With barrel bombs, shells and air strikes causing yet more destruction each day, the thought of proposing ways to rebuild the war-battered Syrian city of Aleppo seems distant. Yet, that is exactly what the Aleppo Project aims to do.
The project at the Central European University’s Centre for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery (CCNR) in Budapest, Hungary aims to bring together Syrian citizens and researchers to plot the reconstruction of the historic city, much of which lies in ruins after more than five years of civil war.
The four-person team, headed by Professor Robert Templer, conducts public opinion surveys, maps destruction, examines historical precedents for rebuilding war-ravaged cities and seeks to envision ways to implement an inclusive reconstruction process in the future.
The project invites Aleppo’s citizens - those still in the city and those displaced from it - to participate through providing information about destruction in the city, as well as by submitting blogs and reflections on their memories of and hopes for the city. The researchers work on documentation, public opinion and policy papers.
AlHakam Shaar, a 29-year-old research fellow for the project, originally hails from Aleppo, but he left shortly before fighting reached the city in 2012 to pursue his PhD.
The goal of the open collaboration is to also draw the involvement of Aleppo residents and Syrians from elsewhere “to look at the past and try to collect the memories that, if not captured, would be lost,” he told Al Jazeera. “But we are also trying to capture some vision for the future.”
The Aleppo Project is now working on an interactive mapping programme that will allow users to upload to a database, including text, titles, names of places and photographs. The CCNR also offers a course to 20 graduate students at the Central European University.
Another research fellow on the project, Armenak Tokmajyan, whose family is of Armenian descent and comes from Aleppo, explained: “If you imagine that one or two people in every neighbourhood tries to document the damage in their area and upload to our software, we’ll have an incomplete but good understanding of the damage in the city.”
“Then in the future, when they want to start reconstruction, having these images gathered in one place will help to recreate a vision of the historical buildings.”
While Aleppo’s cultural and architectural heritage was already widely documented long before the war, the thrust of the Aleppo Project is to at once track the destruction and gauge the opinions, hopes and desires of Aleppo’s residents in order to contribute to the future reconstruction of a more inclusive city.
Since Syria’s uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011, it has morphed into a full-on armed conflict that has spanned more than five years without pause. UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura recently estimated that at least 400,000 have been killed throughout the conflict.
Throughout the bloodletting, Syria’s historical heritage has also been targeted. All six sites classified as World Heritage Sites by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have been damaged badly or completely destroyed.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, Aleppo’s historic Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been hit hard by rockets, shells and other artillery. The Great Mosque, first erected in the 8th century and later rebuilt, has sustained serious damage throughout the civil war.
Many sections of the Al-Medina Souq - or market - in Aleppo’s Old City have also been charred or damaged by the fighting between armed groups.
Zouhir, a 25-year-old Aleppo resident who lives just five minutes’ drive from the city centre, described the Old City as being in ruins.
“There are many historic sites which have been destroyed or are falling down,” he told Al Jazeera. “There are very big houses which have been damaged, if not destroyed totally. They were very beautiful old structures.”
Zouhir said many locals resort to temporary fixes, rebuilding their homes each time they are damaged by shells or shrapnel. “They keep living. The people here are fixing the houses, removing the destroyed remains, then cleaning it up and rebuilding the homes. We have grown used to this over the last five years.”
Referring to the Syrian government’s recent onslaught on the city, he predicted yet more destruction and damage. “The fighting is not stopping here. The shelling is still all over the city, the homes and the schools.”
On April 22, the Syrian government - backed by Russian air power - launched an ongoing campaign of air strikes that has left large swaths of eastern Aleppo flattened. Within eight days of fighting, more than 246 civilians had been killed, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Government air strikes had flattened dozens of homes and several medical facilities, including the Al-Quds hospital and a number of clinics across the rebel-controlled eastern half of the city.
While government forces and rebels both fired indiscriminately, the imbalance was clear: Armed opposition groups had mortars - some of which were homemade - while Assad’s war planes and helicopters rained down barrel bombs, according to the Syrian Observatory.
A city divided
The Aleppo Project has spoken to people on both sides of Aleppo, which is divided roughly down the middle between government-controlled areas and rebel-held neighbourhoods.
Although many interviews were conducted via the internet, a local volunteer was able to poll hundreds of residents who have stayed in Aleppo.
Other polls focused on Syrians from Aleppo who are now internally displaced within the country’s borders or those who have become exiled as refugees in Europe or neighbouring countries.
“The idea of this survey was to see how Aleppo’s people lived; what their problems were; what their memory of the city was; whether there was enough green space; what they wanted to change,” Shaar explained.
“Many of them complained that there were no green spaces, so that could be implemented in reconstruction. The idea is also to improve the city.”
Yet, throughout five years of war and three years of particularly heavy fighting in Aleppo, the differences between the two sides of the city could not be starker.
“In terms of services, both sides of the city are quite bad because water and energy sources and generators are outside the city and constantly bombed and shelled. When there isn’t water in the city, that means the entire city,” said Tokmajyan.
