Survival of the Fittest in Aleppo

Barrel bombs and security measures deprive citizens of basic needs in Aleppo. All the conflicting parties impede the repair of war damages

(Photo: Bewildered group of people after the fall of a barrel bomb - Aleppo - Bustan al-Qasr - 12-04-2015 [Mahmud Abdur-Rahman/Good Morning Syria])

(Aleppo, Syria) The regime is progressively destroying Aleppo’s infrastructures with barrel bombs and missiles every month, including its water pipes, bridges, roads, electricity and telecommunication networks.

The ongoing clashes and shelling cause power outage at least once a week in the city and repairs usually take longer than the actual functional hours of power stations, as one of the two warring parties generally prohibits maintenance teams from entering conflict zones, according to the statements posted on the Facebook page of the an-Nusrah Front-affiliated General Management of Services (the body in charge of dispatching its maintenance teams to repair the main lines in collaboration with the Red Crescent, which mediates between the warring parties to grant the teams access to the affected areas).

Failures occur on the main line which provides Aleppo with electricity generated in the az-Zurba plant in Hama. This became the only power source in the neighbourhoods under the control of the opposition after the self-declared Islamic State (IS) seized the as-Safirah thermal power station.

According to local opposition sources, the regime signed in March a power-sharing deal with the followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that stipulates the increase of the quantity of fuel allocated to the as-Safirah plant, provided that opposition groups are not supplied with electricity. In fact, the electricity lines connecting the station to regime-held areas do not pass through zones controlled by the opposition and the rebels cannot therefore use power lines to exert pressure on the two parties.

“The regime prevents repair teams from accessing the damaged areas as long as it is receiving power from the thermal station and it allows them in only when it (the station) stops working,” said Abu Ramiz(1), a technician who works for the maintenance teams.

Moreover, the regime’s barrel bombs, whose blasts extend meters deep underground, and the latest clashes on the frontlines of the old city have destroyed the city’s water pipelines, causing outages in a number of neighbourhoods since June.

The General Management of Services usually repairs the damages in collaboration with the Red Crescent, as the latter has access to spare parts from regime-held zones. However, Abu ʿAala’, the director of the General Management’s media office, told Good Morning Syria that the maintenance teams have been unable to fix the damaged pipes in the old city for over two and a half months, because the opposition factions prevented them from doing so, under the pretext that water floods the tunnels that the regime has started using recently.

“The ongoing clashes and shelling cause power outage at least once a week in the city and repairs usually take longer than the actual functional hours of power stations, as one of the two warring parties generally prohibits maintenance teams from entering conflict zones.”

As for landlines, they have been out of service since the opposition took over a number of neighbourhoods in July 2012. The regime raided the Khan al-Wazir and Qadi ʿAskar stations with guided missiles, which cut off all landline communications in most of the areas controlled by the rebels.

Mobile networks were cut off as well after communication towers were plundered; generators and spare batteries used in case of power shortages were stolen, while the towers are hardly ever supplied with electricity.

Some engineers from Syriatel and MTN, the only two mobile network providers in Syria, attempted to repair the towers and replace the stolen equipment, since they are able to move across zones controlled by the regime. In order to do that, they contacted Abu Maʿruf, the chief technician in charge of programming the wireless devices used by the opposition, and they finally managed to restore the network, after he convinced some factions to undertake the protection of the towers against theft.

In July 2013, The Islamic State seized the al-Hullak main mobile network station and jammed it. When local activists tried to convince IS to reactivate the towers, the militants explained that the regime allegedly used them to fix its targets.

Nonetheless, this was apparently not the real reason why the towers were sabotaged. “The Islamic State claimed half of the companies’ (Syriatel and MTN) profits, estimated at 52,000,000 SYP per month (around $275,444), but both of them categorically refused that,” said Ahmad, an engineer who was entrusted by the telecom companies with the repair of the towers.

As for the technician Abu Maʿruf, he lost touch with the engineers for over four months after that, until they finally reached him and told him they had been arrested at a regime checkpoint when the soldiers saw the equipment they were smuggling into the opposition areas. They were then sent to prison, accused of collaborating with armed groups, and released four months later.

The situation remained the same until January 2014, when the Islamic State was expelled from Aleppo by the other factions and had to withdraw to the countryside. Some engineers living in the opposition-held neighbourhoods managed to reactivate the al-Hullak station, but the repairs did not make any difference since most secondary towers were out of service.

After two months of communications with Syriatel and MTN, the residents of Masakin Hanano managed to restore power to two towers in their neighbourhood. Nonetheless, according to what they told Good Morning Syria, the Security Institution affiliated to the Levant Front shut down the towers soon after for the same reasons previously stated by the Islamic State.

Highways and bridges are also affected by the devastation, as explosive barrels cause great damages in buildings that eventually crumble, blocking the roads. The city council’s bulldozers sometimes reopen them, but the size of the ruins and the narrow streets keep them from finishing their job properly. The roads are thus abandoned in their demolished state, sometimes along with body parts buried underneath.

Moreover, the barrel bombs destroyed most of the as-Shiʿar bridge, which took over four years to build (2000-2004) at a cost of more than 390 million SYP (the equivalent of $7,8 million at the time). The al-Hajj bridge has been blocked since July 2012, because it was targeted by regime snipers. During the same period, the Maysalun and as-Sakhur bridges, located at the crossfire between government and opposition forces, were closed as well.

Some opposition factions shut down the roads leading to their headquarters to avoid bombs or electronic chips, which reportedly send signals to regime aircrafts. They also blocked most of the neighbourhoods, leaving only one way out, in a so far vain attempt to stop thefts.

Consequently, mobility became difficult for everyone. “We have to take specific roads, they are often narrow and this causes a lot of traffic jams,” microbus driver Abu Saʿd told Good Morning Syria.

Citizens bear the financial consequences, as ʿOmar, a taxi driver, explained: “We take long turns around the closed roads, which requires more petrol and petrol prices are on a constant rise. Of course it’s the citizens who pay the price.”

This is Aleppo, where looters and security regulations stand in the way of repairing the war damages. Life has consequently become more difficult, as people are forced to look for alternative means like wells and power generators to provide their basic needs.

All names used are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the sources.