Despair deepens as winter arrives in war-torn Syrian city

 

ALEPPO, Syria

Darkness comes early to the streets of this ancient city, once a symbol of Syria's richly storied past and now at the heart of the deepening nightmare that the country's revolution has become.

By 5 pm, people are scurrying home, down streets potholed by artillery, past piles of rubble and mountains of garbage that hasn't been collected in months, to spend the evenings huddled in the cold without heat, light or, increasingly, food.

"We just lie under blankets because it is so cold. We have no work, no money and no life," said Omar Abu Mohammed, 55, one of the few remaining residents of his badly bombed neighborhood, as he prepared to head indoors for the night.

"It is time to go now because soon there will be snipers," he added, as a shell boomed softly in the distance.

Shells are exploding somewhere in Aleppo most of the time, but after five months of fighting, people have become inured to the ever-present threat. Rain and cloudy skies have deterred warplanes, providing some relief from the airstrikes that can wipe out whole apartment buildings, along with their inhabitants, in an instant.

But the onset of this second winter since Syrians rose up against their government 21 months ago is bringing new calamity to a people already ground down by violence and war. Hunger, cold and disease are emerging as equally profound challenges in the desperate daily struggle that life has become for millions, not only in Aleppo but across Syria, where the quest for greater freedoms sparked by the Arab Spring has gone badly, horribly wrong.

"You can hide from the shelling, but if your child is hungry and there is no bread, what can you do?" asked Abdullah Awuf, 29, a driver who struggles to feed his infant son amid sky-high prices for fuel and food.

Aleppo is not the only place in Syria where conditions are dire. Across the country, reports are emerging of people foraging for food in garbage, stripping buildings for firewood and queuing for hours for scarce bread as the government-run distribution network breaks down.

The United Nations appealed last week for $1.5 billion to help 4.5 million needy Syrians, a record amount for an emergency, said Panos Moumtzis, the regional relief coordinator for the U.N. refugee agency. This one is unfolding almost entirely out of sight because most places are too dangerous or inaccessible for aid workers or journalists to visit.

Most of the relief money, $1 billion, will be spent to help the 500,000 refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. An additional 4 million people inside Syria are estimated to be in need of food and medical assistance.

But because the government restricts U.N. access to areas controlled by the regime, those living in rebel-held territory can expect to see little help.

In the parts of Aleppo under rebel control, the misery is manifest. Fighters with the opposition Free Syrian Army surged into the city in July hoping for a quick victory after ejecting government forces from much of the surrounding countryside. But their offensive was ill-planned and premature, and it quickly stalled, leaving the city carved into a patchwork of front lines across which the two sides shoot and shell each other, along with any civilians in the way.

Government forces control the downtown area and the wealthier neighborhoods to the west, while the rebels hold sway in the traditionally poorer northern, eastern and southern areas. The historic center, a World Heritage site renowned for its ancient citadel and bazaar, is a battleground.

As the fighting ripples and spreads, the infrastructure that had sustained the city of 3 million is crumbling. Government warplanes target facilities that fall into rebel hands, including hospitals and bakeries. Electricity, which had been intermittent for months, has been cut off since the rebels launched an offensive to capture the main power plant a little more than two weeks ago.

An Aleppo Transitional Revolutionary Council is being formed to perform the functions of local government. It has managed to ease, though not resolve, an acute shortage of bread that had people standing in line for up to 16 hours. There are still queues, but they have shortened, and people say they now have to wait no more than an hour to buy bread.

But the length of the lines is only a partial measure of the crisis. Factories and businesses have ground to a halt. Jobs are almost nonexistent. Fresh meat and produce are available, but at prices far beyond the means of people who haven't worked in months. For many, flat, thin loaves of pita bread, at 10 times the prewar price, are all they can afford. For some, even that is too much.

"On some days, we don't eat at all," said Nadia Labhan, 25, whose husband, a brickmaker, was killed two months ago by a sniper on his way home from buying bread, leaving her with no means to support her two children, Baraa, 7, and Fatme, 5. She has joined the growing number of beggars on the street. "It is so difficult," she said, hugging her flimsy robe against the driving wind and rain.

Inevitably, disease is spreading among people whose immune systems have been weakened by hunger, in a city where sanitation has broken down. Tuberculosis is ravaging some neighborhoods, and there have been hundreds of cases of leishmaniasis, a skin disease transmitted by sand flies, which are multiplying amid the heaps of uncollected trash, said Saad Wafai, who serves on the crisis committee of the Aleppo council.

At a small clinic in an abandoned shopping arcade — set up by doctors driven out of a hospital destroyed in an airstrike — the number of patients has surged recently, to about 150 a day. For the first time, physician Izzat al-Mizyad said, most show up not with injuries from the war but infectious diseases, including hepatitis, respiratory infections and scabies.

In addition, he said, two or three people are brought in every day after collapsing from hunger in the bread lines. "This is going to become a huge problem," he said. "It is already a problem, and it is increasing day by day. I expect people to start to die."

Embittered Aleppans don't see an end in sight.

"It started with words, then went to bullets, then bombs and rockets and airstrikes. And now we are expecting chemical weapons," said Awuf, the driver, referring to the trajectory of the revolt, which began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011, then mutated into a raging civil war.

Some blame the Free Syrian Army for starting a fight it couldn't finish. Others blame the government for steadily escalating the use of force to try to crush the rebels. Many, like Awuf, blame both. "We are civilians trapped between the two sides, and they are using us like wood on a fire," he said. "Both sides are wrong."

Even the uprising's staunchest protagonists are beginning to despair. Teacher Amal Ulabi, 35, joined the earliest protests, and her husband volunteered for the Free Syrian Army as soon as the rebellion reached the city. A month later, he was dead, killed fighting on the front line. Her home in the embattled Old City was hit by artillery fire, and she has moved to her parents' house with her five children. They suffer from asthma, and all have respiratory infections, but there is no medicine available to treat them.

"The revolution was the right thing to do, but the timing was wrong," Ulabi said at a clinic established by a group called People in Need, sighing as she waited for a nurse to check on her 18-month-old son. "We should have started gradually, asking about corruption and other issues like that, because the regime couldn't accept that we suddenly wanted freedom, and they shot at us.

"The regime will fall, but I fear it will take time," she added. "At least as long as we have endured already. I see no hope of anything good."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower