People of Aleppo prepare for Eid festival under siege

For Mojahed Abo Aljood, the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha was always marked by the crowds in the markets of Aleppo, the aroma of familiar home-cooked meals, the pastries and morning prayers, the children playing in amusement parks.

Now that is all gone. Eid for the past few years in the opposition-held districts of eastern Aleppo is marked by massacres or more intense bombardment by the government’s air force, by deprivation instead of abundance.

Despite the ceasefire deal agreed between the US and Russia that is due to come into force on Monday, this year is unlikely to be much different, as a quarter of a million people enter their third month under siege in the ruins of their city.

“Almost everywhere there are people who have died or been maimed in the bombings,” said Abo Aljood, who lives in eastern Aleppo and works for a media collective called the Aleppo Media Centre that documents attacks in the city.

“If you ask anyone who lives in Aleppo if they’re happy, or if they’re capable of being happy and forgetting, most of them will tell you my son is dead and won’t be with me this Eid, or my wife is gone, and those who did not lose anyone are living in terror and you cannot be happy when you’re living in terror.”

As part of the complex ceasefire agreement, a seven-day pause in the fighting is due to begin on Monday evening, at the start of Eid. During that time, the Syrian army will relax its stranglehold on rebel-held areas of Aleppo, allowing humanitarian aid to be delivered to the starving city, while rebels stop fighting around government areas. The plan received the backing of the regime’s key ally, Iran, on Sunday.

But on the ground many are sceptical that the ceasefire can work.

For four years Aleppo has been divided into an opposition-controlled east and a regime-held west. Earlier this summer, troops loyal to the president, Bashar al-Assad, and backed by Iran and Hezbollah as well as Russian airstrikes succeeded in imposing a siege on the east by cutting off the only road from the north where supplies could inch their way through.

The rebels responded by breaking the siege a month later in an offensive, but few supplies could make it through because the corridor they opened was a war zone. A government counter-offensive, backed by an unforgiving aerial campaign, then sealed the corridor once again.

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Medical staff treat a man suffering from breathing difficulties inside a hospital in Aleppo.





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Medical staff treat a man suffering from breathing difficulties inside a hospital in Aleppo. Photograph: Aleppo Media Centre

The Assad regime upped the ante last week by apparently deploying chlorine bombs in an airstrike on the Sukkari neighbourhood of eastern Aleppo, which local sources say led to at least 80 people falling ill from inhaling the gas and the deaths of two people by suffocation, including a young girl.

Those who support the opposition see the siege and chemical warfare as another attempt to make them kneel. Late last month the regime reached a deal with rebels based in the Damascus suburb of Darayya, whereby the town was emptied of its inhabitants after they finally surrendered following a four-year siege.

“Chemical weapons are being used, phosphorus, cluster bombs, vacuum bombs,” said Osama Abu al-Ezz, a doctor in Aleppo. “There are a quarter of a million people subjected to all manners of killing, and they are trying to empty the city of its people, a form of ethnic cleansing.

“All of these are crimes, and the international community is complicit either through its silence or its active participation as in the case of Russia and Iran,” he added, speaking before the ceasefire was announced.

Amid the siege, many in eastern Aleppo have been left to subsist on rice or bulgur as their main food. Doctors can no longer come into the city to treat the wounded whose flow continues unabated, nor can they transfer patients out to places such as the Turkish border where they can receive treatment. Medicine and equipment are in short supply, leaving those with chronic conditions to suffer, inadvertent victims of the war who are not counted among the casualties.

Abul al-Ezz said doctors had also begun to see more cases of malnutrition, and there is little baby milk remaining in the city. With no regular power supply, water purification and distribution pumps are sitting idle, leaving people without clean water.

And although people are relying on generators, there are shortages of fuel, and what local hospitals remain that have not been completely bombed are likely to run out of diesel reserves in a couple of months.

Another curious effect of the siege has been that people have mostly stopped using their cars, limiting their lives to their immediate neighbourhood for the most part, what Abo Aljood describes as a “state of paralysis” amid the carnage.

Aleppo has always had immense symbolic value. If the rebels lose, they risk a fatal blow to their insurgency, which will be banished to rural areas while Assad holds the urban centres. A defeat could send tens of thousands of refugees fleeing towards the Turkish border.

But few of Aleppo’s residents have much hope that they will be saved through the machinations of geopolitics.

“There is no Eid here,” said Abo Aljood. “There is no joy whatsoever.”