We can barely hear Jamilaa’s gentle voice as she tells her story.
“The hospital where I was staying with my two children was attacked four times in three days,” she says. ”They made us leave the building because it was close to the battlefront.”
She comes out of the kitchen carrying a small red teapot. We are at her home, surrounded by the skeletons of other houses.
“It is a mystery how these gutted houses are still standing upright. Many are missing doors and windows.” When asked who is responsible for those bombings, she replies: “Our men are the perpetrators, both the ones fighting in the government army and in the opposition. They are the same people who lived in these houses, who were treated in these hospitals, who sent their children to these schools.”
Going back with her and her family to those rooms, though severely damaged, filled the atmosphere with Christmas joy. Yes, because it was Christmas, even in Aleppo, for the 35,000 Christians who remain in the Aziziyeh neighborhood. Jamilaa tells us that she preserves the meat with salt because there is not enough electricity for the refrigerator. “My grandmother taught me how when I was a child. I did not think I would ever have to do it.”
Inside the house, the temperature is more or less the same as outside. They only have a small electric heater they turn on for a few hours a day. There is a fireplace, but there is no firewood to burn.
The conversations in the streets of Aleppo are laced with hope, the hope to return to a normal life. For the first time since 2012, government forces control all of Aleppo. For the first time since then, the conflict is not raging. “Nights are quiet. We are not woken up in the morning by the deafening noise of the fighters,” says Jamilaa’s husband.
For the first time, there is talk about reconstruction. Under the bitter cold, residents have begun a feverish removal of rubble and debris from the main roads. Many people have come back to check on their shops and their homes to see if the buildings are still standing. Despite the enormous trauma and their still-open wounds, so many people are back to stay.
The priorities now are heating and food supply. The U.N. is working in the city to deploy mats, blankets, clothes and plastic sheeting to help people face the harsh Syrian winter. Humanitarian organizations assist approximately 20,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo, providing hot meals twice a day and drinking water. More than a million people have access to clean water again, either bottled or from wells.
Aleppo’s central streets are now filled with government soldiers with firearms in tow, Syrian flags and people trying to buy something to eat in the half-empty markets. There are colorful cloths and stalls in the market area of the ancient city. They are neatly arranged near the souq al-Madina, the medieval terminal market erected on the city walls. Today, it is largely destroyed by a ruthless war, notwithstanding its Unesco designation.
It is difficult to imagine now the burgeoning market that years ago was the economic center of the city. The degree of destruction is extreme. The scars are deep. The pieces of lost history are tearing into the memories of the elderly. The massive amounts of rubble make places, passages and roads unrecognizable, even for those who have lived in the city for years.
There are only craters, ruins and faded memories of hundreds of shops selling soap, spices, silk, wool, copper, gold and products of the rich Syrian agriculture. Many sellers cannot offer anything except some vegetables, grown in wooden boxes in front of their homes. Spinach and radishes are the easiest to find. The rest of the stalls remain empty.
Primary health care services are available through seven mobile clinics, and 12 mobile teams distribute medicines and sanitary and surgical materials, for the treatment of trauma, and formula for babies. They’ve made 8,836 visits since the beginning of the evacuation.
The World Health Organization and its health partners provide assistance to 11 public health facilities covering a population of 60,000 people. More than 10,000 children were vaccinated against polio; 1,381 patients were transported to better equipped hospitals in the western part of the city.
Although there is no fighting, some families continue to leave eastern Aleppo, after extensive vetting, through the Ramouseh checkpoint east of the city. This is the same checkpoint used to transport the wounded in humanitarian corridors set up by the International Red Cross.
About 116,000 people have left the city since the day of the ceasefire, brokered by Russia and Turkey. Of these, 80,000 are internally displaced persons in western Aleppo and 36,000 have reached Idlib. In recent days, about 2,200 families have returned to the Masaken Hanano district. Around the city, about 1.5 million civilians are left, compared to the four million who lived here before the fighting.
But in one reflection of the state of security, children are back in the streets. They play in the cold and hope the schools will reopen. Some of them have not been inside a classroom in the last five years. They are excited about browsing a book again, having reading lessons in a classroom and going back home to do homework instead of being forced to listen to the sounds of war.
But who won this war that has caused the deaths of more than 500,000 people, forced millions of people from their homes and sent waves of refugees into neighboring countries?
The traces of fighting can be found almost everywhere. Shell casings, bullets, clothes and documents of dead soldiers, sandbags and sheets, and snipers’ nests litter the streets of an injured Aleppo. This battlefield did not spare schools and hospitals. It is still surrounded by death, brimming with war victims. The city is dangerously low on supplies, with a severe lack of clean water and electricity. The buildings are marked by mortar fire. But at least it offers again the possibility to record births and allow children to be registered as Syrian. That’s the work al-Bayan hospital in the district of al-Sha’ar, eastern Aleppo, is doing around the clock.
Midnight in Aleppo means lights out. The few remaining generators stop, throwing entire neighborhoods into darkness. And the hospital is no exception. The electrical machinery is coming back to life with manual controls, thanks to the help of ordinary people. There is clean water for a few hours a day. We are told that most of the water that comes into Aleppo comes from the dam on the Euphrates River, in the adjacent al-Raqqa province, which is still an ISIS stronghold. Only 20 percent of Aleppo’s water needs comes through the pipes.
“M10” was the battle name of the Al-Sakhour hospital, in the homonymous district in eastern Aleppo. It had to move underground in the last months of fighting. “Hell visited the M10 every day,” said Hayyan, a volunteer of the Syrian Red Crescent. “Patients bled on the floors, operating rooms were overcrowded, doctors and nurses were forced to decide who would live and who would have to die.”
The hospital was bombed at least 13 times, until it was severely damaged in October.
Today, like many hospitals, the M10 was replaced by buildings identified by a red crescent. In the streets of the historic downtown, long queues can be found in front the red crescent symbols. These lines have the appearance of a timid return to normality.
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