Back to Aleppo

Shift­ing through the rub­ble of a bro­ken city in a quest for home

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @JwanahQ Jwanah Qudsi, who grew up in Aleppo, works for the United Na­tions in New York.

Aplane goes by, min­utes pass. I am sip­ping tea at my cousin’s home in western Aleppo. A few miles away, some­thing ex­plodes. I jump. “Re­lax, that’s noth­ing.” My cousin doesn’t flinch. “You should have heard when it was the build­ing next door.” The Syr­ian regime and its al­lies were try­ing to push back the western front out­side Aleppo, my home town, in April. The city had been the cen­ter of the Syr­ian war for al­most five years; the regime had re­cap­tured the east­ern side just four months ear­lier. Key high­ways and ar­eas out­side the city, how­ever, were still be­ing fought over. Rebels were re­trench­ing on the western city lim­its, in the di­rec­tion of the ex­plo­sion, and the Is­lamic State lurked an hour’s drive east.

This was the first time I’d been able to come home since my par­ents and I left in 2011; for al­most six years, I had watched my city fall apart from afar. Se­cu­rity had im­proved since the gov­ern­ment re­took the east, and a few like me, who’d fled the fight­ing, were chanc­ing a trip back. I re­turned to Aleppo know­ing that it wouldn’t be the same place I’d left. But none of my cau­tion could pre­pare me for what had un­folded — or the things peo­ple had done to sur­vive.

Ihad ar­rived the day be­fore from Beirut, with one of the many drivers who make a liv­ing fer­ry­ing pas­sen­gers across the bor­der and back, charg­ing about $360 per car for the 560-mile round trip. I wanted to find cher­ished things I’d left be­hind — diaries, photo al­bums, my birth cer­tifi­cate — and to see what had hap­pened to peo­ple I cared about. I wanted to re­mind my­self that I had a home to go back to.

Mo­hamad (not his real name) picked me up in Beirut at 2:30 a.m., the stan­dard de­par­ture time, from the apart­ment of my clos­est child­hood friend, who had re­lo­cated there dur­ing the war. Mo­hamad ripped the air­line tags off my lug­gage and in­tro­duced me to the other pas­sen­gers shar­ing the ride: two well-heeled women re­turn­ing from France and Saudi Ara­bia, where they had been liv­ing for sev­eral years, to visit the homes they had left be­hind. He told us we would ar­rive some­time be­tween 9 a.m. and noon, de­pend­ing on un­pre­dictable bor­der guards and the par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous Khanaser road, which led to our city.

Mo­hamad had a lead foot and a golden tongue that could get him out of any trou­ble. We breezed through the bor­der cross­ings by say­ing as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. Once in Syria, he greeted many of the sol­diers sta­tioned at the 20-plus check­points by name, and he knew which check­points to speed through with­out stop­ping. “Th­ese guys aren’t the army,” he said af­ter rac­ing by two men dressed in cam­ou­flage who had set up two tires along the road. “They just want money.” They could pick up about 40 cents from each car that passed, Mo­hamad told us, enough to buy a stack of bread or a large wa­ter bot­tle.

“Where are you headed?” asked ev­ery sol­dier who stopped us. Mo­hamad had a mil­i­tary ID — he didn’t say how — and af­ter he handed it over for in­spec­tion, he would an­nounce our des­ti­na­tion. Our end­point and our ori­gin changed dur­ing the trip to the near­est cities, be­cause ev­ery­one knew that if you were trav­el­ing far, you would have cash in your pock­ets.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, the sol­diers asked to see our IDs or look in the trunk. Some would say things like “I need to scan th­ese,” and run to a nearby build­ing to check a mil­i­tary data­base to see if any of us were wanted for any rea­son.

“You’re good to go,” they al­ways said, their AK-47s hang­ing off their shoul­ders. Mo­hamad called them “habibi,” “my friend,” and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally slapped their hands, pass­ing off small bits of currency in thanks.

“What are all th­ese flags?” We sped by yel­low ones, red ones, Syr­ian ones, hap­haz­ardly set up at each check­point but also be­side the road on long stretches of what seemed like noth­ing. Ev­ery­one in Syria knows the yel­low of Hezbol­lah, but I was sur­prised to see red flags for Afghan fight­ers. Mo­hamad said they were Shi­ite Afghans who’d come to op­pose the Is­lamic State. It was ru­mored that their leader was Ira­nian.

The first five hours of the trip were quiet, much like a road trip through the Amer­i­can Mid­west (ex­cept for the squat toi­lets at rest stops). Mo­hamad bought us cof­fee and told us about his asy­lum in­ter­views in An­glo­phone em­bassies. He was hop­ing to give his fam­ily a bet­ter life in the West, but he wor­ried that if his interviewers found out what he did for a liv­ing, they would re­ject him. The singer Fairuz played on the ra­dio as the sun came up.

