By Angus McDowall
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – The Batash family are working with their bare hands to clear debris from Aleppo’s al-Mouassassi Street, rebuilding their wrecked neighborhood after years of fighting that came to an end in December.
Heyam Batash, 56, has sores on her fingers from scrubbing clothes in freezing water, her sons Ayad and Youssef forage firewood from wrecked houses and her grandchildren fetch bread from a charity-run bakery nearby.
“We hope life can get back to what it was before,” said Heyam, wearing a purple dress and black headscarf.
Syria’s civil war has not only unleashed carnage across the country but shredded its social fabric, dividing those who backed different sides, scattering families and communities, and ruining millions of lives.
The Batash family is not politically active. But they said the army careers of several of their men made them lean towards the government. One of their cousins joined the rebels, which caused bitter conflict.
Their story shows how ordinary Syrians have suffered at the hands of both sides in the war, driven from their homes and forced to endure looting, bombardment, death, disappearance and separation from loved ones.
Living in bitter cold, without electricity or running water and using paraffin lamps for light, the Batash family are among the tens of thousands of Aleppans returning to the rubble of their neighborhoods rather than fleeing as refugees.
Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war, was split into government and rebel zones until the army retook the insurgent-held east, where al-Mouassassi Street is located, in battles that devastated whole neighborhoods.
When the defeated rebels departed, tens of thousands of residents of east Aleppo chose to leave too, fearing reprisals by President Bashar al-Assad’s army.
But tens of thousands of others remained in their war-damaged homes and have been joined by people who had fled rebel areas to seek shelter with the government in western Aleppo.
It is a pattern repeated across Syria, where the government aided by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite Muslim militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan has retaken rebel areas.
Al-Mouassassi street was once at the heart of a close-knit neighborhood in al-Kalasa district, with shops at street level and apartments above that were homes to middle- and working-class families.
The Batash family have been there since the 1980s when Heyam’s father, a retired army sergeant, built a house for some of his 10 offspring, who lived on different floors with their own children and grandchildren.
But the narrow street, about a hundred meters long, is now piled with rubble, its buildings damaged by bombardment or blackened by fire and many of its inhabitants scattered across Syria, Lebanon or Turkey.
About five families and a few other residents live in the street after staying there for all but the worst of the fighting or returning after the army recaptured it in December.
Small children with dirt-ingrained hands and few clothes against the cold, and cats with soot-stained fur, pick among the debris. Loud bangs, like a door being slammed, are from fighting outside the city.
When shells first started to fall in their neighborhood in Ramadan of 2012, killing a little girl, and as rebels took over Kalasa, the family took diverging paths.
Heyam’s brother Eymad, 54, decided to stay in the street with his wife and family because they had nowhere else to go.
He says the rebels who ran the neighborhood were mostly men from the countryside around Aleppo. They were idealistic at first but became divided, dictatorial and prone to looting.
Government bombardment by artillery, air strikes and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters has destroyed much of Kalasa.
Eymad survived one shell blast that destroyed most of a house’s upper floors, by ducking into a doorway opposite, and he watched a barrel bomb hit a building along the street, causing a fire that razed the block behind.
Another of Heyam and Eymad’s eight siblings was killed when a barrel bomb hit a market where he was buying vegetables. Fighting also killed the husband of Heyam’s daughter Afrah.
But while Eymad stayed in al-Mouassassi Street, danger from bombs and harassment by rebels made Heyam flee to government-controlled Hamdaniyeh in west Aleppo with her children and grandchildren.
THREATS AND DISAPPEARANCES
A cousin of the Batash family, a man called Sharif, had joined the rebels and was angry with his relatives because Heyam’s husband had been in the army and her son Mohammed was doing military service in Hama.
“We will drink a cup of your blood and the blood of your brother and your father,” Heyam’s son Ayad said Sharif had told him. Ayad later heard that Sharif was paralyzed during the fighting in December and later arrested.
He does not know what has happened to him. “We had a normal relationship. But he chose one side and we chose another,” Ayad said.
Another of Heyam’s daughters, Zainab, 25, lost her husband. He was detained at an army security branch checkpoint in 2013 and has not been heard from since, although soldiers have told them he was conscripted and is fighting around Palmyra.
Army security denied having held him, Zainab said, but she believed he may have been arrested despite being politically inactive because he shares a name with cousins who joined the rebels.
Although family members could sometimes speak to Eymad by phone from the school in Hamdaniyeh where 20 of them lived in several classrooms, they were not prepared for the destruction in al-Mouassassi Street when they returned, Heyam said.
“I’ve been living in this house for 25 years. Thank God we have a place to stay. This is my home,” she said. Most of all, she was glad to be reunited with her brother Eymad, she said.
Heyam now lives with Zainab and her two daughters in the basement of the house on al-Mouassassi Street. They share two small rooms with plastic sheets for doors.
The rooms open onto a concrete yard, sheltered by a tarpaulin, where the family spend much of their time. Last week it was cold enough to see the children’s breath as they crowded around their grandmother in sandals and thin clothes.
Around the neighborhood, there are signs of returning life. A greengrocer sells fresh produce that is still a novelty for those who survived the siege.
Fresh meat hangs from hooks outside a butcher’s shop between two wrecked buildings. With schools still not open, the streets are full of children playing in the rubble.
Heyam’s youngest son, Youssef, left al-Mouassassi Street to begin military service this month. Ayad, 33, is now the only working-age member of his part of the Batash family. He cannot return to his pre-war job restoring houses in the old city of Homs.
Eymad, a carpenter, lost his tools and workshop in the fighting, so he is also unable to work for now.
Instead, the Batash men are using their hands to clear up their street. They have heard from neighbors now living elsewhere in Aleppo, in other cities in Syria, and in Lebanon and Turkey.
Although government bulldozers are clearing rubble from the main road, they have not yet turned to smaller streets.
However, Ayad spent a day last week connecting an electricity cable to the house from a generator that a neighbor has installed nearby.
He made sure the cable had enough capacity to serve his family and others he believed would return. “I’ve been asking them to come back,” he said.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)