Three Syrian cities destroyed by war

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Three Syrian cities destroyed by war

Sally Hayden writes about life for ordinary people in three government cities.

Damascus – the sound of bombing


Pigeons outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus fly away when they hear bombing.

The bombing sounds like thunder. You can hear it as rich people in Damascus sit and eat plates of mezze and talk. You can hear it as women push prams past shops and smile at the perfume and spice sellers. In the square outside, pigeons fly away as more bombs fall in the distance.

They tell people who are new to Damascus Old City how long to count between seeing a strike and hearing it. Then they will know where it is. Five seconds for Eastern Ghouta and two for Jobar. A Ministry of Tourism official says that mortar bombs make a different noise, a sort of whistle. Mortar bombs killed at least 60 people on the government side in the two months from mid-November 2017. Activists in opposition areas say many more died in the first weeks of 2018 as a result of bombing.

Since the war started, the value of the Syrian pound has gone down and so Damascus is more and more expensive. When there was fighting across the country, people left rural areas and went to the city. But many left again after rents became too expensive.

The number of military checkpoints is going down, but Damascus is still a city at war. They stop and search shopkeepers. Hotel staff stop you from taking photos from their roof terrace. Churches and mosques show photos of people from their congregations who have died. There are pictures of dead soldiers on ‘walls of glory’ on streets, at roundabouts, or in parks.

So many people have disappeared. Perhaps they are kidnapped or dead or they might come back again one day.

Others are certainly alive but may never come back. Most people I met had a relative in Europe. One mother has a son who left for the UK to escape military service. She took out a photo of him and kissed it again and again. This year she’ll miss another son’s wedding in Sweden.

Pictures of Assad are everywhere - on office walls, on shops, and on every army checkpoint. In one, he looks serious and in another, he smiles shyly in a suit.

More than seven million Syrians have gone abroad and hundreds of thousands have died since the war began. But Assad is going nowhere soon. And Damascus is the centre of the propaganda campaign around him.

Its Ministry of Information is one of the first stops for new journalists when they are waiting for permission to travel around. The Syrian state media, SANA, is next to the Opera House. They ask many international visitors, including me, for a surprise interview on camera. I say no.

In homes across the city, people from Damascus turn to their phone or computer cameras to communicate with relatives in faraway places: the US, Germany, Sudan, or even Somalia. And in refugee camps in nearby countries, they create parts of Damascus. For example, in Zaatari in Jordan there are more than 70,000 Syrian refugees. There is a copy of a market there named al-Hamidiyah, with a falafel chef who created his restaurant, which bombs destroyed in his home city.

Aleppo – life in darkness


Huossen Hamod’s daughter looks out from a balcony onto their neighbourhood destroyed by the war in Aleppo

When I smell the smell of my neighbourhood, I feel full of energy, I feel positive about the future,’ Huossen Hamod says.

He is 40 years old and looks nervous as he sits in an apartment on the fifth floor with almost nothing in it. From their balcony, his young girls look down at the rubble. At night, they have a light powered by their own generator. It is the only one.

Hundreds of his relatives live in this neighbourhood in Ansari al-Sharki. ‘We were famous here,’ he says. When there was a problem, they visited the family’s most senior man. He gave his help. He died of old age during the war, far away from his home. Hamod’s wife, six daughters, and one son escaped from their home in 2013, when government bombs dropped everywhere, and rebel groups began fighting among themselves. They came back in August 2017.

He thinks only five people live on their street now, but neighbours don’t communicate like they did before.

Hamod says, ‘This neighbourhood was used as a prison to kill and kidnap people.’ Hamod offers cigarettes as we sit on plastic chairs and his youngest girls look on from around a corner.

He’s trying to return to his job as a letting agent. Like other families slowly coming back into former rebel 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.

But Hamod didn’t know if their building would still be there. A video from when this area was under opposition control shows a bomb falling right in front of it. A photo taken by an activist around the same time shows their fifth floor apartment as an empty shell with windows smashed by the bombs.

