Aleppo residents struggling to survive among ruins
Zeynep Bilgehan – ALEPPOResidents of Syria’s once-thriving trading hub Aleppo are today trying to continue their lives among debris and ruins after six years of war.
The city - nearly 55 kilometers from a border gate in southern Turkey - is trying to recover after the Syrian army and its allies broke the siege and gained full control in December 2016. The reconquest was deemed a massive victory on the side of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but residents of Aleppo are still left with destruction and bitter memories of war, with streets filled with demolished buildings and rubble-strewn streets.
The population of Aleppo was 4.5 million before the war but it has today sharply decreased to around 1.5 million, with many Aleppo locals fleeing to take refuge in Turkey.
Many parts of the city today resemble ghost towns, even though many residents who left Aleppo during clashes have been slowly returning to their homes.
It can easily be observed that those living in Aleppo are far from as comfortable as the residents of the capital Damascus, and their fury is more visible.
The entrance to Aleppo, which was previously known as Syria’s industrial capital, is a sad sight today, with death and destruction looming around every corner. Some buildings have been turned into military bases for soldiers; others have been completely abandoned.
The drive into the city center passes countless deserted or destroyed factories, and the scene gets even more depressing. There are signs of life here and there, but the current state of the historic center of the city is an utter tragedy - though a “UNESCO World Heritage” sign remains ironically standing intact, today with a military checkpoint located underneath.
In those few parts of Aleppo with less destruction, there are some signs of life. Families shop from the markets set up on streets riven by war, while children ride bicycles among destroyed buildings.
The city is buried in darkness every night as electricity cannot be supplied steadily, though giant generators can be seen on many streets.
The lack of electricity has forced Aleppo residents to create their own solutions, depending on alternative energy supplies. Solar panels have gone up on top of many buildings and the authorities are planning to spread the practice across the entire city.
There are no exact numbers of how many people have died during the war in Aleppo, the scene of some of the fiercest clashes in the brutal six-year war, but every demolished or bullet-ridden building has its own story.
“Tens of thousands of people have died. Most people left the city because they only had one option if they had stayed: Choose a side and fight,” one taxi driver told Hürriyet. He noted that he served in the army for three years and was involved in humanitarian aid affairs for another three.
Aleppo University has continued providing education to students throughout the war, but the number of students has decreased to 70,000 from 130,000. The university served as a shelter for many families who lost their homes throughout the fighting, even though it was hit by dozens of missiles during the war.
One of those has been living on the campus is Huny al-Hamdan, the head of the university’s students’ association.
“There are 2,500 families left here. When the hospitals became insufficient to treat people, we formed a voluntary team made up of 300 students studying in medical faculties at the university,” al-Hamdan said.
Along with those killed or injured, the unseen victims of the war are those who have gone missing. Some have fallen hostage to the armed groups fighting against the Syrian army, others have been taken by regime forces, and others have gone missing while trying to escape from the country.
Official responsibility to find those missing currently lies with Syria’s National Reconciliation Affairs Ministry, which was formed in 2012.
The Aleppo representative of the ministry, Faadi Ismail, said the issue of missing people has “turned into a trade.”
“It’s impossible for us to find who is holding the missing persons. But there are many people who do this for trading purposes. They send the videos of the people they have kidnapped to their families and ask for ransom money. Some of these groups sometimes even sell hostages to each other,” Ismail told Hürriyet, adding that some hostages have been saved through rescue operations.
“We were still carrying out successful rescue operations until around a couple of months ago. But the groups are no longer willing to exchange. Some of the groups also started asking for impossible things, such as demanding the return of militants who are known to be dead. Or they may demand 50 men in return for one officer,” he added.
While not willing to give an exact number, Ismail suggested that many soldiers remain captive by armed groups fighting against the Syrian government.
It remains to be seen whether they and other missing persons will return. Although it has been months since Aleppo was retaken by the al-Assad regime, fighting continues without sign of ending elsewhere in Syria.