Death: The Only Reliable News in Aleppo

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A picture taken from behind broken glass shows a couple pushing a pram as they rush to check their house following a barrel bomb attack on opposition-held area of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, once Syria's commercial capital, on February 21, 2015. AFP/Abd Doumany

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Battles are raging in the Aleppo countryside, but the residents of the city itself have stopped following the news of the fighting. There are many reasons behind this apparent indifference, including the news of more immediate deaths as a result of the shelling of their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Aleppo natives continue to devise new ways to survive the conflict.

Aleppo appears today like a strange mix of contradictions, war being the only common factor. Its people still come up with new ways to adapt to the death surrounding them. A sense of despair is strong in the city, but it is coated with cynical indifference, sometimes sincere and sometimes made-up. Only hope is absent from Aleppo, the city that appears to have vowed to continuously live in the shadow of war.

Arriving in Aleppo a day after the recent offensive began in its northern countryside is no different than arriving on any other day. Contrary to what we thought, news of the battle does not receive wide attention here.

News of death has become an everyday detail that everyone deals with as being the “most honest detail,” while all others are treated with instant skepticism until proven to be true. At a table in a coffeehouse opened two months ago (a normal occurrence in government-controlled areas), Ahmed and his friends stop their game of cards briefly.

The fifty-something man comes to answer our many questions in short and successive bursts. “Everyone who tells you electricity has improved is a liar.... that gasoline has dropped in price is a liar… that they have besieged Aleppo is a liar. But if someone tells you this or that person has died, then believe it and say: May God have mercy on him.”

Moataz, owner of the cafe, justifies what Ahmed said: “People are afraid to believe anything. Look at the screens around you, we don’t use the television at the coffeehouse anymore. No one wants it. Customers just want songs.”

Only news of falling improvised explosive gas cylinders (Hell Cannon) and mortars is being circulated, because they do not need to be confirmed by any source. The people are the source. On the following day, we bore witness to a frenzy of shelling on the crowded Jamiliyeh district.

Five shells in less than an hour did not reduce the crowdedness of the large neighborhood that now resembles a downtown bazar. Abu Hassan, a shoe seller there, laughs dismissively, “Why should I close the shop? As you can see, the customers did not stop coming.”

A year ago, Abu Hassan had returned from Turkey. “I went there looking for work after things became difficult here,” he says. The man lost a small plastics factory and two homes, and left it all behind in east Aleppo, as the conflict raged, and moved to a home he rented in the Hamdaniya district. Like many, he thought it would be temporary. When his savings ran out, he left for Turkey. “I didn’t go to stay put at the camp. I started looking for work. I couldn’t last long. An Aleppan outside Aleppo is like a fish out of water.”

No social differences

Abu Hassan is faring much better than others. Two years after the war, only a small segment of the population is still able to work in the same jobs they had before the conflict. Most other people have sought new ways to make a living, some outside the city, some within Aleppo.

The war did not leave much class differences between people and affluence in some neighborhoods no longer exists. Many families left their homes in upscale neighborhoods and rented them. Interestingly, rents in the areas controlled by the Syrian government rose as did prices in relatively safer governorates, and it would not be surprising to find a fully furnished house being rented out for $200 a month in areas at constant risk of shelling, which is the same amount of money one pays for a flat in Tartous, Lattakia, or even some areas of Damascus.

Coffeehouse loyalties

Coffeehouses are now divided in accordance with the character or loyalties of their patrons. Some coffeehouses are dominated by military uniforms, without this necessarily implying that the patrons are combatants.

In one such coffeehouse, we received many suspicious and wary looks. The waiters kept hovering around the table using various excuses, trying to listen in on our conversation or peek at the laptop screen. A man we were meeting with laughs, “I told you, this is a coffeehouse for Shabiha, and they all know each other.” At the same time, he cautioned us to visit another coffeehouse which he said people called the “traitors’ coffeehouse.”

The coffeehouse in question is located in a different region. It is a magnet for what remains of the leftist opposition. Sitting with people who are still in that camp is like getting into a time machine and taking a trip into the past. The war and the crisis are not part of the conversation. Instead, the topics discussed are strange, as though the people there have not yet heard of what is happening in the country.

One whispers a political joke and people around him erupt in laughter. Then they all exchange crude sexual jokes loudly, before tackling themes like the proletariat, cosmopolitanism, and populism. Only one seems to be aware of recent developments, as he asks, “Do we need a visa to go to Lebanon now?”

Slight improvement in services

Services in Aleppo have been improved to a certain degree. The most noticeable changes can be seen in sanitation. Most of the streets in west Aleppo look clean, with no litter and the dumpsters being emptied regularly.

Although corruption is extremely evident, distribution of cooking gas is being done effectively with the help of local neighborhood officials and committees. Those with no access to the deliveries can obtain cooking gas from the black market at a much lower price compared to a few months ago.

However, the same cannot be said of heating oil. Deliveries are slow, and rations given to families are limited (100 liters per year). Meanwhile, electricity has been forgotten about, and most neighborhoods do not receive more than an hour of electricity per day, usually at dawn or in the early morning.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

This article moved me so much,
The way people live this war
Have been several time there,
While reading your experience,
I suddenly wished so deeply to be there too
sharing Halab's people's life now, as I shared it
Just before this horrible war.
This wonderful city with so many different faces

Another stupid man-on-the-street story.

Very interesting, well written article. What a strange time for Aleppo.

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