By Angus McDowall
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – The bodies of three-year-old Malak Kasas and two neighbours still lie under a pile of rubble in Aleppo’s Kalasa district more than two years after the Syrian government recaptured the area.
Malak’s grandfather, Omar, and uncle, Mahmoud, live in the building opposite. When they stand on the balcony, they see the collapsed building that is her tomb. Whenever Omar says her name he bursts into silent, convulsive, sobs.
The state’s failure to pull bodies from the rubble of east Aleppo points to the grim prospects for an area that, like many others in Syria, was held by rebel forces for much of the country’s eight-year-old conflict. The western part of the city has remained in government hands throughout the fighting.
The opposition has accused President Bashar al-Assad of withholding services from districts where the rebellion against him flared to punish residents, and in Kalasa there was little evidence of a big government effort to improve conditions.
The government blames the slow recovery, shortages and hardship on the war and Western sanctions. It has denied treating recaptured areas differently to ones that remained under its control throughout the war and has said it is working to restore normal services to all areas.
The conflict that has killed half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million continues, and Reuters could hear bombardments over several nights in Aleppo from a nearby frontline during a recent visit.
In Kalasa, recaptured in late 2016, there is no systematic reconstruction of residential areas. State services are minimal. Work to renovate war-damaged buildings is almost entirely done and paid for by local people, residents say.
Kalasa has no state electricity supply, charities dole out boxes of food aid to crowds waiting behind chains. As elsewhere in Syria, fuel shortages cause long lines at petrol stations and people rely on firewood for heat.
Some damaged buildings in Kalasa have recently collapsed, falling debris killed a man last year and the many large heaps of rubble in areas where children play in the street are covered in stinking rubbish, dead rats and swarming flies.
Kalasa’s situation is not unusual for east Aleppo – other districts toured by Reuters showed equally bad or worse conditions. The western part of the city has suffered less damage because the rebels had no air power.
In other cities, there also are no reports of widespread rebuilding or data to suggest it has started.
Ayad Batash, 35, a former soldier and builder who was optimistic about life in Kalasa when Reuters met him two years ago, said things had become much worse for his family with a fuel shortage and a lack of work.
“This year’s not like before. This year is worse. The economic situation is worse than before,” he said.
Two years ago, he had regular work and thought the electricity supply would soon resume. He expected to move back into his own apartment and thought his neighbours would return from life as refugees.
“If the situation continues like this, people won’t come back,” he said.
Reuters journalists spent several days reporting in a small neighbourhood of Kalasa that they also visited in 2017 after the government retook the area, interviewing dozens of residents including several they had met previously.
A government official accompanied Reuters at all times in Kalasa. Local people criticised the rebels that held the area from 2012 until 2016 but not Assad or his government.
The recapture of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, was a turning point in the war. In just one city centre square, Reuters counted 18 posters of Assad.
Some things have improved since Reuters last visited this district two years ago. There is now piped water and some rubble, and debris blocking streets and alleys has been cleared.
More schools have opened, though they are crowded, and more government-subsidised bakeries operate in the area, though queues for bread are long.
Those considerations are scant comfort to the people of Kalasa. Omar Kasas no longer leaves his flat. He remembers the bombardment in September 2016 that killed his daughter Iman and her daughters Ayah, Mayas and Malak in the building opposite.
People dug out the bodies of Iman, Ayah and Mayas, and nine dead neighbours, but could not reach Malak or two other women. Since the government took the area, there has been no effort to shift the rubble or find the bodies, residents said.
For Ayad Batash, a government supporter with two brothers in the army, the fuel shortages have aggravated other problems. During a cold winter, his four children, aged between two and 10, had no way to keep warm but with blankets.
A neighbour, retired school worker Ahmad Zarka, 73, kept a stove going to keep warm. The black smoke that pours out of it has turned his white songbirds in a cage on the wall a sooty grey. Rationed gas supplies were not adequate, he said.
The Western districts of Aleppo receive state power supplies for several hours a day. In Kalasa the only source of power is private generators that run on rationed diesel fuel.
Snack bar owner Rabiah al-Najar said the cost of electricity for selling sandwich wraps ate up nearly half his weekly profits.
Batash blames the lack of electricity for the lack of work. Using diesel-powered generators during a fuel shortage can double the cost of a job renovating a damaged apartment, he said. “So the customer just delays the work,” he said.
Opposite a petrol station near Kalaseh, where 80 cars were lined two-deep along the road waiting for rationed fuel, men sat on the curb, their tools lying on upturned concrete blocks to advertise their services as labourers.
“We wait from 7.30 a.m. until about 1 p.m. Then we go home and there’s nothing to do until the next day,” said Mohammed Ahmedi, 53, one of three sitting together, smoking as they waited for a job. They had not worked in 10 days, he said.
Batash has also had little work over the winter, he said. He considered moving but believes things are little better elsewhere.
Every few weeks his family joins the crowd waiting behind a chain strung across a nearby alleyway to receive food aid from the World Food Programme and a local charity.
Men and women queue separately, each clutching their green ration card, waiting for their number to be called to collect a cardboard box with salt, chickpeas, lentils, bulgur wheat, sugar, rice and cooking oil.
There are queues even for bread. At a Kalasa bakery, people had to wait more than half an hour to receive their flat loaves.
There is no official rationing for bread but the baker, Hamid Atiq, said he limited what he sold each person because he did not have enough flour or fuel to power his oven long enough to supply all that the neighbourhood wanted.
His bakery is wedged between the rubble of several bomb sites, and a dead rat lay on the ground nearby as a crowd gathered round the service window jostling to be served.
On the other side of the main road is an area of ramshackle older houses of two or three storeys. Mohammed Ramadan Daha, 61, is frightened to sleep in his house there.
The house behind his collapsed recently. The one next door has a large crack running up the side. He fears his will collapse too.
“It’s terrifying,” Daha said.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)