“But the major difference is the destruction because of the barrel bombs. The regime-held areas do receive bombings. But the intensity is way different. The eastern part of Aleppo, for example, could receive eight barrel bombs in one day.”
According to the UN, an estimated 60 percent of the Old City has been destroyed, while some 40 percent of the entire eastern half of the city is destroyed. Aleppo Project researchers say damage in the western half is much less and caused mostly by shells.
“In the western part, the most destroyed areas lie on the regime-opposition frontlines,” Tokmajyan said. “One such example is the al-Midan district, which is on the line that divides the city in the middle. Parts of it are heavily destroyed due to the rebels’ advance and the regime’s attacks on them in 2013. The second frontline, on the western edge of the city, stretches from the al-Zahra district to the al-Hamdaniyeh. Al-Zahra district, for example, is mostly destroyed due to clashes between the warring sides.”
He added: “Occasionally the armed groups’ missiles drop beyond the frontlines and target the civilian population, especially since the last escalation. But these cannot be compared with the eastern side. In short, the damage done to the western side is mainly on the frontline.”
In the eastern part of the city, entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble, with many homes, mosques, shops, schools and medical facilities completely decimated.
Drone footage of eastern Aleppo released earlier this year shows collapsed home after collapsed home, parks where the trees have been torched and roads that cannot be passed owing to the immense mounds of rubble.
According to Asad el-Zubi of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, Syrian government and Russia air strikes have destroyed or badly damaged 28 hospitals, 19 schools and 11 markets in eastern Aleppo.
Even before the war reached Aleppo’s narrow streets and winding alleys, there were sharp gaps in the standard of living between the eastern and western parts of the city, now controlled respectively by the opposition and the government.
An estimated 48 percent of the city was made up of informal settlements. “Conditions in the east were bad even before the war. That continues in some way today,” Shaar said.
“But that also tells you something about why the city was very quickly divided between regime and rebels along these front lines,” he said. “Within a month after armed activity emerged in Aleppo, the same front-line [as today] was there.”
Explaining that 72 percent of displaced Aleppo residents intend to return, Shaar listed some of their preconditions for coming back: “Many said security, stability and jobs, while many others said freedom, the removal of the Assad regime or the removal of ‘terrorists’.”
Both Shaar and Tokmajyan said that including the input of refugees’ voices, which are often neglected, is key to their research.
For some, however, the painful experiences may prove too much for them to return to the rubble-ridden city.
Saher, a 32-year-old wife and mother of six from Aleppo’s Old City, fled the country for Germany back in December. With her husband and their five children planning to join her later, she took her six-year-old daughter and made the treacherous journey cross the Mediterranean, through the Balkans and into Germany.
“The situation in Aleppo is just death and siege,” she told Al Jazeera, sitting in a refugee camp in the Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin. “Our house is in the middle of the city, on the line of fire, so all the rockets and shelling from both sides [opposition and government] fell near us.
Saher is unsure if she will return to Aleppo. “If there was security, maybe, but what is left of Syria? To me, everything that was Syria is gone,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “What do I want in Syria, where my mother died and my brothers were killed and my cousins arrested?”
In Berlin, Saher spends her days waiting, hoping that the German government will grant her permission to bring the rest of her family, who are still stuck in wartorn Syria. Meanwhile, her husband is attempting to save up enough money to be smuggled out of the country.
“My mother died under the destruction,” he said. “Our house was destroyed. It’s gone. There is no food, no work, the water isn’t drinkable.”
For the Aleppo Project, the past helps to provide a plan for Aleppo’s resurrection.
After Lebanon endured 15 years of civil war, pitting one neighbour against the next, the capital was the central focus of reconstruction, while Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Sarajevo - which was besieged for four years - also provides important lessons for the project.
In Beirut, reconstruction proved to be a problematic process that prioritised wealthy communities, and, in many ways, exacerbated political divides, class strife and sectarian tensions. In one of the project’s research papers, the author concludes that there are several lessons for Aleppo’s reconstruction.
In contrast to Beirut, the author argues, Aleppo’s reconstruction should be inclusive, transparent, promote reconciliation and focus on the local economy. “Aleppo should not focus on investor-led fantasies of what the city might be but concentrate on rebuilding families, their businesses and the local economy.”
In Sarajevo, on the other hand, “the lack of coordination between donors, local government and residents of the city undermined successful rebuilding”, according to the Aleppo Project.
To avoid some of the mistakes made during the rebuilding of Sarajevo, the researchers argue that Aleppo’s reconstruction process must include: strategic planning involving several sectors; the strengthening of local institutional capacity; oversight and anti-corruption measures; and placing a special focus on “educational, economic, and cultural initiatives to rekindle urban life”.
Yet in the case of a lasting agreement to end the hostilities in Syria, it remains unclear who will control the country and how reconstruction will be implemented.
“All we do is public. It is accessible to people who may be in some sort of power and to locals, who we hope will have greater power,” Tokmajyann said. “Our policy reports are also addressed at any potential people involved in reconstruction, such as the municipality and state and international organisations.”
“Keeping the memory of aspects of this city needs to be taken into consideration,” he concluded.