‘The first obstacle to any talk of reconstruction is return,’ says AlHakam Shaar of the Aleppo Project

During four years of battles for Aleppo, frontlines cut across the city’s center, dividing government territory in the west from rebel-held neighborhoods to the east. Syrian and Russian warplanes launched airstrikes in the east while rebel groups lobbed mortar and artillery shells toward the west.

During the fighting, which ended with the government recapturing the city in 2016, the main divide between Aleppo’s estimated three million residents was what side of the city one lived in: east or west?

But today, as the city slowly looks to rebuild, the larger rift between Aleppans is the divide between those inside the city and those who are displaced, living elsewhere in Syria or abroad, says AlHakam Shaar, a fellow at the Aleppo Project.

The Aleppo Project, an open source research initiative based in Budapest’s Central European University, gathers and publishes information from Aleppo natives about their city: its past, its current state and their vision for its future. But although the organization collects testimonies from residents inside Aleppo, most of their contacts are with people who left the city in recent years.

“The displaced are our main focus because generally, with reconstruction, they are the ones who are not being heard,” Shaar, who is himself originally from east Aleppo, tells Syria Direct’s Tariq Adely.

Shaar is part of a team at the Aleppo Project that publishes research findings and policy reports on the city’s heritage, the damage caused by war and what needs to be done to facilitate the return of displaced  residents.

“Aleppo has rebuilt itself over and over again,” says Shaar, adding that he believes the ancient city can do so again. “We just want people to feel safe to return so that society feels whole again.”

Q: The Aleppo Project launched while the battle for the city was still ongoing in 2015 in order to document the city’s past and present while thinking ahead towards reconstruction. Now that reconstruction is underway, how do you view the project’s purpose? How are you looking to use the information you gather to enact change on the ground?

That is the million dollar question. We knew that at some point [Aleppo city] would be rebuilt, but our purpose was never to put forward plans. Rather, it was to get a sense of people's experiences, which I believe we have managed to get a lot of, despite the challenges.

[One way we use the information we gather] is in policy work and papers. One of our main beliefs is that even though we can not directly influence or account for everything that happens [in Aleppo], it is still better to listen to the displaced and work on wider policy problems that aren’t always addressed.

[For example,] in some of our policy work we looked at the Old City, the souq and how to rebuild life in the souq based on interviews with people who were part of it, their visions for it.

One major issue that we are trying to address is the return of Aleppo’s displaced. There is still a lot to learn from the displaced and ways to address their problems. It doesn’t matter what you’re cooking if you don’t invite the owners of the kitchen. Allowing them access and a say is key.

The first obstacle to any talk of reconstruction is return—allow us to go back. I really believe this. Why can’t I go back?

Q: What are the major obstacles preventing refugees and displaced residents from returning to Aleppo city today?

To put things in perspective, Aleppo city originally had three million residents. A line went across the middle of the city, dividing it into two almost equal halves.

Eastern Aleppo districts tend to consist more of crowded, informal settlements, as we call them, forming something like a ring around the Old City. One and a half million people used to live there.

Before [December 2016], most of the east Aleppo’s population had already left due to the barrel bombings or the looming siege, to save their lives. Some went to regime-controlled western areas of Aleppo or to Latakia, Hama and Damascus. But more left for other rebel-held areas, Turkey or other countries.

Very few east Aleppo residents managed to stay—almost no one. At the end of 2016, virtually all those who stayed were bused out during the last eviction. It should be called an ‘eviction’—forcing people out of their homes—as opposed to an ‘evacuation,’ [which connotes] saving someone.

[Ed.: An estimated 35,000 civilians and fighters left the last remaining rebel-held districts of Aleppo city for opposition-controlled territory in the western countryside after rebels surrendered to Syrian government forces in mid-December 2016 .]

Roughly 200,000 to 300,000 [residents have since returned to east Aleppo], but we don’t know for sure—there are no accurate estimates. It’s very hard to estimate how many of the original residents are there.

In certain parts of Aleppo that remain highly destroyed, only about one-fifth of the residents have returned. Businesses and services have not resumed.

The Khan Khayrbuk market in Aleppo city on April 7. Photo by George Ourfalian/AFP.

