Jewel of Syrian rebellion faces possible collapse
The Aleppo that Ibrahim Al-Haj’s son Laith was born into 10 months ago is now being destroyed. The opposition-held districts of the Syrian city have been surrounded and under siege for months. Russian and Syrian warplanes are bombing the streets into rubble and government forces are chipping away at the pocket of opposition control. For the 270,000 people holding out there, everything is getting harder to find - food, drinkable water and fuel. Residents are planting vegetables in bomb craters and digging wells.
Al-Haj and his wife increasingly argue over what to do for Laith’s future. And there’s a more immediate issue: What to feed him. His mother is weaning him off breast milk, but there’s little else to give him. So he eats what his parents do. Grains, thyme and cracked wheat. “It’s better than him not growing,” Al-Haj said. Potatoes, the little boy’s favorite, are a distant dream. “The hardest thing about the siege is when your son asks you for something and you can’t get it for him.”
Families in danger
Families like Al-Haj’s across Aleppo’s opposition-held eastern districts are wrestling with how to get by day to day. They’re also weighed down with the fear that all their dreams for the crown jewel of the opposition’s territory are on the verge of collapse. Ever since it joined the uprising four years ago, eastern Aleppo tried to make itself a model for a Syria without President Bashar Assad. It elected local leaders, ran its own education system and built an economy trading with the rebel-held countryside and neighboring Turkey. Its residents were able to keep life going amid four years of ferocious fighting with the pro-government western districts.
Now all that is breaking down. The local council and rebels had prepared for siege, stockpiling food and fuel. But their plans risk being overwhelmed under the pounding of missiles and bunker-busting bombs in the most relentless assault Aleppo has ever seen. Near Aleppo’s Old City, Zahraa Al-Sayed tugged the children by the hands down the street, hurrying to stay under the shadows of the balconies. A drone was hovering over their heads. She felt tagged as a target.
She was holding her 6-month daughter in one arm and her 8-year-old son by the other hand, followed by his three cousins, leading them to the building where their school is held. “What exactly are they filming? A woman and four children?” the 29-year-old al-Sayed said, growing agitated as she recounted the scene to The Associated Press. “In the middle of all this destruction, they still keep an eye on us.” The school is one of the few still operating. Most have closed amid the bombardment. To keep herself busy, Al-Sayed teaches at the same school.
In April 2015, while she was out shopping with her mother, an airstrike crushed her parents’ home and killed her father and two of her three brothers. “With one missile, I lost my family,” she said. Now amid the siege, she said, “I am trying to have a normal life. To be a wife and husband with their children, and maybe have a garden for them to play in.” “But life is hard. By day and by night, it is hard.”
Any cooking is done on wood fires, streaking the walls of their home with soot. “Even making a cup of tea to start the day is an ordeal,” al-Sayed said. Mostly they eat zaatar - a dried thyme mix - and olives. Fried eggplants are a treat. Once a week, they have a plate of rice and meat. To ensure a water supply, her husband, Mohammed Zein Khandakani, dug a well and is sharing the cost of a generator with neighbors to pump it. It’s enough for essentials and for showers every other day. But it’s a dangerous walk to the well with the warplanes overhead.
Dealing with tragedy
Everyone is dealing with tragedy even while finding ways to get by. When a strike killed his best friend, Ahmed Farawati started a garden of greens and vegetables in the rubble of his friend’s home. “Every day I water the plants and I remember my friend, who was like a brother,” the 21-year-old Farawati said. “The plants will also be useful in this siege.”
Aleppo was Syria’s largest city and its commercial center, with a sense of its own identity and pride bolstered by a unique cuisine, distinct local culture and millennia of history in its Old City. When anti-Assad protests erupted across Syria in 2011, affluent merchants and professionals centered in Aleppo’s western districts shunned the uprising.
The eastern parts, however, eventually threw in enthusiastically with the opposition. The east was Aleppo’s poorer section, crowded, industrial and more religiously conservative. When rebel fighters from the rural north arrived in the summer of 2012, eastern Aleppo became the opposition’s biggest urban holding. It was never an easy hold. The government has wreaked destruction in fighting to regain the lost half of the city. It has been four years of stalemate, with neither side able to make significant gains. But the balance of power changed when Russian warplanes joined the fight in late 2015. Backed by airstrikes, government forces advanced until they cut off all access to eastern Aleppo in July, sealing off a pocket about eight miles long and three miles wide.
ALEPPO: In This April 21, 2014, file photo, provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man holding a girl as he stands on the rubble of houses that were destroyed by Syrian government forces’ air strikes.