War-shat­tered Aleppo, up close

A rare visit to the Syr­ian city makes clear the toll of nearly three years of fight­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick J. McDon­nell ALEPPO, Syria — A se­ries of check­points and bar­ri­ers cob­bled to­gether from

tum­ble­weeds, dis­carded fur­ni­ture and as­sorted ur­ban de­tri­tus mark the path to one of the world’s most sto­ried sites: Aleppo’s an­cient cov­ered mar­ket, the heart of the Old City.

Much of the mag­nif­i­cent souk, with its vaulted ceil­ings, stone arches and hang­ing lamps, is now a charred ruin. Labyrinthine cor­ri­dors trod upon for cen­turies in this for­mer Silk Road ter­mi­nus stand si­lent, aban­doned ex­cept for Syr­ian army spe­cial forces.

The troops are posted about 30 yards away from rebels who oc­cupy the other half of the bazaar, the core of the Old City, a United Na­tions World Her­itage site. Be­low ground, the two sides en­gage in tun­nel war­fare: Rebels seek to blow up mil­i­tary po­si­tions from their

tun­nels, while sol­diers aim to thwart sub­ter­ranean as­saults from their own pas­sage­ways.

At street level, the stac­cato of gun­fire and thud of mor­tar rounds spo­rad­i­cally break the still­ness. Andthen there are the hellish im­pro­vised bomb­ings, loud ex­plo­sions fol­lowed by the cries of an­guished sur­vivors.

“If we only had six months of peace, peo­ple would come back and this could all be re­con­structed,” a Syr­ian army com­man­der said as he strolled through the mar­ket, not­ing that many of the cen­turies-old stone walls were still in­tact, al­beit black­ened by fire.

But a rare visit by a West­ern cor­re­spon­dent to the gov­ern­ment-con­trolled neigh­bor­hoods of Aleppo makes clear the jar­ring toll of nearly three years of war­fare.

This his­toric city, once Syria’s com­mer­cial hub, is di­vided be­tween gov­ern­ment forces and var­i­ous Is­lamist rebel groups, whose brigades form a semi­cir­cle around the town. A stale­mate set in al­most two years ago, and shows no sign of abat­ing.

Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad has vowed not to with­draw forces from the once-bustling city of about 3 mil­lion, de­spite re­cent rebel gains else­where in the north against an over­stretched mil­i­tary.

Power and wa­ter short­ages, along with daily mor­tar and sniper at­tacks, leave the es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion who re­main here on edge. The In­ter­net and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions are spotty. Many of the fac­to­ries that made Aleppo a thriv­ing industrial cap­i­tal have been looted and de­stroyed, the ma­chin­ery and wiring carted off to neigh­bor­ing Turkey, busi­ness lead­ers say.

In May 2014, rebels with Al Nusra Front man­aged to cut off­mostof the­wa­ter sup­ply to gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ar­eas for 13 days. The Al Qaeda af­fil­i­ate is one of sev­eral op­po­si­tion fac­tions in Aleppo. Is­lamic State, the Al Qaeda off­shoot that is a ri­val of Al Nusra, was driven out of Aleppo city in early 2014 by other rebel groups, but main­tains a pres­ence in the ru­ral Aleppo re­gion.

With the air­port mostly out of ser­vice, the army keeps the city re­sup­plied via a cir­cuitous eight-hour road link to Da­m­as­cus that skirts rebel ter­ri­tory.

While hu­man rights groups de­plore­mass ca­su­al­ties fromthe mil­i­tary’s use of so-called bar­rel bombs on rebel-held ter­ri­tory here and across the coun­try, res­i­dents of gov­ern­ment-con­trolled neigh­bor­hoods in Aleppo speak with dread of rebel rock­ets, mor­tar rounds and sundry im­pro­vised weapons, such as the hell can­non, a home­made how­itzer that in­dis­crim­i­nately fires re­pur­posed gas or oxy­gen cylin­ders packed with ex­plo­sives into the city.

In Jan­uary 2013, a pair of im­pro­vised mis­siles struck out­side the fine arts and ar­chi­tec­ture build­ings at Aleppo Uni­ver­sity, killing more than 150 stu­dents. “Ourstu­dents­bled­in­totheir ex­am­i­na­tion pa­pers,” said

Has­san Saudi, manager of stu­dent ac­tiv­i­ties.

The cam­pus, home to more than 100,000 stu­dents, is hit weekly by ord­nance from the rebel side, ac­cord­ing to uni­ver­sity of­fi­cials.

An­other threat comes from rebel snipers. Along the city’s me­an­der­ing di­vid­ing line, which of­ten cuts be­tween densely pop­u­lated neigh­bor­hoods, au­thor­i­ties have strung 30-foot-high cur­tains in a low-tech bid to deny tar­gets. The mil­i­tary also de­ploys snipers, whom the op­po­si­tion has ac­cused of tar­get­ing civil­ians on its side.

The rebels gen­er­ally con­trol eastern Aleppo, while the gov­ern­ment holds strong in the west, in­clud­ing dis­tricts home to Chris­tians in this over­whelm­ingly Sunni Mus­lim city.

The rebels were able to ad­vance three years ago in work­ing-class neigh­bor­hoods where they ini­tially had civil­ian sup­port. But they were never able to take the Citadel, the tow­er­ing an­cient fort com­plex that arises fromthe Old City and pro­vides a panoramic view of both op­po­si­tion and gov­ern­ment-held ar­eas. On a visit to the Citadel last week, army troops manned gun­nery po­si­tions atop the cas­tle.