At 7 a.m., in Ithriyah, Mo­hamad parked be­hind a line of trucks car­ry­ing cargo hid­den by ny­lon cov­ers check­ered with faded United Na­tions lo­gos. “Now we wait for them to open the Khanaser route. It usu­ally hap­pens around 8 a.m.” The in­fa­mous route is a nar­row, 33-mile strip of road be­tween Ithriyah and Khanaser con­trolled by the Syr­ian regime. At the time, the Is­lamic State hid in the hills a few miles to the east. A few miles to the west were al-Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated fight­ers. Ev­ery day, the regime sol­diers who se­cured the road al­lowed cargo trucks and civil­ian ve­hi­cles to pass for a few hours be­fore the fight­ing re­sumed at night — a sort of un­spo­ken truce, it seemed, though I could not con­firm it. The route is Aleppo’s life­line to the rest of the coun­try and thus very valu­able to those who con­trol it.

At about 8 a.m., the men chat­ting near their ve­hi­cles walked back and started their en­gines. Within sec­onds, our car was speed­ing past the trucks at 100 miles per hour. “I know you love your speed, but is this re­ally neces- sary?” I asked. I clutched the door and sank into my seat.

“Lis­ten,” Mo­hamad be­gan, “this is an open and ex­posed road. There’s the Rus­sian tank ISIS blew up a few months ago.” We zoomed by the ma­chine’s ashy car­cass on the side of the road, along with a few tall mounds of dirt and three truck skele­tons. If no one had moved th­ese, I thought, it was prob­a­bly be­cause it was too dan­ger­ous to try.

Alit­tle more than an hour af­ter cross­ing through Khanaser, we ap­proached the rem­nants of a de­stroyed city. Shep­herds guided their sheep along­side the road, near roofs that looked like they’d been pressed down un­til one cor­ner touched the ground. Th­ese sunken-cake build­ings grew in num­ber, and af­ter we crossed the fi­nal check­point at the east­ern city limit of Aleppo, they dom­i­nated the land­scape.

East­ern Aleppo, the larger of the city’s two sides, had borne the brunt of the fight and had often been shelled. Now it re­sem­bled a ghost town, with oc­ca­sional signs of life. The man walk­ing down the street, the clothes­lines on bal­conies of the few build­ings that still stood, the store­front with the rolled-up metal shut­ter.

“Stop tak­ing pic­tures!” Mo­hamad said to me sev­eral times. The equally awed older woman sit­ting next to him scolded him for yelling. He in­sisted: “I don’t want the sol­diers to ask ques­tions.” I pre­tended to lower my phone but kept shoot­ing the re­mains of my city.

We hugged the outer ring road, trav­el­ing around the north­ern part of Aleppo, and even­tu­ally we reached the western side. The west, which had been con­trolled by the regime through­out the con­flict, had seen sig­nif­i­cantly less dam­age. It was ex­actly as I re­mem­bered it. The build­ings were al­most all in­tact, and the streets had pot­holes but were brim­ming with traf­fic. Stalls were set up along al­most ev­ery road: food, cell­phone cases, bread, lamps. Peo­ple were ev­ery­where, chil­dren mostly, cross­ing the streets at ev­ery an­gle and ev­ery pace.

“You should have been here a few months ago,” al­most ev­ery­one I saw over the next few days told me. “It was com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

I caught up with cousins, fam­ily friends, par­ents of friends who had moved abroad, and friends who re­mained. I joined my par­ents, who had ar­rived a few days ear­lier and were stay­ing at the only re­main­ing ho­tel in the city, the Cham Palace.

They all told me their sto­ries. One friend, whose hus­band worked as a trauma surgeon at the Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal in western Aleppo, showed me a hand­ful of odd ob­jects he had ex­tracted from pa­tients and clan­des­tinely kept as re­minders. “He pulled a mor­tar shell pro­pel­ler out of a pa­tient’s body,” she said. “I have some sen­ti­men­tal at­tach­ment to this bul­let, be­cause it flew by my foot.” She gen­er­ously of­fered her stash of rounds when I asked for sou­venirs. (Be­fore I could fly back to my adopted home, New York, au­thor­i­ties in the Beirut air­port con­fis­cated them, caus­ing me to miss my flight.)

Be­fore De­cem­ber 2016, res­i­dents of western Aleppo mainly feared three types of fall­ing ob­jects: short-range pro­pelled mor­tar shells, rocket-pro­pelled grenades and bul­lets, mostly com­ing from the east. Any of them could kill a per­son out in the open, in a car or in their home. But the west doesn’t have sunken cakes.

My mom’s best friend lives in one of the mostly Chris­tian neigh­bor­hoods of western Aleppo clos­est to what used to be the front. “An RPG fell a few feet from me and my sis­ter one day when we were walk­ing down my street,” she re­mem­bered. “My ears kept ring­ing for hours. A man nearby died.” I inched over the gi­ant pot­holes as I drove her home in our old fam­ily car af­ter a day of catch­ing up and lis­tened to her ex­pe­ri­ence of the war.

