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Inside Aleppo: Residents return to rebuild Syria's shattered city

Posted August 15

Standing on the highest point in Aleppo, the calm and the quiet are humbling.

We climbed to the top of the minaret of the mosque inside Aleppo's ancient citadel, where you get an amazing view of the entire city. To the west are the bustling neighborhoods that remained under government control during the entire battle for the city. To the east lie the ruins of the formerly rebel-held areas, still fairly empty but with some people coming back, trying to pick up the pieces.

We're in Aleppo with the permission of the Assad government, which granted the visas that allowed us to enter Syria.

"We held out here for years," a Syrian soldier leading us through the citadel tells us. The ancient fortification on a high point right in the middle of Aleppo was also on the frontlines, with rebels attempting to storm it while Syrian troops remained holed up inside.

The soldier leads us past the amphitheater, the old temples and excavation sites. He says he spent three years here fighting off assaults. "They dug 10 tunnels," he says, pointing to a hole in the ground. "Some we only discovered at the last moment and then blew them up. We had little food and water. It was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. But we held out."

The battle for Aleppo, especially in its final stages, was among the most fierce and brutal of Syria's civil war. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands more fled before the regime finally recaptured the city in December.

I remember looking down from the 20th floor of a high-rise building and seeing plumes of smoke across the entire east of the city and hearing the never-ending sound of explosions. When we went close to the frontline we were met with people fleeing the ever-shrinking enclaves controlled by the rebels. All of them seemed tired, many malnourished, the children and elderly often too weak to even walk.

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Nine months later there are remarkable changes in the city, but much of it remains in a state of utter devastation, and the massive rebuilding effort that will be needed here hasn't started. Cars now drive easily between areas in western Aleppo that are almost untouched and places in the east that are completely wrecked. The frontlines here seemed almost impossible to breach only a few months ago. Now the debris has been cleared, leaving almost no trace of the former battle positions.

We drove through some of the eastern neighborhoods that used to be strongholds of the opposition. Many remain largely deserted, but thousands of people who fled the conflict have returned and are trying to salvage their homes or move into abandoned buildings, many of which are often badly damaged. We saw a small vegetable market, the produce laying on a blanket on the sidewalk with dozens of residents gathering here.

"We have most of what we need," a man named Mustafa al Bab told us. "We will rebuild and things will improve over time."

Mustafa al Bab says he is a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fled this area when the rebels took over. He praised Russia for its support of the Syrian military.

"The Russians are our friends," Mustafa al Bab says "They are honest with us like we are honest with them. Bashar al-Assad and the Russians are one."

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Many of those returning rely on donations from aid groups to get by. We were on hand when a truck full of bread arrived, leading to a rush, with dozens of people hurrying to get in line. They have to present a ration card and then get a pack of flat bread that will last for one day.

"We have to keep in mind that life basically stopped here for six years. It has only been nine months since the fighting ended. So in light of that the improvements are good," said Abdul Rahman Razouk, the head of the local NGO supplying the bread.

Some progress has certainly been made. Aleppo now has electricity almost all day, versus just a few hours only a few months ago. The Syrian government is building power lines in the desert between Damascus and Aleppo to try and make the supply more reliable. More and more areas now also have running water.

But the task of rebuilding is momentous when you look over the areas that have been flattened by the years of siege and fighting, where many buildings have collapsed under the heavy shelling that engulfed the opposition-controlled areas. Some people are rebuilding their houses, but most places will require reconstruction on a grand scale.

Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial spirit that has always been a hallmark of Aleppo is beginning to return. We go into a damaged building to find large, computerized sewing machines buzzing inside. The shift leader says he repaired the machines shortly after the fighting ended. For now they are producing a very limited quantity of clothes, mostly T-shirts, but at least it's a start.

"Everything is difficult. Electricity is a problem, water is a problem, getting the raw materials and the spare parts for the machines. And there aren't enough workers because too many people fled," says Rami Abou Souf, the shift leader in the small workshop. He also left the district when the rebels took over but has since moved back to the area, and he hopes others who fled the city -- and the country -- will do the same.

"I think Aleppo will be back to the way it used to be: as the main business town in Syria. When the people who fled see that business is coming back, we will work together and make Aleppo as great as it used to be and even better."

That seems like a very ambitious and optimistic outlook considering the extensive damage done, the number of people who have fled or were killed and the communities that were divided by the Syrian conflict. Still, Aleppo has been bruised and battered many times in its history but has always found a way to stand up again.

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