As president Bashar al-Assad’s regime tightens its grip on war-torn Syria, Sally Hayden reports from three government strongholds on life for ordinary citizens, who are seeking normality, even if rubble and memories are all they have left
Damascus: Scattered lives
The bombing sounds like thunder. It booms in the background as wealthy Damascenes sit in courtyards grazing on plates of mezze, continuing to chat. It sounds again as women push prams past shops in the souk, smiling at the perfumers and spice sellers hawking their wares. In the square outside, pigeons scatter as more bombs fall in the distance.
Newcomers to Damascus Old City are told how long to count between seeing a strike and hearing it to figure out where it is happening. Five seconds for Eastern Ghouta and two for Jobar. Mortars make a different type of noise, a sort of whistle, a Ministry of Tourism official explains, perched in an armchair in a still open boutique hotel. At least 60 people on the government side were killed by mortars in the two months from mid-November last year, while activists in opposition-held areas say many more had already died in the first weeks of 2018 as a result of bombing (*at the time of going to print, a renewed bombing campaign by Assad’s forces had resulted in at least 850 people killed in Eastern Ghouta alone).
Since the conflict started, the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted, so Damascus has become increasingly expensive. When fighting spread across the country, displaced people fled from rural areas to the city, but many left again after rents became prohibitively high.
The number of military checkpoints is decreasing, but Damascus remains a city at war. Shopkeepers carrying produce are stopped and searched. Hotel staff prevent you from taking photos from their roof terrace with a repetitive: ‘It’s not allowed’. Churches and mosques display photos of those in their congregations who have died. Pictures of dead soldiers hang along ‘walls of glory’ on streets, at roundabouts or in public parks.
There are so many people whose fates are unknown. Kidnapped, disappeared or presumed dead; they still might turn up at any time.
Others are certainly alive but may never come back. Almost everyone I met had a relative in Europe. One mother, whose son fled to the UK to escape military service, pulled out a photo of him from her wallet and repeatedly kissed it. This year she’ll miss another son’s wedding in Sweden.
Pictures of Assad hang everywhere: on office walls, on shopfronts and on every army checkpoint. In one, he wears aviator sunglasses and khaki, and looks sternly off to the side. In another, he smiles bashfully in a suit.
It’s a reminder that he’s going nowhere quickly – although more than seven million Syrians have fled abroad and hundreds of thousands have died since the war began. Damascus is the centre of the propaganda campaign around him.
Its Ministry of Information is one of the first stops for any newly arrived journalist waiting for accreditation and permission to travel around. The associated Syrian state media, SANA, is located beside the Opera House. Many international visitors, including me, have been pulled in for a surprise on-camera interview, which I hastily and then forcefully turned down.
Meanwhile, in homes across the city, Damascenes turn to their phone or computer cameras to communicate with relatives in far-flung places: the US, Germany, Sudan or even Somalia. And in refugee camps in nearby countries, parts of Damascus are recreated. Zaatari in Jordan, home to more than 70,000 Syrian refugees, features a copycat market named al-Hamidiyah, and a falafel chef who’s recreated his restaurant, which was destroyed in his home city.
Aleppo: Life in darkness
‘When I smell the smell of my neighbourhood, I feel full of energy, I feel optimistic,’ Huossen Hamod is saying.
He’s a rakish, nervous-looking 40-year-old, sitting in a fifth floor apartment with almost nothing in it. From their reinforced balcony, his young girls stare out at the rubble beneath them. At night, their light – powered by their own generator – is the only one that gleams.
This neighbourhood in Ansari al-Sharki used to be home to hundreds of his relatives. ‘We were famous here,’ he says. When there was a problem, they’d visit the family’s most senior man who would mediate and magistrate. He died of old age during the war, far away from his home.
Hamod’s family – his wife, six daughters and one son – escaped from their home in 2013, when government barrel bombs dropped indiscriminately, and rebel groups began fighting among themselves. They came back last August.
The ruins they returned to were ‘haunted by bad deeds,’ says Hamod. ‘This neighbourhood was used as a prison to kill and kidnap people.’ Hamod offers cigarettes as we sit on plastic chairs, his youngest girls peeking around a corner.
He believes just five people live on their street now, though neighbours don’t communicate like they used to.
He’s attempting to return to his work as a letting agent. Like other families trickling back into former rebel-held areas, he needed to return for financial reasons – it was too expensive to stay elsewhere. ‘I dreamed [of coming] back to my home,’ he says.
Yet, Hamod didn’t know if their building would still be standing. A video taken during the time this area was under opposition control shows a barrel bomb falling right in front of it. A photo taken by an activist around the same time shows their fifth floor apartment as a shell, windows torn out by the impact of explosives and unstable balconies jutting out.
‘We rebuilt all the walls and all the broken windows,’ Hamod says.
