October 20, 2017

Feature: Aleppo After the Fall

Back in the souqs, I kept trying to superimpose my memories of the place. We passed near the silk merchants’ area, now blackened and silent. Before 2011, I used to stop there and visit a flamboyant young trader with a round, cherubic face. He would give me tea and drape me with scarves. His little stall was covered with pictures of gay icons like Judy Garland, a reference that his Syrian partners seemed not to get (or perhaps they just didn’t care). I still have his business card, with a picture of Oscar Wilde and the quote: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Aleppo in those days was a magnet for footloose journalists and adventure tourists. We would spend hours getting lost in the souqs and then stop for drinks in the dimly lit bar at the Hotel Baron, gazing at its old unpaid bar tab left by T.E. Lawrence, our heads swimming with nostalgia for an era we knew only from books.

Now parts of the city were literally unrecognizable. In al-Hatab Square, once one of the prettier spots in the Old City, I found only a giant, uneven mound of rubble and earth that rose 15 feet above the street, with grass growing in it. I almost stepped on an unexploded Turkish gas bomb surrounded by yellow spring flowers. On the square’s edges, half the buildings were destroyed. It was hard to believe this was once an orderly urban setting, lined with restaurants and hotels. The last time I was in Aleppo, in late 2010, I stayed at a beautiful old boutique hotel near the square, the Beit Wakil. I remember the owner taking me down into a dark, earthen-walled subbasement to show me a network of tunnels built centuries earlier. You could travel all the way to the citadel — the great medieval palace that towers over the Old City — without going aboveground, he said. They were built during the 17th century, when intermittent wars often made streets too treacherous to walk. “Perhaps we will need them again,” he said.

What destroyed Aleppo? It was not the sectarianism that is often held up as a key to the Syrian war. It was not just “terrorism,” the word used by regime apologists to fend off any share of blame. Those things played a role, but the core of the conflict in Aleppo, as in much of Syria, was a divide between urban wealth and rural poverty. It is not new. Travelers in the Ottoman era used to describe the shocking gulf between Aleppo’s opulence and the countryside surrounding it, where peasants lived in almost Stone Age conditions. Later, this divide mapped onto the city itself, as eastern Aleppo spread and filled with poor migrants. Deeply religious and mostly illiterate, smoldering with class resentment, they became the foot soldiers of a violent insurgency led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s. That rebellion burned for years and culminated in the Syrian regime’s notorious massacre of 10,000 to 30,000 people in the city of Hama in 1982. Hundreds of people were killed in Aleppo, too, and a siege atmosphere marked the entire city. The Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, who grew up in Aleppo during those years and wrote a novel about it, told me in 2008 that the city’s cosmopolitan traditions had helped protect it. But he added: “All this has harmed Syrian society so much. If what happened in the 1980s were to happen again, I think the Islamists would win.”

One tragedy of Aleppo is that this rift between rich and poor was slowly mending in the years just before the 2011 uprisings. An economic renaissance was underway, fueled by thousands of small factories on the city’s outskirts. The workers were mostly from eastern Aleppo, and the owners from the west. A trade deal with Turkey, whose border is just 30 miles to the north, brought new business and tourists and optimism. I remember sitting at cafe table with two Turkish traders just outside the citadel in late 2009. Tourists thronged all around us, and the two men talked excitedly about how new joint ventures were melting the animosity between their country and Syria. “Erdogan and Assad, they are like real friends,” one of them said, referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

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This kind of optimism was one reason the revolution took so long to reach Aleppo. All through 2011, as the rest of Syria erupted in protest, its largest city was quiet. But by 2012, in the villages just beyond the city’s edges, weaponry was flowing in from across the Turkish border and battalions were being formed. “The countryside was boiling,” I was told by Adnan Hadad, an opposition activist who was there at the time and belonged to the Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, a group led by Syrian military officers who defected. The council was eager for more European and American recognition and sensitive to Western calls for the preservation of most of Syria’s state institutions. But local rural people tended to side with a more Islamist and less patient group called Liwa al-Tawheed. Tawheed’s members “considered themselves more authentic” and had begun getting their own funding from Persian Gulf donors, Hadad told me. In the spring of 2012, Tawheed’s members began pushing for a military takeover of Aleppo, accusing the council of excessive caution and even secret deals with the regime. The council resisted, saying they should move only when it was clear that the city’s people wanted them to. In July, Tawheed took matters into its own hands. Armed insurgents flooded eastern and southwestern parts of the city, taking over civilian houses as well as police stations in the name of the revolution. Hadad considered the move a “fatal mistake,” he told me, and resigned from the military council.

By then, eastern Aleppo had become a rebel stronghold. In early 2013, elections for provincial councils took place, giving the rebels a civilian veneer. But the councils, initially funded by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, were soon under pressure from the Nusra Front, the Syrian Qaeda affiliate, and other hard-line groups. Later, ISIS forces captured parts of the city and forced residents to live by their rigid code. In theory, Aleppo was an embattled showplace for the Syrian revolution’s aspirations. In fact, most civilians were dependent on a patchwork of armed rebel factions for food and protection. The constant pressure of war left almost no room for a real economy, and many of the city’s factories had been repurposed by the rebels as military bases.