‘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.’ UNHCR says the population of east Aleppo increased from 50,000 in December 2016 to over 300,000 by June 2017. This was after the fall of the final opposition areas, when most rebels left for the country’s northwest. The UN called this a ‘forcible displacement’ and a war crime.

People have said that the government punished former opposition areas by denying them services like electricity. But the government says they need more time to restore everything.

Some of Hamod’s neighbours joined opposition groups. He says they are now having ‘rehabilitation’.

In Aleppo, Fadi Ahmad Ismail is Representative for Reconciliation. He says the government is trying to find some areas of agreement with the opposition and offers everyone a reconciliation programme. It’s three months long for some former fighters. It involves sessions where government officials tell them the opposition used them and brainwashed them. Ismail says it is more important to get children to support the government again. ‘We are working on the children, the next generation.’ Human rights groups and exiled Syrians are not very positive about these programmes. One former political prisoner is now in Germany. He says he knows they have tortured to death several people after the government promised reconciliation.

Ismail says reconciliation is also part of an information war. After sundown, he invites visiting reporters to visit another former opposition neighbourhood, Bustan al-Qasr. It was the crossing point between government and rebel areas in the east. Again, there is no electricity except a few shop generators. With his torch, Ismail shows graffiti on a wall with a slogan used by al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda-affiliated group). He says authorities plan to leave it there and it doesn’t matter about the feelings of local residents. The government wants to prove to foreign journalists the opposition groups were terrorists.

Homs: Not a city for old people


A man walks past a newly reopened shop in Homs.

Hend Joseph Fadul arrived in Homs 65 years ago after she was married. She loved its beauty. Now she is 85 and she remembers a city of simple houses, simple streets, and old black stone.

In this city, she’s lived a full and happy life with her three sons, two daughters, and many grandchildren. She speaks of church and concerts, love stories and laughter.

Now, all her family live in other places, her husband is dead, her apartment is destroyed, and she is very sad.

She is lonely, like many of the city’s elderly people. Her sons are far away in Sweden and Dubai, and one grandson is in South America.

Homs’ Governor Talal Barazi says about 21,000 families, or 30 per cent of the city’s former 1.2 million population, have returned. But it is impossible to live in many parts of the city.

Tarek Safar is the area manager for the United Nations Development Programme in Homs. He 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. This is the only part of the city they’re rebuilding.

He says the government is not continuing with other rebuilding. It is waiting to decide which international organizations it will give contracts to. People expected it will give contract to its friends, Russia and Iran.

As we drive through the Jouret al-Shayah neighbourhood, it is like going into a wasteland at the end of the world. In a car with two soldiers and a man from the Ministry of Information, we feel horror at how they treated people here. There are endless streets of buildings where the people were crushed.

Young people in Homs all seem to be planning to move away. One 26-year-old woman, Maria, is preparing for her wedding in Dubai and a new beginning. Her friend, Joseph, will join his brother in Canada this year.

Now there are only a few old people left behind with few options. One is Hadi. He was an English teacher. He loves Shakespeare and he is helping to organise the rebuilding of the Homs city park.

He’s there 14 hours a day and organises student volunteers. They collected pieces of glass from broken buildings to make mosaics on the walls. They use satellite dishes as pots for old flowers, and pieces of wood for benches. Hadi’s home was bombed and he could not save any furniture. He rents a house with his two daughters. He says, ‘My house was destroyed but I remember every centimetre.’ In private, even Hadi says he wants to go to Europe if relatives there will take him. But now he is making a space where people can find some happiness again. He says more than 40 brides have come to the park to take photos.

Some new husbands and wives call on Fawas al-Sayed. He owns a Christian shop and sells rosary beads and religious pictures again. When the fighting was heavy, he sold wooden crosses for graves. His son is in Stuttgart with his daughter-in-law and grandchild. He is very happy to show pictures of them and he hopes they’ll return soon.

‘Our family belong to Syria. So one day they have to come back,’ he says, but he sounds very uncertain.

Sally Hayden is an award-winning journalist and photographer, She reports on migration, conflict, and humanitarian crises. She is a finalist for Amnesty International’s Gaby Rado award for best new journalist.

All photos by Sally Hayden.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).