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Much of Syria slowly getting back to normalcy

Nov 08,2017 - Last updated at Nov 08,2017

Since the war erupted in Syria, I have travelled to that country more than ever before, but until my last visit, I was not able to get an overall impression of the impact of that conflict.

During earlier visits, I had stayed in Damascus, from where I would go to Homs repeatedly, to Maaloula three times, and finally, last March, to Aleppo.

During last month, I did, in seven days, the “grand tour” from Damascus to Homs to Deir Ezzor to Aleppo and back to Damascus: 1,700 kilometres without counting driving within these cities.

Damascus, where the population has trebled since the war began, is booming. Since March, power has been restored, as they say, “24/7”. There is optimism in the air.

Damascenes, old and new residents alike, believe the end of the war is near.

Despite frequent mortar attacks from taqfiris in Eastern Ghoutta, the Old City has revived and people are in the streets day and night. In the “new” quarters of the city life continues as it has during this accursed war.

Traffic is heavy, people go about their work, and enjoy small pleasures during the evenings.

The road from Damascus to Homs runs partly along a heavily travelled truck route. The broad highway remains dangerous thanks to a sniper or a relay of snipers who pick off drivers in their vehicles as they pass insurgent-held Harasta, a northeast suburb of the capital.

Eventually, the bypass road meets the highway and travellers enter Homs through a snarl of vehicles.

Shops, restaurants, hotels, schools, the university and work places are open. Lights burn day and night to celebrate the return of 24-hour electricity.

Families are returning to the battered Old City, from which fighters were evacuated in 2014. Merchants have reopened their narrow shops in the partially restored souq, drawing customers and providing a sense of normality in this land torn by war.

This time I toured Baba Amr, the district of the city made infamous during the Syrian army’s early 2012 siege and bombardment of rebel forces.

Outrage in the Western media was stoked by the deaths of Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, who had entered Syria illegally with insurgents and based themselves in Baba Amr.

I was to the edge of the district before. This time, I went around and found it has not been razed to the ground, but has suffered serious destruction. Nevertheless, in neighbourhoods where buildings are still standing, people are rebuilding. Some have moved back to their homes and opened shops.

In March-April this year, the last fighters left Al Waer, a large mainly middle-class dormitory suburb of Homs, which was under a partial siege by the Syrian army since May 2014 after insurgents from Homs Old City took refuge there under a deal monitored by the UN.

The siege was partial because civil servants went to their jobs and students to their schools and universities, and food and medical supplies were allowed to enter. There were shortages, however, and armed elements demanded payment for allowing merchants to bring in food and other essential goods.

Buildings in the front lines were damaged badly while those behind them were looted but can be repaired.

The two-lane road to Deir Ezzor city, liberated from Daesh in recent weeks, passes through the green belt around Homs into the desert where most villages have been abandoned, but probably by the 2006-2010 drought rather than the war.

There are many largely undamaged, empty and pillaged blocks of flats in the western sector of Deir Ezzor. Around 70,000 people remain in the city which seems deserted during the day but comes to life at night, when thousands of families flock to the market where they socialise and shop by light provided by generators, as there is no electricity.

Water is in short supply but not fresh food, which is brought in by lorries.

We drove to Aleppo along potholed secondary roads, avoiding the well- paved route below Raqqa, the former capital of Daesh, recently captured by US-supported Kurdish forces.

Again, the villages in the desert had been long abandoned but several towns had seen fighting between Daesh and the army. Gutted tanks and other vehicles had pushed off the verges of the road. We passed very few cars and lorries until we neared civilisation.

Aleppo is not dead, “destroyed”, as many media folk claim. The western sectors of the city, which remained under government control throughout the war, have been spared major damage. Life has continued.

In the eastern sectors, held first by rebels and then by taqfiris, there are areas of total devastation and quarters that are being recovered.

Again, people are rebuilding houses and lives.

Since I was last in Aleppo, in March, electricity has been restored partially. It is rationed during the day, three hours on, three hours off, to provide power for industries that survived bombardment and looting, but is on during the night.

The day I arrived there was a pop concert on the wide summit of the ancient citadel, which had earlier been closed by the army, and a conference of scores for delegates from Arab junior chambers of commerce, including several from Jordan and Lebanon, meeting in my upmarket hotel. Aleppo is alive and a hub of activity.

As we left Aleppo for Damascus, we stopped to watch women picking cotton and vegetables in fields belonging to farmers who had abandoned their villages, many of traditional mud-brick, domed beehive houses.

We stopped at Khanaseer to chat and drink cappuccinos at cheerful Abu Muhammad’s always busy coffee shop.

“The best coffee in Syria,” he claimed and refused payment.

Thanks to this journey — having spent 24 hours on the road — I learnt a great deal about Syria’s terrible, pointless war and how the country’s resilient people are responding to the monumental demands of reconstruction.

Even before the war has ended Syria is rebuilding: the government focuses on security, electricity, water, roads and services, while people with slender means reclaim and reconstruct houses and businesses as best they can.

Iran and Russia, Damascus’ allies, have pledged financial aid to help the country recover, but the West seeks to blackmail Syria by demanding the removal of President Bashar Assad before reconstruction funds are provided.

Having lost the war to topple Assad, the West is trying to unseat him by denying aid to people who have suffered six and a half years of conflict, displacement, death and devastation.

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