Since Jan­uary, au­thor­i­ties say, more than 400 civil­ians on the gov­ern­ment side have been killed in sniper and bomb­ing at­tacks. The op­po­si­tion says hun­dreds in rebel-held dis­tricts have been killed in aerial bom­bard­ments.

Just the other day, an of­fice worker at the heav­ily dam­aged— and highly for­ti­fied — gov­ern­ment cen­ter near down­town ran hys­ter­i­cally from her of­fice, cry­ing, “My boy has been shot!” Her 11-year-old son, Abdo, was hit as he walked on the street. She re­ceived a call from the hos­pi­tal about the shoot­ing, a co-worker said.

Still, life goes on with a cer­tain air of nor­mal­ity in this hemmed-in city.

Open-air mar­kets in gov­ern­ment-held neigh­bor­hoods fea­ture am­ple sup­plies of fresh zucchini, toma­toes and pota­toes. Res­i­dents chat in cafes day and night, and chil­dren con­tinue to go to school. The city has, to some de­gree, a jaunty, de­fi­ant feel, de­spite its iso­la­tion and the preva­lent sense of un­cer­tainty.

“This is where my shop is; where else can I go?” asks Ahmed Obeid, 42, a bar­ber in jeans and a green smock whose estab­lish­ment sits at the gov­ern­ment end of the “pas­sage of death”— a wind­ing cor­ri­dor through no man’s land that long was the only pedes­trian link be­tween the two parts of town.

The path closed eight months ago, and each side blames the other for the high num­ber of deaths by sniper fire along the route.

Now res­i­dents seek­ing to cross from one side to an­other — a five-minute walk in peace­time— must take a 14hour bus ride past gov­ern­ment and rebel check­points. Gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees who live on the rebel side must pick up their pay­checks on the gov­ern­ment side.

Le­gions of those dis­placed by the war have set­tled wher­ever there is ac­com­mo­da­tion. Squat­ter fam­i­lies have moved into a se­ries of bombed-out, once el­e­gant apart­ment build­ings across the street from the land­mark clock tower fac­ing the Old City.

“I had no place else to go, so I found this place and took my fam­ily here,” said Zahra Araaj, 42, as she sat in the living area of a three bed­room flat hous­ing her ex­tended fam­ily of15. Acar bat­tery pro­vides the only elec­tric­ity.

Out­side, chil­dren play on the streets amid the rub­ble in a dis­trict that was once a hub for tourists; now it is blocked off by check­points and sub­ject to mor­tar fire.

“A man was killed right out­side by a mor­tar yes­ter­day,” says Araaj, a grand­mother and ex­ile from the rebel side whose son is serv­ing in the Syr­ian mil­i­tary. “But we need a home some­where.”

Many cram into flats in the gritty Salahud­din dis­trict, scarred from fight­ing al­most three years ago in which the army pushed the rebels back dur­ing in­tense ur­ban com­bat.

“This is my home and I’m stay­ing here,” said Um Ha­mad, 41, a mother of five in Salahud­din who, like some oth­ers, asked to be iden­ti­fied by a nick­name for se­cu­rity rea­sons.

Since the battle for Aleppo be­gan, she said, her fam­ily has been forced to move more than a dozen times. She now has fixed up her apart­ment and plans to re­main, even though one bed­room was sheared off in a mor­tar strike fromthe nearby rebel zone.

Elec­tric­ity in Salahud­din is mostly pro­vided via webs of multi-hued wires that sprout from gen­er­a­tors to con­crete apart­ment blocks like elon­gated spaghetti strands.

Over time, peo­ple have be­come ac­cus­tomed to the risks and the short­ages.

“It’s a strange feel­ing not know­ing if a shell will fall on you next,” said Hagoup Khoude­sian, 35, an in­sur­ance sales­man who was show­ing a vis­i­tor a bomb dam­aged apart­ment build­ing in the largely Chris­tian Su­lay­maniya dis­trict.

The res­i­dence was struck by a mor­tar round in April on the evening of Good Fri­day, as cel­e­brated in the Eastern rite cal­en­dar. More than a dozen peo­ple were killed and scores were in­jured. Many in Aleppo’s vi­brant and di­verse Chris­tian mi­nor­ity viewed the tim­ing as de­lib­er­ate.

Though many have left the city, Aleppo re­tains a large Chris­tian pop­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing mem­bers of many sects. No of­fi­cial num­bers are avail­able, but it ap­pears that a larger num­ber of civil­ians have fled from re­bel­held ar­eas, where dam­age seems much more ex­ten­sive.

In the front-line Mi­dan dis­trict, home to many Ar­me­nian Chris­tians, St. Krikor Church has been hit by mor­tar rounds half a dozen times. But ser­vices con­tinue. The shelling has forced the shut­ter­ing of build­ings and schools just down the street, in­clud­ing an Ar­me­nian col­lege.

“We live in an area amid wan­ton de­struc­tion,” said Ners is Sark­isian, a fa­ther of two who re­sides less than a block from St. Krikor Church. “But this is our home, this is my church. We are not leav­ing.”

Karam al-Masri AFP/Getty Images

SYR­IAN RES­CUE work­ers and oth­ers help peo­ple from a build­ing af­ter a re­ported gov­ern­ment bomb­ing of a rebel-held neigh­bor­hood of Aleppo last week.

Nabih Bu­los For The Times

A SOL­DIER keeps watch from the Citadel of Aleppo, a tow­er­ing an­cient fort com­plex that arises from the Old City and pro­vides a panoramic view of both op­po­si­tion and gov­ern­ment-held ar­eas.

Karam Al-Masri AFP/Getty Images

MEM­BERS of the Syr­ian Red Cres­cent trans­port the bod­ies of sol­diers from a rebel-held area to a gov­ern­ment-held area of Aleppo last week.

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