Jewel of Syr­ian re­bel­lion faces pos­si­ble col­lapse

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

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.

— AP

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.

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