Aleppo Residents Pick Through the Wreckage of Their Earthquake-Shattered Lives

The inhabitants of a city beset by calamity pick up the pieces

Aleppo Residents Pick Through the Wreckage of Their Earthquake-Shattered Lives
Volunteers prepare food to serve people affected by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Syria’s Aleppo on Feb. 21, 2023. (Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images)

As we got closer to Aleppo, I asked my friend to slow the car down. I gazed at the buildings, inspecting them one by one, trying to catch a glimpse of the visible impact of the Feb. 6 earthquake, and mentally comparing the state of the city with what it was like when I last visited it two years ago.

It would not be easy to draw a simple line differentiating between the physical, material and psychological destruction wrought by the earthquake and that caused by the war that has now lasted for 12 years, after a few hours touring the city’s neighborhoods, especially its eastern districts. The two events intertwine in an intractable way. “Not one disaster but two,” was a common refrain I heard frequently from the residents of Aleppo when describing what had happened to their city. The legacy and horrors of the war, which destroyed huge swaths of the city and claimed countless lives, had not yet been overcome.

In some of the streets, the noise from machinery working on removing rubble 10 days after the tremors melded with high clouds of dust and tales that people desperately wanted to share. In other neighborhoods, the din was lower and the damage less widespread, even if it marked some buildings and facades, leaving piles of stones on sidewalks and a number of homes with cracked walls. In both areas, one sensed an overpowering feeling of sadness and fear.

In the Halawaniya neighborhood, east of Aleppo, Abu Mohammad, one of the residents, wipes the dust off his face and clothes after completing search operations for survivors and victims. “We have not slept since last week,” he said. “Seven buildings were completely ruined, and we lost many of our residents.” He said he and his children were still living in constant fear: “I prefer to spend most of my time outside, as far as possible from roofs or walls that can crush me within seconds.”

This neighborhood, just like many others in eastern Aleppo, witnessed some of the fiercest battles between government forces and opposition fighters between 2012 and 2016. Much of its infrastructure and many of its buildings were heavily bombarded, causing them to become more fragile and dilapidated. However, after the conflict in Aleppo ended, many residents returned to their houses and lived in them despite their partial destruction. Today, they seem to be paying the ultimate price after the earthquake that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria, killing tens of thousands of people. In Aleppo alone, at least 500 were killed, with hundreds more injured.

In Hay al-Salihin, another neighborhood further south, Ola Bilal points to the remains of her house amid other buildings that were completely destroyed or crumbling. “I used to live here with my husband and two sons. Today, we are homeless and looking for a temporary shelter until we figure out what we’re going to do.” Dozens of other neighbors gather around her, taking turns describing their houses which were completely destroyed or are no longer habitable. All of these residents are waiting for home inspection and safety committees’ procedures to find out the fate of their houses — and their own fates too.

“We’re not waiting for any kind of aid,” said Samar Hendawi, another resident. “We just need to restore our houses and return to them.” According to estimates, the earthquake toppled about 60 houses and caused the demolition of 160 others after they were inspected and declared to be unsafe. This number was expected to increase to 1,000 houses as the full scale of the calamity was understood.

Today, the idea of losing one’s home is one of the gravest fears for Syrians in general, and residents of Aleppo in particular. “Home means safety; it is our only refuge. If we lose it, we lose all sense of safety and protection,” said a resident of the Aziziyah neighborhood in Aleppo’s city center. Unfortunately, even those who stayed in their houses still live in fear due to aftershocks that are happening almost daily. Many are still unable to sleep or return to their daily routine, while others prefer to park their cars in open spaces and sleep inside them, in anticipation of any new disaster that might occur.

In the Old City, near Aleppo’s historic citadel, the scene is just as gloomy. Through the rays of the setting sun, one could see the stones of buildings and ancient khans, many of which were almost completely destroyed because of the war. Nevertheless, it was easy to notice new signs of destruction through the dust overpowering the area as a result of freshly collapsed buildings. The eerie quiet of empty alleys is interrupted only by greetings from a few passersby who exclaim, “Thank God you are safe. Hopefully, all will be well.” According to official sources, the castle in the Old City also suffered from partial destruction at the entrance and in some of its walls. The facades of the Ayyubid Mosque’s minaret and the entrance to the Mamluk Tower and Ottoman Mill were also affected.

Due to long hours of electricity cuts, dozens of residents who have sought refuge in gardens and open spaces during nighttime find no choice but to light fires to keep warm, amid the cold late winter temperatures. I walked around some of these gardens and felt the kindness and generosity of the people despite their arduous circumstances. A woman staying in a makeshift tent invited me for tea, which she prepared on a wood fire, while another shared her story with me and the difficult time she and her family were passing through, waiting to return to their homes or to secure alternative housing.

I then met Ikhlas, a 17-year-old girl holding a lamp in one hand and reading in another. “I will continue studying even if I have to do so in the dim light of this small lamp. I have a dream I want to achieve, and I would like to enroll at the Faculty of Pharmacy next year,” she said, smiling.

I could feel a sense of hope among a group of young volunteers, who decided to dedicate most of their time to help those affected by the earthquake. I met some of them the day I arrived in Aleppo, and we talked about the great sense of responsibility they felt toward their city after this unexpected calamity. “We met the day after the disaster occurred, and we decided to secure some basic needs for families who lost their homes, properties and businesses. We considered that, by joining our time and efforts, we can alleviate some of the earthquake’s negative consequences,” said one of the volunteers.

After spending several days in Aleppo, I was surprised by the spirit I encountered and people’s ability to smile and laugh despite the tragedy that befell them. Mohammad al-Bai, a man in his 60s who lost his shop in the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood, said, “I am impatiently waiting to retrieve as much as possible of my things from under the rubble to start working again. I cannot despair. Despair means ruin.”

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