My cousin could not be­lieve I had ac­tu­ally re­turned. She had earned her de­gree in biotech­nol­ogy from the Univer­sity of Aleppo but was hav­ing trou­ble find­ing a job in her field. Most peo­ple were hav­ing trou­ble find­ing any job. And those who did are paid pre­war salaries, even though in­fla­tion has risen ten­fold.

Even if it has fared bet­ter than the east­ern side, western Aleppo still lacks ba­sic ser­vices. Run­ning wa­ter comes and goes through­out the day now, but be­fore De­cem­ber, it could come once a week for an hour. My best friend’s mom would fill a con­tainer and use it all week: clean­ing, show­er­ing, cook­ing. In the freez­ing win­ter, when heat­ing gas was close to nonex­is­tent, bathing was op­tional. “I would dread tak­ing a shower in the win­ter be­cause the bath­room was too cold,” my cousin said.

Elec­tric­ity was also spo­radic when the city was di­vided, but to­day its avail­abil­ity has cre­ated a lux­ury mar­ket of its own. What used to be an or­ga­nized grid is now a tan­gle of wires sus­pended be­tween build­ings and street posts, pro­vid­ing those who pay with “am­pere,” or amps. One amp pow­ers a fridge and a light­bulb and costs roughly $3 per week, paid to the city. To ren­der a home ad­e­quate for ba­sic liv­ing — a fan here and there (be­cause air con­di­tion­ers have be­come unimag­in­ably ex­pen­sive to power), a small elec­tric heater in the win­ter (be­cause there’s no gas for the reg­u­lar heaters) — would re­quire at least 10 amps, at $30 per week, well be­yond what most Syr­i­ans can af­ford.

Ev­ery­where, un­fin­ished build­ings are boarded up and used as shel­ters. So are old schools, mosque halls, aban­doned homes, empty of­fices. Dis­placed peo­ple from de­stroyed parts of the city or nearby towns live, of­fi­cially or un­of­fi­cially, in ev­ery pos­si­ble space the city has to of­fer. “Peo­ple broke into my dad’s of­fice down­town and started liv­ing there, so he had to force them out,” my friend told me, re­fer­ring to an un­used of­fice.

“Why couldn’t he just let them stay?” I asked. Surely peo­ple could see the ben­e­fit in of­fer­ing space to fam­i­lies in need. But rental laws would make it al­most im­pos­si­ble to re­claim that space if busi­ness were to pick up again, so the space re­mains empty.

On my third day in Aleppo, my fa­ther and I re­turned to the Old City, the his­toric quar­ter he had ded­i­cated most of his ca­reer as an ar­chi­tect to pre­serv­ing. The neigh­bor­hood, nes­tled be­tween the east­ern and western sides of town, is roughly the size of Cen­tral Park. It’s one of the old­est con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited ur­ban ar­eas in the world, but UNESCO now es­ti­mates that 60 per­cent has been “se­verely dam­aged” by fight­ing.

We were search­ing for the old court­yard house turned of­fice where my fa­ther had worked for decades. At first we at­tempted to fol­low a fa­mil­iar route from a rel­a­tively in­tact neigh­bor­hood just west of the Old City. But ev­ery time we set off into the maze, we found dead ends: a few metal bar­rels over a mound of dirt block­ing the four-foot-wide street. “Don’t! There may be mines,” a friend who’d driven us into the Old City said when I tried to climb over.

The roads here were too nar­row for a tank or a large army to move through quickly. The streets were lined with ad­join­ing two-story houses, so sol­diers had blown holes in the walls be­tween them to move across the district un­de­tected. By climb­ing through th­ese holes, we fi­nally found the of­fice, which had sur­vived, even though ev­ery­thing across the street from it hadn’t.

Be­fore the chauf­feured ride back to Beirut, I spent my last day in Aleppo run­ning er­rands with the fam­ily car. But I slammed on the brakes when a boy of about 10 ran across the road, cig­a­rette in hand. It was the mid­dle of a week­day. Chil­dren around his age and younger waited out­side restau­rants, ask­ing peo­ple for food. Kids manned al­most ev­ery stall and su­per­mar­ket I went to and could give me di­rec­tions bet­ter than the grown-ups. A cou­ple of times, I found my­self star­ing at chil­dren who looked 6, real­iz­ing that they were the phys­i­cal em­bod­i­ment of the length of this war. They have never known their coun­try at peace.


The east­ern side of Aleppo, Syria, was hit hard­est. Much of the city is a sham­bles af­ter six years of war.

TOP: In western Aleppo, which was con­trolled by the Syr­ian regime throught the years­long bat­tle for the city, the streets are filled with com­merce, and life is re­turn­ing to nor­mal.


ABOVE: In east­ern Aleppo, the scene of most of the fight­ing, the land­scape is far more des­o­late. A child and his mother look through the ru­ins of a beauty shop in search of nail pol­ish.


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