His daughters are still frightened. The youngest was born away, in 2015, and he named her Shahiba, after Aleppo. The second youngest was named Sham, for Damascus, after the revolution began. ‘I named them for Syria.’ The population of east Aleppo increased from 50,000 in December 2016 to over 300,000 by June 2017, according to UNHCR. This followed the fall of the final opposition areas, when most remaining rebels left for the country’s northwest in what the UN has called a ‘forcible displacement’ amounting to a war crime.
The government has since been accused of punishing former opposition areas by denying them services like electricity, though the official line is that more time is needed to restore everything.
Some of Hamod’s neighbours joined opposition groups; he says they are undergoing ‘rehabilitation’ now.
In Aleppo’s governorate, Representative for Reconciliation Fadi Ahmad Ismail explains more. We speak in filing rooms which were hit by mortars. Salaries and tax details for some of the city’s many civil servants are scattered across the ground.
He then says the government is trying to find common ground with the opposition and offers everyone a reconciliation programme. It’s three months long for some former fighters and involves sessions where government officials tell them they’ve been used as pawns and were brainwashed. More important, Ismail says, is to get children to go back to supporting the government. ‘We are working on the children, the next generation.’ Human rights groups and exiled Syrians express extreme scepticism about these programmes. One former political prisoner, now in Germany, says he knows of several people who have been tortured to death after being promised reconciliation by the government.
Ismail makes it clear reconciliation is also part of an information war. After sundown, he invites visiting reporters to visit another former opposition neighbourhood, Bustan al-Qasr, which served as the crossing point between government and rebel-held areas in the east. Again, there is no electricity except from a few shop generators. With his torch, Ismail highlights graffiti on a wall showing a slogan used by al-Nusra (al-Qaeda-affiliated group). He says authorities plan to leave it there indefinitely, regardless of the feelings of local residents, because the government wants to prove to foreign journalists the opposition groups were terrorists.
Homs: No city for old people
When Hend Joseph Fadul first arrived in Homs as a newlywed 65 years ago, she was struck by its beauty. Now, at 85, she remembers a city of simple houses, simple streets and old black stone. A little old woman wearing a plaited black hairband and a lime green shawl, she looks frail, yet smokes voraciously.
In this city, she’s lived a full and happy life; surrounded by a growing family – three sons, two daughters and many grandchildren. She speaks of church and concerts, love stories and laughter.
Now, her family are dispersed, her husband dead, her apartment destroyed and her spirits low.
She is lonely, as are many of the city’s elderly people. Her sons are as far away as Sweden and Dubai, and one grandson is in South America.
Around 21,000 families, or 30 per cent of the city’s former 1.2 million population, have returned according to Homs’ Governor Talal Barazi. Yet many parts remain uninhabitable.
Tarek Safar, the area manager for the United Nations Development Programme in Homs, says since 2014 they’ve removed 700,000 cubic metres of debris, just from the roads in the
Old City and the shops in the souk – the only part of the city they’re actively rebuilding.
Other reconstruction is on hold until the government decides which international organizations will get lucrative reconstruction contracts, he says. It’s expected to reward its allies, Russia and Iran.
Driving through the Jouret al-Shayah neighbourhood is like entering an apocalyptic wasteland. From a car, accompanied by two soldiers and a Ministry of Information employee, it’s hard to feel anything but horror at how humanity was failed here. Seemingly endless streets of buildings and their inhabitants have been crushed, pounded and pulverized.
A driving licence certificate lies on the ground in the rubble, close to sepia-tinged photos and a child’s schoolbook. Traces of young lives once lived here are juxtaposed with the fact that young people in the populated parts of Homs all seem to be planning to move away. One 26-year-old woman, Maria, is preparing for her upcoming wedding in Dubai and a new beginning. Her friend Joseph will join his brother in Canada this year.
Left behind are a smattering of old people with few options.
One is Hadi, a wizened former English teacher who loves Hamlet and is painstakingly overseeing the rebuilding of the Homs city park.
He’s on the grounds 14 hours a day directing student volunteers. They’ve collected shattered glass from broken buildings to create mosaics on the walls, overturned satellite dishes to use as pots for old flowers, and pieces of wood for benches. Hadi’s home was bombed and none of its furnishings were salvageable. He rents with his two daughters: ‘My house was destroyed but I remember every centimetre.’ In private, even Hadi whispers that he would like to go to Europe if relatives there would take him. For now, though, he is focused on creating a space where people can find some joy again. More than 40 brides have come to the park to take photos, he says.
Some newlyweds also call on Christian shop owner Fawas al-Sayed, who is selling rosary beads and religious pictures again; when the fighting was heavy he was more likely to sell wooden crosses for graves. His son is in Stuttgart with his daughter-in-law and grandchild; he proudly shows off pictures of them and hopes they’ll return soon.
‘Our family belong to Syria. Their roots are here, so one day they have to come back,’ he says, but his voice trembles with uncertainty.
Sally Hayden is an award-winning journalist and photographer focused on migration, conflict and humanitarian crises. She is currently a finalist for Amnesty International’s Gaby Rado award for best new journalist.
All photos by Sally Hayden.