In East Aleppo, Bodies Under Rubble Show Limits of Syria’s Recovery

The opposition accuses Assad of withholding services from districts where the rebellion against him flared

People check the damaged dome inside the al-Halwani mosque in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, April 11, 2019.
Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The bodies of three-year-old Malak Kasas and two neighbors still lie under a pile of rubble in Aleppo’s Kalasa district more than two years after the Syrian government recaptured the area.

Malak’s grandfather, Omar, and uncle, Mahmoud, live in the building opposite. When they stand on the balcony, they see the collapsed building that is her tomb. Whenever Omar says her name he bursts into silent, convulsive sobs.

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The state’s failure to pull bodies from the rubble of east Aleppo points to the grim prospects for an area that, like many others in Syria, was held by rebel forces for much of the country’s eight-year-old conflict. The western part of the city has remained in government hands throughout the fighting.

The opposition has accused President Bashar Assad of withholding services from districts where the rebellion against him flared, and in Kalasa there was little evidence of a big government effort to improve conditions.

The government blames the slow recovery, shortages and hardship on the war and Western sanctions. It has denied treating recaptured areas differently to ones that remained under its control throughout the war and has said it is working to restore normal services to all areas.

The conflict that has killed half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million continues, and Reuters could hear bombardments over several nights in Aleppo from a nearby front line during a recent visit.

In Kalasa, recaptured in late 2016, there is no systematic reconstruction of residential areas. State services are minimal. Work to renovate war-damaged buildings is almost entirely done and paid for by local people, residents say.

Kalasa has no state electricity supply, charities dole out boxes of food aid to crowds waiting behind chains. As elsewhere in Syria, fuel shortages cause long lines at petrol stations and people rely on firewood for heat.

Some damaged buildings in Kalasa have recently collapsed, falling debris killed a man last year and the many large heaps of rubble in areas where children play in the street are covered in stinking rubbish, dead rats and swarming flies.

Kalasa’s situation is not unusual for east Aleppo – other districts toured by Reuters showed equally bad or worse conditions. The western part of the city has suffered less damage because the rebels had no air power.

Blossoming vegetation is seen near the damaged minaret of the Tawashi mosque in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, April 9, 2019.
Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

In other cities, there also are no reports of widespread rebuilding or data to suggest it has started.

Ayad Batash, 35, a former soldier and builder who was optimistic about life in Kalasa when Reuters met him two years ago, said things had become much worse for his family with a fuel shortage and a lack of work.

“This year’s not like before. This year is worse. The economic situation is worse than before,” he said.

Two years ago, he had regular work and thought the electricity supply would soon resume. He expected to move back into his own apartment and thought his neighbors would return from life as refugees.

“If the situation continues like this, people won’t come back,” he said.

Turning point

Reuters journalists spent several days reporting in a small neighborhood of Kalasa that they also visited in 2017 after the government retook the area, interviewing dozens of residents including several they had met previously.

A government official accompanied Reuters at all times in Kalasa. Local people criticized the rebels that held the area from 2012 until 2016 but not Assad or his government.

The recapture of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, was a turning point in the war. In just one city center square, Reuters counted 18 posters of Assad.

Some things have improved since Reuters last visited this district two years ago. There is now piped water and some rubble, and debris blocking streets and alleys has been cleared.

More schools have opened, though they are crowded, and more government-subsidized bakeries operate in the area, though queues for bread are long.

Those considerations are scant comfort to the people of Kalasa. Omar Kasas no longer leaves his apartment. He remembers the bombardment in September 2016 that killed his daughter Iman and her daughters Ayah, Mayas and Malak in the building opposite.

People dug out the bodies of Iman, Ayah and Mayas, and nine dead neighbors, but could not reach Malak or two other women. Since the government took the area, there has been no effort to shift the rubble or find the bodies, residents said.

For Ayad Batash, a government supporter with two brothers in the army, the fuel shortages have aggravated other problems. During a cold winter, his four children, aged between 2 and 10, had no way to keep warm but with blankets.

The Western districts of Aleppo receive state power supplies for several hours a day. In Kalasa the only source of power is private generators that run on rationed diesel fuel.

Snack bar owner Rabiah al-Najar said the cost of electricity for selling sandwich wraps ate up nearly half his weekly profits.