You de­stroy, we re­build: A builder’s life in war-torn Syria

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

When builder Abu Salem re­pairs a shell hole in a house in rebel-held south­ern Syria, he knows it might not be the last job he does on the struc­ture. “There is a chance the build­ings will be hit again,” he told Reuters. “But in the short term peo­ple should be able to take refuge in their homes.” Abu Salem heads a group of 12 con­struc­tion work­ers who re­build and patch up build­ings dam­aged by bar­rel bombs, air strikes and shelling in and around Syria’s Deraa city.

With no ac­cess to mod­ern tools, and ma­te­ri­als made ex­pen­sive by the war, Abu Salem’s men break up build­ings, mix con­crete and carry loads by hand. De­spite the dif­fi­cul­ties, they have kept their sense of hu­mor. Three months ago a video cir­cu­lated widely on Syr­ian so­cial me­dia show­ing masked men kneel­ing in for­ma­tion, bran­dish­ing staffs and ris­ing to shouts of “God is Great”. At first glance it looks like a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of the bel­liger­ent pro­pa­ganda footage of­ten posted by armed groups in the Syr­ian con­flict. But it isn’t what it seems.

“In the name of God, I am Abu Salem Al-Muhameed and I an­nounce the for­ma­tion of a Con­crete Pour­ing Brigade in the free ar­eas!” Salem shouts into the camera in an un­mis­tak­able par­ody of fired-up rebel lead­ers fight­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad. “If you de­stroy, by God we will re­build!” he cries as his men wave pick­axes and shov­els and then de­scend into laugh­ter. Af­ter the You De­stroy and We Re­build Brigade’s video ap­peared, peo­ple be­gan stop­ping Abu Salem in the street. “They said: you are the best brigade formed since the start of the Syr­ian cri­sis,” he told Reuters by phone.

War econ­omy

Syria’s war has de­stroyed the na­tional econ­omy and frac­tured the coun­try into a patch­work of ar­eas of con­trol which bi­sect trad­ing routes, rais­ing prices and caus­ing lo­cal short­ages of vi­tal com­modi­ties. But money can some­times talk louder than po­lit­i­cal loy­alty, and across Syria goods still find their way across front lines, with heavy bribes and taxes paid at check­points. Abu Salem lives in a rebel-held area but sources his build­ing ma­te­ri­als from gov­ern­ment-con­trolled zones.

Ce­ment se­cured from Da­m­as­cus may cost about 30,000 Syr­ian pounds a ton at source, he said, but ar­rives in Deraa at a price of 50,000 to 55,000 pounds af­ter pass­ing through all the check­points. “By the time they get to us the price has be­come 50, 60 or some­times 100 per­cent more than their real price,” said Abu Salem, a 39-year-old father of five who was a builder be­fore the war. Abu Salem is pas­sion­ate about his mis­sion to re­verse the de­struc­tion, but laments he can’t do as good a job as he’d like. There are no engi­neers, mod­ern con­struc­tion tech­niques or ce­ment mix­ers. He and his col­leagues re­use rub­ble and steel from de­stroyed build­ings and do ev­ery­thing by hand.

“The qual­ity of build­ing has changed sig­nif­i­cantly ... If there was equip­ment we would be able to build faster and bet­ter. But these are war con­di­tions,” said Abu Salem, who has had to va­cate and re­pair his own house be­cause of air at­tacks.

Brigade mem­bers are paid in ac­cor­dance with what cus­tomers can af­ford, av­er­ag­ing the equiv­a­lent of a mere four or five US dol­lars a day. “It’s al­ways just (enough for) food and wa­ter. There are no sav­ings be­cause of the high prices,” Abu Salem said. Abu Salem said he and his men stood ready to help which­ever par­ties even­tu­ally agree to re­build Syria. “But if some­one comes with a rocket or a weapon and says ‘fight’, I won’t,” he said. — Reuters

RAQQA: Peo­ple in­spect the dam­age from airstrikes and ar­tillery shelling in the north­ern Syr­ian city of Raqqa, the de facto cap­i­tal of the IS. — AP

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