Where is everybody else? It seems not many can return because of logistical obstacles. If you’re in Turkey with your family, you cannot just go and check out the situation [in Aleppo] to see if you can stay or not. Turkey would not allow you to return. So, if you leave, that’s it. People lose their safety net once they risk going back [to Syria].

[Ed.: Ankara closed its last two official border-crossings to Syrian asylum seekers in 2015, only allowing entry to Turkish soil in cases such as medical emergencies.]

I mentioned Turkey as an example, but similar problems apply to people in Europe and the United States.

[Some displaced residents also] don’t feel welcome in Syria, or that this country wants them. You might be arrested, but beyond that you know you won’t be able to speak your mind or live life your own way. I hope that will change, but there’s no sign of it.

This is the problem: Without people feeling like they can come home, how is it possible to rebuild? Are you just going to rebuild for them without their wishes, repurposing their districts and their homes?

Most of the residents of the Old City are not there. Even though it is fetishized as a historical place—‘this is what Aleppo was like’ or ‘this is our heritage’—we are actually talking about half-destroyed, lifeless stones.

At the moment, it does not seem like the regime even has the capacity to start any major project, which means that they won’t be rushing any development. That also might mean bringing in some major development company in a neoliberal fashion, telling it: ‘Do what you wish. You just have to give 50 percent of the houses to the original residents, God knows who they are.’ That’s a risk.

Q: The Aleppo Project uses an open source methodology in which residents, displaced peoples and refugees contribute their reflections, pictures and information to your organization’s research. Could you speak about the importance of this strategy, particularly since the city of Aleppo is now entirely under government control? What are some challenges of working in this way?

The displaced are our main focus because generally, with reconstruction, they are the ones who are not being heard. At times, the Aleppo Project more reflects the concerns or problems of those who are from Aleppo but are not there and cannot access it.

One challenge is that people are fatigued with giving their views and taking surveys. I remember when we surveyed people in Turkey, they were saying: ‘Okay, so what is the point?’

Municipal workers in Aleppo’s Masaken Hanano district pave a road on Monday. Photo courtesy of Aleppo City Council.

People want some kind of feedback in return. It has to be more collaborative, and we are working on these problems now.

Despite the great love that people have for their city, they really need to be convinced why they need [to share their information and pictures]. I think people, because of the war and displacement, have a lot to say but I don’t think it is easy for them to feel creative.

Q: The situation in Aleppo you describe stands in such stark contrast with the diverse, vibrant city that existed prior to the war. For example, the Old City and the souq, which you described as ‘lifeless,’ was once an urban site that tied together all of the social classes as well as the ethnic and religious subgroups in the city.

Absolutely—that is what is so tragic. One thing we can do is document or reconstruct what life was like before from those who are displaced and are not feeling welcome [now].

We are starting a project in May with a German institute of geography to map informal markets [in Aleppo] to safeguard some knowledge: what the city was like, what people were like and what their way of life was.

Q: Do you believe it is possible to rebuild the social and cultural fabric of Aleppo?

I think it is very possible. In theory, there should be no problem with this. The problems [inhibiting rebuilding] are man-made logistical problems, in this case created by the Syrian regime.

For example, [Syrian government policies are] not allowing or enabling people to come back. The longer this continues, the bigger the rift will become.

We have observed at the Aleppo Project that, just a few years ago, the big division was whether you were pro-regime or anti-regime. Now, the new division arising is: Are you in Aleppo city or not?  

Regardless of whether you were in western or eastern Aleppo, [the war] was still dangerous. They lived under bombs, and through a lack of water and electricity.

These people [who lived in Aleppo during the war] are saying: ‘You people from abroad cannot tell us what to do or how to do it.’

It will always matter if you are pro- or anti- regime, but it will matter less [with time]. What will matter is whether you were there when they lived through all of that or not.  

Aleppo has rebuilt itself over and over again. Aleppo has always been metropolitan, cosmopolitan, bringing in European merchants and populations from diverse backgrounds. I think it can easily do that again. Aleppo was a conservative city in the 20th century, yes. But it is also a welcoming and dynamic city. This will allow for cohesion once more.

We just want people to feel safe to return so that society feels whole again. But, at the moment, it is scary to see how people are not even able to visit.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.