The 9-year-old Haisam and his 6-year-0ld sister Lina are climbing up a tall embankment separating two half-destroyed high-rises, skillfully grasping at barbed wire with their tiny hands. A few well-practiced moves later, and thy are on top of this former barricade, which consists of a bus buried under a pile of broken concrete and rebar. It was built by the militants way back in 2013. When the Islamists were pushed back away from this road and into the city quarters, the barricade was left intact–just in case. Haisam and Lina traverse this route twice a day–to school and back.
The children no longer react to nearby explosions, that’s an ordinary, everyday minor adventure. It’s frightening to think that the enemy is right across the open ground that’s covered by dozens of burned-out cars. The black al-Nusra Front flag can be seen only 300m away, flying on one of the high-rises. The streets leading to the militant-held quarter are covered with huge tents, as protection against snipers.
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, the country’s industrial center and a melting pot of nationalities and religions. 2.5 million people lived here before the war. Now it’s barely a million. The 2012 uprising in Aleppo, like in many other regions, was not home grown. People from Idlib were bused in to state demonstrations and protests. It’s a well known approach, finely tuned on a dozen of Maidans and Tahrirs. In order not to go too far toward the center, the demonstrations were held at the citys entrance, near Salah ad-Din. The local inhabitants were enthused by these performances but they kept quiet.
Then one armed group came from Turkey, and after them another…And the quiet residential quarter became a battle zone. Then the fighting spread to the entire city which is now roughly split into tow. The east and south back government forces, part of the west and north support the usurpers. But when it comes to the living conditions, they are tough on both sides of the front. Water supply has broken down a long time ago. The pumping stations has been destroyed and it can’t be repaired, as it’s located on ISIS-controlled territory. It’s the same with electricity. Only diesel generators are helping the situation.
No place for kids
Omar Rashun from Salah ad-Dine is a respected man. He is in charge of electricity here. He has a powerful diesel and a complex, to the uninitiated, system consisting of dozens of tumblers and hundreds of cables. They originate at the distribution board and spread like a web among the closely built houses. Any Moscow fire safety inspector would at this point have a heart attack.
–We have a diesel generator which we use to supply electricity to dozens of city blocks, –Omar explains. It’s 1-amp current, which costs 1,000 lira (3.5 USD) per week. There are meters and safety fuses which shut down power supply to a specific apartment should its inhabitants attempt to hook u too many devices.
The first thing that catches our eye in Salah ad-Din is not the dry and stinky mass under our feet. And not the non-toxic smoke coming from the pipes which stick directly out of the damaged city walls. Wood stoves are fed drywall soaked with diesel fuel. It’s more efficient that way. It’s not even the UN-marked tents stretched over balconies in order to protect the inhabitants from soot and uninvited gazes. In spite of all that, this dark and depressing quarter has an unbelievable number of children. They are everywhere, behind the rickety street sellers’ stands, in workshops, on balconies, in stairwell entrances, in water queues. The water is pumped from a well drilled straight into one of the streets. It’s pumped into a small water tank mounted on a truck. Those who are slightly richer, if that’s the right word in these “favelas”, can order home delivery. A rope is lowered from a balcony, a water hose is tied to it then lifted up, and then the pump is turned on. But the majority prefers the free distribution point where they pour water into canisters and other containers before carrying it up endless flights of stairs.
Haisam Daruz, the water carrier, is filling another barrel from the well and talks geopolitics:
–In Turkey they are saying they want to liberate Aleppo. If they want to liberate us from the terrorists, that’s good. Otherwise what do we need them for? In any event, we’re not afraid of the terrorists and respect the army very much.
–Turkey? Here? –One of the inhabitants who came to get water with five canisters, doesn’t understand the question. No, no, what do we need them here for? We don’t need help from Turkey.
A small two-room apartment on the third floor. It’s formally two-room, but only one of them is heated–10 square meters where 6 people live. Three bunks along the walls, a small cupboard with a TV, a cage with two parakeets in the corner.
–A mortar bomb recently struck the roof, but we have nowhere to go to–says Malik Havari, the man of the house. We live however we can.
–How do you make a living?
–I pick up whatever can be sold from the street. If there’s electricity, I make wheelbarrows. That’s how I earn a living.
–Did you hear Turkish prime minister’s statements? What do you think?
–Everyone here heard it. My only son is serving in the 4th Division, so I am for Syrian Army and Bashar Assad with all my heart.
When we were leaving the quarter, a whole kid delegation was accompanying us. They kept shouting at the camera: “Long live the army! Long live Syria! Long live Bashar! Long live Russia!” We returned to the hotel by walking down totally dark streets. Our eye caught the bright slab of the Aleppo international stadium. It took 27 years to build due to financial problems. But in 2007, the brand-new arena hosted 75 thousand fans who watched the first soccer match staged there, between the local Al-Ittikhad and the Turkish Fenerbahce. As luck would have it, the game was a draw: 2:2. Then the friendship ended and Syria did not want to believe it was over until Turkey’s hostility was in plain view.
Near our hotel, only the Matryoshka restaurant, with the Kremlin on its logo, and the hospital had electricity. Ambulances kept entering and exiting the hospital’s gate. Explosions could be heard a few kilometers away, somewhere near the Salah ad-Din quarter.