Wednesday, 9 August 2017
Exiles despair for city of ghosts, all that remains of old Aleppo
'When he speaks of his house in Aleppo, Abu Fares al-Halabi remembers it as it was before he fled into exile: the honey-coloured stone arches sweeping over the lower rooms, the breezes coming through the wood lattice windows, and the scent of jasmine in the courtyard.
Relatives and former neighbours have described the reality now. An outer wall has been destroyed by a barrel bomb, opening the way for looters. Much of the neighbourhood is destroyed. “My father wants to rebuild it, other relatives say forget it,” said Mr Halabi, 31, of the house where he grew up in Aleppo’s old city.
“We sent a carpenter to repair the door, but as he was doing it a local official came past and told him not to bother, as it will only be broken into again by the looters. Then the official helped himself to one of our antique hookah pipes.”
Aleppo’s ancient heart is home to a huge souk, an imposing citadel, a famous mosque, and a warren of alleyways full of houses and businesses.
Before the war it was home to an estimated 120,000 people, many of whom fled as the area became the epicentre of battles between rebel forces and the Syrian regime. After three and a half years of conflict, the city was recaptured by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allies in December, but much of the area that was once controlled by the rebels remains in ruins.
Mazen Samman, UNESCO’s program co-ordinator in Aleppo, said last week that detailed plans exist for its full restoration. “Our vision is to rebuild the old city exactly as it was before the war, with the same stones where we can,” he said. Former residents say they are dubious of such claims.
“What’s UNESCO’s plan, to build for me and not consult me?” said Mr Halabi, whose family is in exile in Europe and the US. “There are the monuments, but most of the old city is people’s homes. We are part of the heritage. What is their plan for us?” The mistrust partly stems from the fact that UNESCO can work in Syria only with the blessing of Assad, whose forces are responsible for most of the destruction.
Many abandoned homes have been requisitioned by supporters of the regime, or squatted by families who lost their homes in the fighting. A second property owned by Mr Halabi’s family has been taken over by a family known for their connections to Assad; despite appeals to the authorities, the family has been told they cannot be evicted. Even those who stayed often lost the title deeds to their properties and cannot return to begin rebuilding.
“So many gangs and shabiha (pro-government paramilitaries) are in charge. We still cannot visit freely,” Ahmed, 56, a textiles merchant who used to supply manufacturers all over Syria from his shop next to the 12th-century Umayyad Mosque, said. He fled in 2012, and returned to find his shop destroyed. “Aleppo is not the same without its old city and businesses. I hope that we will be able to rebuild it without anyone’s help,” he said.
Of those who fled abroad, some choose to stay in exile, fearing retribution from the regime. The threat of conscription into the army means that there is a dearth of young men in Aleppo — the people who would do the bulk of the reconstruction work.
For those who do want to return, the cost of the paperwork at a Syrian consulate has rocketed to $US400 per person. Some observers fear the void could be filled by new residents and investors who care little for the old character of the city. “There are plans available of the footprint of the old city, and there have been architectural surveys,” said Michael Danti, a professor of archeology who worked in Syria for two decades before the war.
“However, to say those plans can be used to rebuild historic neighbourhoods where there is only rubble and desolation is like saying you could rebuild clear-cut sections of the Amazon using blueprints. One of my biggest fears is that the post-conflict redevelopment will attempt to sweep away all memory of the hundreds of thousands who perished and the millions who fled and might never return. If so, Aleppo will become a city of ghosts.” '