Rebel-held Aleppo settles into a routine – but one still defined by bombs

In the Syrian city, fighting is down, but residents now face additional danger from rebel factions that have turned to kidnapping and other criminal activity.

Ammar Abdullah/REUTERS
A Free Syrian Army fighter provides cold water for residents to cool from the heat in Bustan El Kasr crossing, Karaj al Hajar in Aleppo, August 4, 2013.

In Syria's opposition-held areas, aid groups face a bevy of constant setbacks: A grassroots aid organization in Aleppo, for example, recently spent nearly 24 hours preparing a shipment of clothes to distribute to those in need, only to have a government artillery round land in the middle of their supplies, destroying everything.

Rebel fighters often seize aid trucks, taking some or all of the supplies, and government forces often close roads, blocking off entire towns. About half of the grassroots humanitarian aid groups in Aleppo have stopped operating amid security threats, volunteer shortages, and a lack of resources, says Lawrence, a Syrian who asked to use a fake name and works with the organization whose clothing drive was bombed.

“The closure of so many NGOs has put pressure on the other NGOs that are still active. People travel far to NGO offices even if there is a very little chance to get what they need,” he says.

A year after fighting erupted in Aleppo, the city and surrounding rural districts have been hit hard by shortages, violence, and crime. Fear and uncertainty are pervasive as those who remain struggle to provide for their families. With the war in a stalemate, those living in Aleppo and the province have settled into an uncomfortable routine punctuated by government attacks and have tried to go about their lives.

While violence and fighting in Aleppo are down compared to last summer, according to most residents, artillery, airstrikes, and clashes remain a daily part of life. And in addition to the violence between opposition and regime forces, many residents say they worry about the continued rise in criminal violence.

“Syria is in deep chaos now and it is destroyed because of the fighting between the both sides. People, buildings, and education are destroyed. This destruction will require decades to rebuild. Only the poor have stayed in Syria and the have rich left,” says Abu Muhammad, who works in a government office in Aleppo, and like all Syrians in this story requested to use a pseudonym.

The Assad government controls less than half of the city, and the remainder is under opposition control. Civilians are able to cross between both sides of the city at designated checkpoints, but crossing is dangerous. Those who cross often must pay bribes to soldiers on both sides and risk getting caught in the middle of skirmishes.

Despite the danger, Mr. Muhammad continues to cross regularly. He needs the salary from his government job to survive, he says, adding that if government workers stop showing up at the office they are arrested for suspicious behavior.

With the current situation unlikely to change in the near future, many are trying to adapt, as if this is the new normal. This winter, Abu Hamza decided to get married, even though the majority of his friends told him to wait.

“I think this situation is going to last for long time,” he says, explaining why his decision. He had a small ceremony with about 40 relatives and close friends. Now his wife is pregnant. A law student before the war began, Mr. Hamza is now unemployed and has spent his entire savings. He survives by living with his family and his brother, who still has a job and gives Hamza money.

“Financially speaking, it's very difficult. Being single is very hard, so being married and having a wife, and a house is really difficult,” he says.  

Aleppo was once the commercial center of Syria, but now employment has all but vanished for most residents. Those who’ve remained say they depend on loans, money from friends, and humanitarian aid to make ends meet.

A construction worker who asked not to be named says that before the revolution began, he could comfortably provide for his entire family. Although they were not wealthy, they enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, buying meat almost every other day. Now he says he’s lucky to afford a small piece of meat once a month. On top of that, his nephew was killed in government shelling, his brother’s house was robbed, and he has borrowed almost $1,500 in the past 10 months.

And living in an opposition-controlled area is no longer a guarantee of greater safety from harassment by soldiers – he says he cannot trust all the Free Syrian Army forces.

“The good FSA are at front lines, and the bad ones are among people in the neighborhood equipped with their weapons. The bad ones kidnap or steal,” he says.

Throughout Syria there are now at least 1,200 different armed opposition groups, making it difficult to determine who is a legitimate fighting group and who is a criminal gang.

“There is a rise of theft,” says Abu Ahmad a member of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. “The FSA is fighting criminals and trying always to decrease number of crimes…. The criminals always change their group names, and use religious names and commit crimes. In addition, the regime uses some people to act like FSA and then commit crimes.”

Editor's note: All interviews for this story were conducted by phone or e-mail. Tom Peter has reported extensively from Aleppo in the past.

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