In November 2016, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his troops launched a renewed assault on rebel-held regions of Aleppo in order to regain control of the city. Over the next month and a half, the government continued its crushing siege and intense bombardment of parts of Aleppo. The month of December saw government forces reduce rebel-held territory as multiple cease-fire deals collapsed. On December 15, a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey resulted in fighters, their families, and wounded civilians being transported on buses from east Aleppo to rebel-held areas in Idlib province. The four-year fight for Aleppo, once Syria’s prosperous economic hub, had come to an end, marking a turning point in the six-year civil war that has engulfed the country and its neighbours.
The severe fighting that occurred in east Aleppo during the last few weeks of 2016 resulted in more than thirty-five thousand civilians being evacuated to rebel-held Idlib province, where resources, such as food and electricity, were more readily available. However, many displaced civilians struggled to find a place to live and work once they arrived in Idlib, since a large number of displaced civilians already live there.
Anas a-Dabas, an electrical engineer who is married and has a child, was one of these people. “We had trouble not only find[ing] a place to rent, but affording it,” he said in an interview with Syria Direct. “Aleppians can’t afford these high rents. We were living under siege and bombs, and our belongings were destroyed. But there are people who profit from the war in every part of Syria. They take advantage of displaced people’s needs for shelter by charging high prices, since there is no oversight or regulation.” Many displaced civilians are living with relatives, in camps, or in shelter locations if they are unable to afford housing.
Abdalla Saad is a volunteer with the Violet Organization, an emergency team that was created in Idlib province and has now spread to other areas of Syria. The group is run locally but funded by international donors, and it responds to emergencies in Syria regarding food security, access to non-food items, shelter, education, healthcare, and camp coordination and management. A student prior to the uprising, Abdalla joined the organization a year ago and views volunteering as his duty to his people and his country.
Abdalla told The Gate that the main problem in Idlib province is finding housing for civilians who were forcibly displaced, especially those coming from east Aleppo. Unfurnished houses have a starting rent of $50 a month. With prices so high for people who don’t have much money, many civilians are resorting to living in temporary shelters in schools. Yet, these shelters are not safe, as the Syrian government is targeting them with bombs. Additionally, Abdalla explained that because of high rents, civilians still depend on food baskets that are delivered by local NGOs even if they are able to find jobs and work.
Despite the fact that Idlib is safer than than Aleppo, many pundits predict that Idlib will be the regime’s next target because it is the last rebel stronghold. An attack on Idlib would be catastrophic due to the sheer number of civilians in the province. As UN spokesman Trond Jensen explained, “If the current peace talks to do not bear fruit and if there was a ground conflict in an area like Idlib, then a large group of internally displaced people are extremely vulnerable.” In a similar vein, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said that “many [Aleppians] have gone to Idlib, which could be in theory the next Aleppo.”
In addition to civilians fleeing to Idlib, around fifty thousand Aleppians evacuated to the western half of the city. However, since the end of the bombardment of eastern Aleppo, many civilians have returned to their homes—or, rather, what is left of them. They have found destroyed buildings, no water, electricity, or heat, and almost no resources. Some families are settling with friends and other families, but thousands are finding shelter in damaged buildings or informal settlements.
Ahlam, a university-aged woman who fled to west Aleppo with her family six weeks ago, recently told Syria Direct about her experience returning home. “It is as though we are in another world,” she said. “Our home is partially destroyed, so we all gather in the two intact rooms for shelter from the cold. The government has not rehabilitated the neighborhood yet. There is no life yet. No electricity, no shops, no medical center, no schools. You rarely see or hear anybody.”
On January 7, the Syrian parliament agreed on a plan to reconstruct and return services to Aleppo. The plan prioritizes the clearing of roads and rubble, as well as providing electricity and water to residents, and in recent weeks, the regime has encouraged displaced residents living in west Aleppo to return to their homes in the east. However, many areas of east Aleppo remain in ruins, with rubble blocking the streets and basic necessities like running water, electricity, and heat non-existent. These realities make it next to impossible for civilians to progress forward and live a somewhat normal life. As one resident described, “There is nothing to support life here; it is a ghost town. There is nothing but destruction, devastation and desolation.”
In addition to seeking basic humanitarian aid, large numbers of Syrians who are displaced within Aleppo are trying to find work, become self-sufficient, and establish education for their children. Abo Ahmed, who fled from east Aleppo in December with his wife and four children, is one of these eager residents. “Now that we’ve crossed to safety, I want to go back to being productive. This is not the kind of life I want, waiting in queues for humanitarian assistance,” he said. “I want to get our lives back, and to start working so I can provide for my family without depending on anyone.”
UN agencies have access to only about four hundred thousand of the 1.5 million civilians in Aleppo. The UNHCR, International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, among other non-governmental organizations, are focused on providing shelter, food, fuel, winter clothing, water, sanitation, and medical support to civilians. Despite attempts by these organizations to provide aid and start the reconstruction process, many civilians are unable to forget and unsee the destruction that occurred in their homes. It is not clear when or how the civilians will receive the aid that they need, and when any visible reconstruction will happen.
The Gate would like to give a special thanks to The Syria Campaign for facilitating an interview with Abdalla Saad.
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