Now Aleppo’s great economic engine lies in ruins. One afternoon, a 45-year-old factory owner named Ghassan Nasi took me to the industrial area just west of Aleppo called Layramoon. The sounds of the city dissipated as we drove west, and when the car stopped, there was an eerie silence. An entire district that once hummed with 1,000 small factories was now abandoned, most of its buildings shattered and burned. “It is a 100 percent loss here,” Nasi said. We walked down a dusty street to his factory, a textile and dyeing house that employed 130 people who worked 24 hours a day in three shifts. The door still had its metal filigree gate and marble steps. “This is where workers stamped in and out,” he said.

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The roof of the Aleppo Eye Hospital, which rebels used as a military headquarters. Credit Sebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times
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Inside the hospital. Credit Sebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times

Inside, the huge factory floor was burned black and strewn with rubble. The rebels had used it to make weapons, he said. His old office had been used to house prisoners. Nasi told me quietly that he collapsed to his knees upon seeing it again last summer. “I lost $10 million in machinery, $4 million in land,” he said. “Even if we rebuild, the machinery is gone, and with the sanctions, we cannot buy new machinery.” On top of that, there is inflation: The American dollar was worth 47 Syrian pounds before the crisis, and now it trades unofficially at about 520. And Turkey — where much of the Aleppo factories’ machinery was transported and sold, often with the collusion of Syrian owners who wanted to avoid losing everything — now sells similar textiles for less. Reviving Syrian industry, and the social glue it might once have provided, is next to impossible.

I asked Nasi what had become of his workers. He said about 70 percent of them joined the rebels. He didn’t seem bitter or surprised about this. Some lived nearby, so when the area was divided, they had little choice. As for the others, they were poor and ill educated and religious, and the rebels promised them a lot. “The average salary for workers was about a hundred dollars a week,” he said. “The rebels paid more.”

For many Aleppans, caught up in a conflict they had tried to avoid, the only rule was survival. On a warm spring morning in 2013, a 22-year-old man named Yasser lay bleeding in the middle of a street in eastern Aleppo. Moments earlier, he had carried his mother, mortally wounded by a sniper, into his grandparents’ car. As he watched the car pull away, three bullets struck his legs and left arm. He collapsed into the street and could not move. Shots rang out over his head: regime soldiers trading fire with rebels on either side of him. The soldiers heard Yasser calling for help and told him to come toward them. “I can’t move,” he shouted. Then a rebel spoke from a nearby building, promising to help. When he answered, a regime soldier called out, “Who are you talking to?” The rebels quickly warned him not to answer or they would kill him.

“I was very scared of both sides,” Yasser told me later. “If I went to one side, the other would kill me.” He lay there, his limbs going numb, too frightened to move or speak for more than four hours.

I met Yasser in March in Sha’ar, the most devastated neighborhood in eastern Aleppo. He was short and solidly built, with a snub nose and a gruff manner. He was selling tomatoes and cucumbers from a stand, on a block where many buildings were in ruins. Across the street was a fruit stand, and next to it, a loud generator, set up by the government to supply electricity. Surprising numbers of people walked the streets. This place had been almost completely empty a few weeks earlier, but now that Russian mine-clearing teams had been through and the rubble was mostly pushed aside, Sha’ar’s residents were returning to their homes. (More than 100,000 went back to eastern Aleppo between January and March, according to the International Organization for Migration.) Yasser said he was one of the first people to come back, right after what he — like everyone else I met — called the liberation. It was a gesture of defiance, aimed at the rebels. “What we lost, we will get it back,” he said. He wore military fatigues, and he told me he re-enlisted in the military after he got out of the hospital in 2013. “My blood type is O-Assad,” he said.

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Later, Yasser showed me the place where he was wounded. It was the first time he’d been back since it happened, and the block had changed, like most of eastern Aleppo. “There was a checkpoint here, there were sandbags there,” he said. He pointed out the first-floor window where an old man had talked to him through curtains as he lay on the street. He showed me the building where he thought the sniper had been hiding, about 100 yards away. He explained how his ordeal had ended: An airstrike hit the building, and the sniper vanished. A man on a motorbike rescued Yasser, carrying him to a house, where someone cleaned his wounds. Later, he was taken to a hospital, where a doctor told him that his mother was dead. The doctor put a needle in his arm and told him to count to three, and he blacked out.

I found Yasser’s story credible, and his uncle later backed it up. But as I stood on the street with him, I found myself wondering: Did he really know who shot him? Bullets were coming from each side. As he lay there bleeding, whom was he more frightened of — the rebels or the regime? Yasser clearly knew how his government is portrayed in the West and seemed defensive about it. He told me a rebel group tried to blame the regime for his mother’s death. Later, he said, the same group admitted its guilt and offered blood money, which the family refused to take. This seemed less plausible. He walked me down the street to his uncle’s house, where he said we would hear another story about what the rebels had done.

Yasser’s uncle was a big, heavyset man with a jowly face and a look of weary resignation in his eyes. He welcomed us into his tiny apartment, where he offered me a stool and sat down on his old brass bed. He sighed and apologized for being unable to offer us tea. Then he showed us his scarred arm and told us the story of how his family was devastated in January 2013. He was driving his pregnant daughter to the hospital when machine-gun fire riddled the car, killing his wife instantly and wounding everyone else. He told me rebels from the Free Syrian Army pulled them from the car and rushed them to a nearby hospital. I asked who fired on them. “I don’t know,” he said.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/magazine/aleppo-after-the-fall.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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