“A visit to Assad’s Syria, a rump state around the large cities in the west, is like entering an apocalyptic world”
Fritz Schaap writes for Spiegel Online:
On an icy January evening in eastern Aleppo, a grotesque scene of destruction, five men are standing around a fire in a battered oil drum in a butcher’s shop.
Their trousers are dirty and their faces are covered with soot. There has been no running water for a long time. Every evening, the men come here to warm up, burning table legs and chairs from the ruins. In what is left of their apartments, there are no heating stoves.
The fear, though, is finally gone, says shop owner Ahmed Tubal. For over four years, various rebel groups had controlled their neighborhood of al-Shaar, but Syrian and Russian jets recently transformed half of the city into rubble to wipe them out.
The rebels and their supporters have left the city and following the regime’s victory, only those who support Syrian President Bashar Assad have remained. “The bombing was necessary to drive out the Islamists,” says Tubal, a short man with tired eyes. “Otherwise they would never have left.” The other men voice their approval. “We were so exhausted. We just wanted it to stop. And if that meant that everything had to be destroyed even further, then that was just the price we had to pay.”
A visit to Assad’s Syria, a rump state around the large cities in the west, over which the dictator has regained control thanks to Russian and Iranian support, is like entering an apocalyptic world. Large Mercedes tractor-trailers drive water tanks through Aleppo’s ruins while the streets are patrolled by armored vehicles manned by Russian soldiers. Assad can frequently be seen on television while fear can be seen in the eyes of many residents.
Our journey leads us to the three largest cities in northern and western Syria: Aleppo, Latakia and Homs. Aleppo has become symbolic of the brutal bombing campaign. Latakia, the regime stronghold on the Mediterranean, was largely untouched by the war and is still a popular vacation spot in the summer. And Homs, once the center of the uprising, was destroyed and is now slated to become a model of reconstruction.
When journalists travel through Syria, they are unable to move about freely. Officially, we are only allowed to visit places for which we have obtained written permits from Damascus. Furthermore, only people who are acceptable to the regime can be interviewed and any other meetings must take place in secret. Usually, journalists are accompanied by government minders.
There is only one minder for international journalists in Aleppo, meaning that it is usually possible to speak to people without supervision. In Latakia, on the other hand, journalists have a military escort, while there are two minders in Homs. But even when minders aren’t present, it isn’t always easy to know if people are saying what they really think or if their words are guided by fear.
It is clear what conclusion the regime would like visitors to reach: that Bashar Assad is the only one who can bring the country back together again. But what do people really think? What are the obstacles to reconciliation and reconstruction? And isn’t Assad himself the greatest obstacle?
“This used to be a safe neighborhood,” says Ahmed Tubal, the butcher. “Until they came.” He breaks off a piece of particleboard with his foot before adding it to the fire in the oil drum. It was at the beginning of Ramadan in 2012 when the war came to his neighborhood. In front of his house, a masked fighter fired an anti-tank weapon at a passing car and the four passengers burned to death. Their faces were still recognizable and they haunt Tubal to this day.
He ran into the next store to buy bread, eggs, oil and rice for himself, his wife and their two children and the family didn’t leave their apartment for the next 20 days. Ultimately, though, once they had used up all their provisions, they had to learn to live with the war.
Most of the rebels who captured parts of Aleppo were from the surrounding areas, and they belonged to various groups, some moderate and others extremist. Many groups become more religious as the years passed.
The fighters in his district soon banned alcohol and later cigarettes, says Tubal, adding that the bans didn’t bother him because he is a religious man. But when the local rebel leader turned up to Friday prayers with a Kalashnikov a few weeks later, it became too much for Tubal. He stopped going to the mosque and took his children out of the school to prevent them from being brainwashed by the Islamists.
As Tubal and four other men are warming themselves by the fire, the rumbling of air strikes can be heard in the distance. A short man with leathery skin walks up to the group, smiling at first before beginning to cry. He stammers a few incomprehensible words and stares into the flames. “This is Mohammed,” says one of the men. “He lost his mind as a result of the bombing raids.” The man weeps, laughs and weeps again, and then he walks away and disappears into the dark ruins.
Western Aleppo, which was under regime control the entire time, is relatively undamaged. But the eastern half of the city, along with its historic center, was controlled by the rebels and is now little more than a memorial to the destruction of the war. Still, people are returning to destroyed neighborhoods, opening shops and carrying mattresses into cold, bombed-out apartments.
TOP PHOTO: The Hanano district of Aleppo city, re-occupied by Assad forces in December