We’d hide against the far wall under a piece of door,” said Aboud, an elderly man who stayed in Eastern Aleppo throughout. “You’d see the barrel bombs falling. The fire and dust from the explosion would come in through the door.
He lived there with his infirm wife, his son Mahmoud and daughter-in-law Manar and his grandchildren Aboud and Khawla. “We could never escape from here, my wife can’t walk. Besides, where would we have gone.”
At a recently opened centre in Eastern Aleppo, Caritas distributes blankets, hygiene items and nappies.
One year old Khawla was born into this inferno. All the hospitals were destroyed, but there was a medic operating out of an apartment. “We had to get through the bombing. It was terrifying. The doctor helped my wife give birth. There were no painkillers. She suffered greatly,” said Mahmoud.
The neighbourhood was controlled by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Hunger and harassment reigned. Their fighters would hand out a few pieces of bread a day. Aboud would cross the frontline to bring back food and medicine. Being caught could have meant death. The seventy year old was lucky. Others were not.
Saba found the beaten body of her husband in a car. Ibrahim lost his son. “They cut off his head. They beat me too. One of them took out a knife, put it to my neck and shouted Allahu Akbar,” he said. When he opened his eyes, they had disappeared, having stolen his van.
After the apocalypse
Aboud, Saba and Ibrahim live among the ruins of Eastern Aleppo. There is no electricity, water, food, jobs, schools, hospitals. Only rubble. The United Nations estimates the level of destruction to be 100 percent.
“We are 25 families in this street. We look after each other,” said Ibrahim. “We survive on what we can find.” Warde is an elderly woman taking care of ten children, “The children sell bits of metal so we can buy food. We burn rubbish to stay warm.”
Caritas has just opened a centre in this neighbourhood. Staff go door to door, identifying the most vulnerable. Caritas provides basic aid like blankets, hygiene kits and nappies, looking to scale up quickly.
The children sell bits of metal so we can buy food. We burn rubbish to stay warm.
Among the city’s survivors is Mohammed. The twelve year old lives with his five siblings in a half-destroyed building. “We were staying at home when a barrel bomb hit,” he said. “We were rescued by neighbours and brought here.” The house has two habitable rooms. The rest is a death trap.
The whereabouts of the father are unknown. The mother was arrested. For two months, the children have been taking care of themselves. The youngest, Yamen, is nine months old. The older children find bits of copper to sell for food. “It’s scary at night,” said Hanna, aged 10. “A man steals our food. We try to block the door.”
We were staying at home when a barrel bomb hit,” he said. “We were rescued by neighbours and brought here.
Caritas organised an orphanage for the six children through the United Nations. “It’s impossible to know how they survived so long,” said Hanan Bali, emergency coordinator at Caritas Aleppo. “The tragedy is that there are thousands of children left without their parents or a guardian.”
Mohammed and Hanna are the only children in the family to have gone to school. By the time the others were old enough, all the schools here were destroyed and the teachers: “dead or fled”. 25,000 children born after the battle for Aleppo began have not even had their births registered.
Essa’s dream school
“In East Aleppo, children have not gone to school since 2012,” said Essa Tahhan, the education coordinator at Caritas Aleppo. “We are starting from zero. We must repair or rebuild the schools. We need teachers. We need tools for learning. We need stationary, school bags and everything. We need jobs so children no longer have to work the streets to survive.”
Essa has a dream to rebuild one of the schools. Currently like much of the rest of this part of town, the school seems little more than broken stone and bullet holes. “It’s not completely destroyed. It needs some repair, and tables, chairs, toilets and washbasins,” said Essa. “500 children could go to school here again.”
It’s not just infrastructure that is in need of care. “The children need counselling. They are terrified. They can’t sleep. You see the trauma in their behaviour. They can be violent. We have to teach them how to live together and how to play together,” said Essa.
Schools in West Aleppo have stayed open. The quality has suffered with fewer teachers and bigger class sizes because of the children fleeing other warzones. “Before the crisis, we had 500 students, and now it is 800 students,” said Muhammad Husam Tabbakh, headmaster at Caritas-supported Ibn Reshed School in West Aleppo.
“Caritas has provided kits and stationary. It’s material help to the students. The war has made people poor. By giving them school bags, it helps families financially,” he said.
In East Aleppo, children have not gone to school since 2012
Salouh Chahin’s four children have been among those to benefit. The family lives in Western Aleppo in a rented apartment after their home was hit by a shell. “It was chaos. You couldn’t see anything because of the dust and smoke,” she said. “Neighbours rescued us. When I came here, I didn’t have any money. I came to Caritas. They provided me with rent support so I found a house.”
Providing money for rent is another part of the help Caritas provides in Aleppo. Her landlord wants to increase the rent from 15,000 Syrian pounds to 20,000 Syrian pounds. “When the rent goes up I don’t know what we’ll do. This place is all that we have. We hope that there is peace in Syria. We pray for that,” she said.
Caritas Syria relies on young people like George Khoury and Naya Moubayed, both 24. George is studying to be a civil engineer. “I want to say this building was designed by George. You see the destruction here. Building something would really be putting your mark on the city,” he said.
Both had time on their hands so sent their CV’s to Caritas. They have been asked to help the education programme.“It’s very fulfilling to see a smile on a child,” said Naya. They will work in a new child friendly space to give extra classes in Science, English and French.
“Children and teenagers have been affected more than me,” said George. They have to study more. It’s difficult to do homework if there is no electricity and no light to read by. After 5pm, how do you study. They have to use candlelight.”