Residents returning to east Aleppo find destruction 'beyond imagination'

The cleanup has begun in eastern Aleppo as thousands of residents of the formerly rebel-held city return to blown-out homes and a city in ruins amid bitterly cold winter temperatures.

Rebuilding the city besieged for years will take 'a long time,' UN official says

Children carry cooked meals provided by the UN and a partner agency as they walk in east Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 4. (Bassam Diab/UNHCR/Reuters)

The cleanup has begun in eastern Aleppo as thousands of residents of the formerly rebel-held city return to figure out how to "rebuild their lives and livelihoods,'' a United Nations official says.

The Syrian government only recently retook full control of the divided city, which was under siege for more than four years while forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad battled a collection of rebel groups.

As government forces closed in last month under heavy airstrikes, tens of thousands of residents fled of their own accord, followed by around 35,000 civilians and opposition fighters who were bused out of the eastern districts amid a sputtering ceasefire in the final weeks of 2016.

"The destruction is enormous," says Sajjad Malik, representative in Syria for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and acting humanitarian co-ordinator in Aleppo. "The reconstruction will take a very long time."

While UN agencies don't have exact numbers, Malik estimates that some 1.5 million people are in Aleppo now, including 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

In the past couple of days around 2,200 families have returned to the Hanano neighbourhood, as the UN works with the local municipality to clear rubble and debris from the main roads.

'Bitterly cold' 

People returning face appalling conditions.

"It is extremely, bitterly cold here," said Malik. "The houses people are going back to have no windows or doors, no cooking facilities." 

The immediate priority is to keep people warm and fed. The UN is giving people mats, sleeping bags and plastic sheets to cover blown-out windows.

A boy pushes a wheelchair along a damaged street in east Aleppo on Jan. 4. (Bassam Diab/UNHCR/Reuters)

The UN and its partners are also providing some 20,000 people with twice-daily hot meals and 40,000 with fresh-baked bread, according to Malik, who spoke via phone from Aleppo.

Malik said seven mobile medical clinics now travel in and out of eastern Aleppo on a daily basis, while 1,381 people considered critical have been transported to western Aleppo for treatment.

More than 10,000 children have been vaccinated against polio, and more than 1.1 million people have access to safe drinking water again, Malik said.

Meanwhile in the capital, Damascus, residents are scrambling for clean water in a shortage that has stretched nearly two weeks amid fighting in that city between government and rebel forces.

Destruction 'beyond imagination'

Bombing has destroyed hospitals, schools, roads and houses, and damaged the two main water pumping stations. The UN official said the level of destruction surpassed anything he had seen in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Somalia.

Once the economic hub of Syria, there are hardly any shops left. Businesses are destroyed, and the jobs gone with them, Malik said. 

"Nothing would have prepared us to see the scale of destruction there, it's beyond imagination," he said. 

He said officials have also begun tackling the huge backlog of registrations births, deaths and marriages which were not officially recorded while the fighting was ongoing in the rebel-held sector.

''This will reduce the risk of statelessness that otherwise we would have in eastern Aleppo,'' he said.

Many people displaced from Aleppo were taken to camps like al-Kamouneh, in Idlib province, seen here on Dec. 29. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

Malik has spoken with relatives still ''looking for their male family members'' who were either detained or arrested as they fled the besieged eastern part of the city. And he says years of conflict have also ''resulted in huge psychological problems for the population there.''

Still, in recent days, Malik says, he and his staff of 106 men and women have noticed a difference in the population. ''I saw many children playing out on the street — happy — but there's a lot more that we still need to do," he said.

''So many hopes of the Syrians have been dashed before,'' Malik said. ''But this time, somehow, they feel that maybe the international community will stick around.''


Melissa Kent


Melissa Kent is a producer with CBC News covering the United Nations from its headquarters in New York City. @KentUNCBC

With files from Reuters