By Angus McDowall
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – When Hassan Ahmed al-Aoul looks from his balcony in the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, little meets his gaze but ruins – great mounds of rubble where his neighbours’ houses used to stand near an old frontline.
He fled the area at the start of the fighting in 2012 and returned years later when it ended with a government victory over rebels in the city, finding his house upright though badly damaged.
Like many people with homes near Aleppo’s old frontlines, the city areas that suffered most damage in a war now into its ninth year, he must now make do with a life in the rubble.
A new wave of fighting and bombardment appears to have broken out in the rebels’ northwestern stronghold last week, and many more families may soon face a similar situation.
The 75-year-old and his wife, Aisha, 60, borrowed money to fix the shell-smashed back wall and replaster the inside, where they now live with their daughter Maryam, 30, and her three children aged 9, 8 and 3.
Their three rooms are furnished with mats, rugs, blankets and foam mattresses that double up as sofas and bedding. In the entranceway, coats hang next to a pink clock shaped like a teddy bear.
The taller buildings on each side were either totally destroyed or damaged to the point of being uninhabitable while just about still standing. On the main street nearby, a building collapsed in February, killing 11 people.
Aoul, a retired stone cutter, said he is not worried about his house falling down. However, its collapse would not only put their lives in danger – it represents almost all they own.
Their three sons are in the army, earning little. Their daughter’s husband is in prison and she only just started a job serving tea for visitors at a school.
The family income rests on the tiny yellow taxi that stands outside the bullet-riddled metal front door. Aoul rents it to a driver who gives him half the takings. But the driver has not shown up for five days.
Meanwhile, the family must pay for food and electricity, taken from a private diesel-powered generator in the neighbourhood because government supplies have not yet reached this district.
One of the big piles of stone, concrete slab and rusting metal that Aoul can see from his balcony was once the family home of Mustafa Karim, a taxi-driver.
His parents owned the low corner block of 10 flats where they lived together with his two sisters, with shops on the ground floor that included a barber and a plumber.
Like the Aouls, they also left the district when the war came to Aleppo in 2012, and returned after the government recaptured it in December 2016. Their house was destroyed in the fierce battles in the month before the fighting ended.
“It was a shock for us to hear it was destroyed. There’s no way we can rebuild. We can barely manage our daily expenses,” Karim said.
Rubble covers three sides of the crossroads where his house stood, with bits of buildings sill protruding from them and, in one place, an olive tree. Pigeons kept by a neighbour flutter about.
Behind one street of entirely collapsed buildings is a mechanic’s garage where workers are elbow deep in the engine of Karim’s taxi, a little yellow car like Aoul’s.
Across the main street, the al-Burr family lives down another side street. Hussein, 41, minds the grocery shop, selling tins and packets of food, eggs and sweets.
His parents Ali and Fatemeh live on the second storey in a few dark rooms. They first built the shop, then the five storeys above it one by one, Fatemeh said.
The main street in this part of Aleppo’s Salahaddine district was the frontline. The Aoul and Karim houses were on the rebel side, bombarded with the army’s much heavier weaponry, including from the air.
The Burr house was on the government side, so was less badly damaged, though they had to repair several walls. But it was looted in the chaos.
Everything was taken – from the furniture to the electric wiring and wooden doorframes. They now have wires strung along the wall instead of behind the plasterwork. For a light, they have two electric torches stuck to the wall.
“They even took our coffee cups,” said Ali.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)