Family returns to rebuild Aleppo street with only their bare hands for tools

The Batash family prefer the shattered remains of their old life in the Syrian city, with only paraffin lamps for light and no running water, to a life as refugees

Residents walk through the rubble of the once rebel-held Ansari neighbourhood of eastern Aleppo on January 20, 2017. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo
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ALEPPO // Their only tools are their bare hands. But handful by handful, the Batash family are reclaiming their home from the ruins of Al Mouassassi Street, Aleppo.

Matriarch Heyam’s hands are chapped from washing clothes in freezing water. Her sons Ayad and Youssef forage for firewood in bombed-out buildings and her grandchildren fetch bread from a bakery run by a charity.

“We hope life can get back to what it was before,” said Heyam, 56.

Since the fighting in Aleppo ended in December, families have begun drifting back cautiously. But the civil war has destroyed not only the physical structures but also the social fabric of the country, splitting communities, friendships and even families. Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war, was split into government and rebel zones until the army retook the insurgent-held east, where Al Mouassassi Street is located, and in doing so laid waste to whole neighbourhoods.

When the defeated rebels departed, tens of thousands of residents of east Aleppo chose to leave too, fearing reprisals by the army of President Bashar Al Assad’s army. But tens of thousands more stayed in their devastated homes and they have been joined by people who had fled rebel areas to seek shelter with the government in western Aleppo. The Batash family were among them, preferring the shattered remains of their old life, with only paraffin lamps for light and no running water, to a life as refugees.

The Batash family is not politically active. But the fact that several of their men were in the army made them lean towards the government, they said. When a cousin joined the rebels, it caused bitter conflict.

Al Mouassassi street was once at the heart of a close-knit neighbourhood in Al Kalasa district, with shops at street level and apartments above. Heyeam’s father, a retired army sergeant, arrived in the 1980s and built a multistorey family home. But the narrow street, about 100 metres long, is a now pile of rubble, its residents scattered across Syria, Lebanon or Turkey.

Shelling first started in their neighbourhood during Ramadan in 2012, killing a little girl. As rebels took over Al Kalasa, the Batash family took diverging paths.

Heyam’s brother Eymad, 54, decided to stay in the street with his wife and family because they had nowhere else to go. He says the rebels who ran the neighbourhood were mostly men from the countryside around Aleppo. They were idealistic at first but became divided, dictatorial and prone to looting.

Eymad survived one shell blast by ducking into a doorway opposite, and he watched a barrel bomb hit a building along the street, causing a fire that razed the block behind.

Another of Heyam’s brothers was killed when a barrel bomb hit a market where he was buying vegetables. A son-in-law died in the fighting.

The bombs and the harassment by the rebels drove Heyam to flee with her children and grandchildren to government-controlled Hamdaniyeh in west Aleppo, where they lived in a school.

A cousin named Sharif had joined the rebels and was angry with his relatives because Heyam’s husband had been in the army and her son Mohammed was doing military service in Hama. Ayad Batash said Sharif told him,

“We will drink a cup of your blood and the blood of your brother and your father.” Ayad later heard that Sharif was paralysed during the fighting in December and later arrested but doesn’t know what happened to him after that.

“We had a normal relationship. But he chose one side and we chose another,” Ayad said.

The husband of Zainab, 25, another of Heyam’s daughters, has not been heard of since he was detained at an army checkpoint in 2013. He is not political but Zainab believes he may have been arrested simply because he shares a name with cousins who joined the rebels. Army security denied detaining him but soldiers have told the family he was conscripted and is fighting around Palmyra.

Despite the odd phone call to Eymad in Aleppo, those returning from Hamdaniyeh were still unprepared for the destruction they saw in Al Mouassassi Street.

Heyam now shares two small rooms in the basement of her old home with Zainab and her two daughters, and plastic sheets for doors. But they spend most of their time outside in the courtyard under a tarpaulin shelter, despite the bitter winter cold and the children’s lack of warm clothing.

But there are signs of life returning to the neighbourhood. A greengrocer sells fresh produce – still a novelty to those who survived the siege. Fresh meat hangs on hooks outside a butcher’s shop wedged between two wrecked buildings. With no functioning schools, the streets are full of children playing in the rubble.

Heyam’s youngest son, Youssef, left Al Mouassassi Street to begin military service this month. Ayad, 33, is now the only working-age member in this branch of the family. But he cannot return to his old job, restoring houses in the old city of Homs.

Eymad, a carpenter, lost his tools and workshop in the fighting, so he can’t work either. Instead, the Batash men are using their hands to clear up their street. They have heard from old neighbours now living in other parts of Aleppo and Syria, and even abroad. And last week, when Ayad connected an electricity cable to the house from a neighbour’s generator, he made sure the cable had enough capacity to serve both his family and the others he hopes will return.

“I’ve been asking them to come back,” he said.

* Reuters