppo by the fighting. But gradually they are returning home.

Bashir Mohammed al-Kamus has set up a small workshop right on the citadel above the city, where he sits on a stool and makes water pipes.

“When the rebels were defeated six months ago, I came back,” says the 60-year-old, who sings the praises of the Syrian army. “Tomorrow I’ll set up a shisha cafe here, so people can celebrate the end of Ramadan,” he adds.

Like many people in Aleppo, the old man curses the rebels. But this may also be because government employees always hover nearby during such talks with journalists. Then again, after the end of the fighting, more than 36,000 people left the city for rebel-held areas, while government supporters were more inclined to remain.

“If Aleppo doesn’t work, Syria doesn’t work,” says Farez al-Shehabi, a parliamentary deputy and the president of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry, and an ardent fan of al-Assad. He is also on the EU sanctions list.

“The biggest challenge now is to bring the city back to life,” he says, reiterating the view voiced across Aleppo, regardless of allegiances.

The city’s infrastructure has particularly suffered: the power supply is poor and depends on generators in many places. There is no street lighting at night, and in much of the city people must take canisters to specially placed tanks to get water. Thousands of factories have been destroyed, according to the government.

The security situation is also fragile: government-loyal militia units have become increasingly heavy-handed in recent weeks, threatening residents at checkpoints and killing several people.

“These criminals are taking advantage of the current situation and acting like the mafia,” says al-Shehabi. Damascus responded by sending one of its best security officials to Aleppo to bring the situation back under control.