Amid Aleppo's rubble, a daily struggle to survive


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ALEPPO, Syria -- Inside the classrooms where they once studied, the boys darted like a pack. Their banging and clanking could be heard for a city block.

The playground outside had been hit by a Syrian air force airstrike, which fractured the school's walls. Now the children were smashing the furniture, prying off wooden desktops and bench seats, rushing away with what they could.

The Isam al-Nadri School for Boys was being dismantled for the firewood it contained. One sixth-grader, Ahmed, clutching the kindling he had made by ransacking a room, offered an irreducible argument for looting his own school.

"I want heat," he said.

Winter is descending on Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the bloodied stage for an urban battle, now running into its sixth month, between rebels and the military of President Bashar Assad.

As temperatures drop and the weakened government's artillery thunders on, Aleppo is administered by no one and slipping into disaster. Front-line neighborhoods are rubble. Most of the city's districts have had no electricity and little water for weeks. All of Aleppo suffers from shortages of oil, food, medicine, doctors and gas.

Diseases are spreading. Parks and courtyards are being defoliated for firewood, turning streets once lined with trees into avenues bordered by stumps. Months' worth of trash is piled high, often beside bread lines where hundreds of people wait for a meager stack of loaves.

One of the Middle East's beautiful and historic cities is being forced by scarcity and violence into a bitter new shape. Overlaying it all is a mix of fatigue and distrust, the sentiments of a population divided in multiple ways.

Aleppo's citizens scavenge and seethe. And along with the sectarian passions of civil war, some residents express yearnings for starkly opposite visions of the future: either for a return of the relative stability of the Assad government or for the promises of Islamic rule.

Others see a grim hope, calling the unraveling of their society a period that one day will be remembered as this ancient city's ultimate test.

"We left high salaries, we left our jobs, we left our rank in society," said Ammar Diar Bakerly, a doctor who directs medical care in the city's rebel-held east. "We left everything to get our dignity. This is the price we have to pay, and it is a cheap price to get our freedom from the tyrant."

Not everyone shares these revolutionary views.

"We come every morning to the clinic asking for medicine, but they don't offer any," said Johair Iman Mustafa, a house painter and taxi driver with no work, who spotted a visitor and approached in a rage. "We go to the bakery for hours, but there is no bread and they kick us."

"Before the revolution," said Mr. Mustafa, a Sunni who had been no supporter of Mr. Assad's Alawite-led government, "it was much better."

For most of Syria's 21-month uprising, Aleppo, a commercial and government center built around its historic Old City, was spared the battles engulfing the country.

That changed in July when the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, as many rebels call themselves, entered Aleppo and opened urban fronts.

The government rushed in much-needed army units from elsewhere, turning to heavier weapons in a bid to retain control of a city that, if lost, would change Mr. Assad's self-assured narrative. The war's largest battle yet was joined.

Five months on, the government's gambit has failed. Even with air support and artillery batteries firing relentlessly, Mr. Assad's military has yielded ground. In roughly half the city, rebels move about openly.

From the outset, Aleppo's population, its loyalties split, was stuck between forces. Disorganized rebel groups had started a battle they had little prospect to win swiftly. The army fought back in part with a collective-punishment model. Foreign fighters began to trickle in, stalking the front and talking of jihad.

And the city's population showed signs of ambivalence. Sentiments mixed and roiled along urban demographic and social lines -- between Arabs and Kurds, loyalists and revolutionaries, secular citizens and Islamists, young and old -- all aggravated by the sense that many of the rebels were from rural areas, and did not share Aleppo's cosmopolitan fabric.

The battle's effects followed a predictable course, with little differentiation among its victims' backgrounds. Aleppo's residents face a collapsed economy, broken infrastructure, no services and no clear sense of when the fighting will end.

Prices have soared. Necessities today cost three to 12 times what they did in July.

A tank of cooking gas, worth $5 before the war, now costs about $60. A liter of diesel, 50 cents not long ago, sells today for $3. Residents often pay for 10 pieces of bread what they used to pay for 30, 40 or 50. Sometimes, though, there is no bread at all.

No one expects relief. If anything, people predict that prices will climb even more, further pressured by the decline of the Syrian pound. Devaluation added strains to families that have no income; fighting and destruction put much of the population out of work.

Then came events that made life harder still.

In late November, Aleppo's flour supply was abruptly cut when rebels captured much of the city's grain storage. What might have been a victory instead became a source of popular rage.

Bakeries shut down while the Free Syrian Army struggled to organize flour delivery and sales, leading to public demonstrations. Then, when the rebels did begin distribution, they increased the price of flour -- by as much as 20 percent, residents said.

By mid-December only some bakeries were working again. This created a cruel food lottery for residents, who gambled each day on which bakery to line up outside of, wondering if their chosen bakery would receive flour and bake bread. One bakery owner, Mohammad Badour, 60, reopened his shop last week.

"Today the FSA brought flour for the first time," he said.

Outside, a crowd shouted and shoved. A line of perhaps 200 people snaked around the corner. Inside, several men worked nonstop, keeping the automated bread machine running.

Mr. Badour was sweaty and tired. He understood the desperation at the window, the eyes looking in, alternately angry and plaintive.

"We are hungry," he said.

Later that day, at another bakery in a rebel-held zone, people waited for hours but no flour arrived. The crowd turned into a protest that marched down an alley behind a black flag bearing Quranic script, calling for Islamic rule.

"The Free Syrian Army are thieves!" the people chanted -- not the sentiment the rebels had hoped for when they vowed to liberate the city. One man looked at two foreign journalists and menacingly ran his hand across his throat.

The shortages extend past food to hospital beds. In all the rebel-held territory, medical service is scarce, a shortage that deepened in November when the air force destroyed Dar al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in rebel-held ground. With the hospital closed, Dr. Bakerly said, "there are 20 hospital beds for all of east Aleppo," an area with as many as a million residents.

Doctors now work from a partly hidden network of clinics and small hospitals, from which they treat about 40 people each day for wounds from the shelling. (The number of patients has declined since the hospital was destroyed, doctors said; many people arrange to move the wounded north, to makeshift trauma centers in the countryside and then across the border to Turkey.)

But there are other conditions to treat, including a growing menace: disease. Dr. Bakerly noted that people had crowded into neighborhoods away from the fronts. Dense living conditions, combined with the shortage of potable water and a long absence of trash collection, have created conditions ideal for the spread of infectious diseases.

He and other doctors noted a surge in leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal infection passed to humans by sandfly bites.

Before the fighting came to Aleppo, several doctors said, the government misted the streets and the areas where sandflies bred with insecticide. That has not happened for months. Leishmaniasis cases have spiked.

"We are seeing very high numbers of this; it is spreading in the streets," said another doctor, Mohammad al-Haj, who splits times between clinics.

Mr. Haj ticked off the season's dreary list: more leishmaniasis, more respiratory and stomach infections, dysentery spreading like he had never seen.

He added: "We could treat these cases, but there is no laboratory, no medical equipment and almost no medicine. We divide the medicine. The medicine we would normally give to one person we now give to many."

Outside the clinic, shells landed nearby, close enough to make the distinctive thump and crunch of high-explosive ordnance creeping close. A crowd of women with children all but pushed at his door.

Mr. Haj was gentle and polite, but spoke with bitterness at how he hears the West assess Syria's war.

"They say that chemical weapons are the red line," he said, referring to President Barack Obama's public warning to Syria's government that a chemical strike might prompt a U.S. military response.

"But we are dying from other ways. It is not good enough to die from shelling or disease? The international community laughs at our suffering."

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