ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – In eastern Aleppo, bodies still lie under the rubble, graveyards are full, people are short of electricity and bread, and some children take classes in mosques because their schools have been ruined by war.
Seven months after the army drove rebels from their stronghold in the Syrian city, the state looks paper thin there, with most services seen by Reuters provided by residents or with help from international aid agencies or local charities.
Aleppo was Syria’s most populous city and industrial engine before the war and its recapture delivered President Bashar al-Assad his biggest in a string of battlefield victories.
Its recovery would not just be symbolic of Assad’s improving fortunes, but a signal that the Syrian state was capable of revival after years of weakness.
The United Nations says about 200,000 people have returned to east Aleppo after it emptied during the fighting, mostly from temporary accommodation in areas held by the government.
However in al-Kalasa district, which Reuters visited in both early February and mid July with a government official who was present during some interviews with residents, the city’s recovery seemed slow and largely out of state hands.
Electricity came from private generators, water from wells or tanks filled by aid agencies, bread from charities, and basic education and healthcare with help from the United Nations.
The government removed mountains of rubble from main streets after the fighting, and Aleppo’s assistant governor told Reuters the state was ultimately responsible for the services provided by aid agencies.
But in Kalasa, retaken in December amid a furious bombardment with help from Russia and Iran, the strongest signs of the state’s presence were a concrete checkpoint and a poster of Assad pledging: “We will rebuild”.
After six years of war, his state is in tatters. Large parts of the country remain outside its control. Western sanctions have hobbled the economy. Water and power services are in ruins, road networks wrecked and hundreds of thousands of working-age men remain under arms.
Eight-year-old Ghassan Batash would have attended the Yarmouk and Sabbagh school but it is unusable.
Its walls still carry the logo of Jaish al-Islam, a rebel faction that made the school its base. In the library stands a “hell cannon” or homemade mortar.
In the schoolyard, two big craters show where air strikes targeted rebel fighters, wrecking classrooms.
It left Ghassan, who wants to be a soldier when he grows up and likes playing soccer in the street, with the choice of walking to school elsewhere or going to the mosque.
But at the Abdulatif school in Firdous district and the Karameh school in Bustan al-Qasr, which run summer programs supported by the United Nations, the head teachers said class sizes had nearly doubled.
“People are still coming back so we’re still taking more students every day,” said Maha Mushaleh, the head of Abdulatif school.
Less than a quarter of east Aleppo’s 200 schools are working, said Abdulghani al-Qasab, the assistant governor, adding that the government is working with the United Nations to rehabilitate 100 more.
In the mosque, Imam Abdulrahman Dawkha said he provided Arabic tuition for 250 boys and girls.
Ghassan’s father, Ayad, says he wants his son to return to the national school system as soon as possible, something he hopes will be possible by September. But, for now, he is just happy that he is learning Arabic.
When Reuters last visited Kalasa, Ayad was clearing rubble by hand from al-Mouassassi street, where his family shared a house with other relatives.
There was no electricity or water and the family relied on paraffin lamps for light and on wood foraged by the children from ruined houses for warmth.
But Ayad, a supporter of Assad, says the situation is much better now than it was in February and he believes the government is responsible for that.
He has found a construction job and he lives with his wife and four small children in her parents’ flat in the road behind Mouassassi street.
In his mother Heyam’s flat, there is still no door except a plastic sheet, but a cable to the local generator means she has a light bulb, a fan and a television.
She proudly presented a plate of traditional biscuits she had made for the Eid al-Fitr religious festival. “It’s the first Eid since the war began that feels like Eid and the first one we’ve had back in our house, so I wanted to do everything properly,” she said.
Much of the rubble around Kalasa is gone and the district feels livelier.
However, the government presence appeared minimal in Kalasa except for a checkpoint that has grown larger since February, with the addition of concrete positions for the soldiers.
Almost everybody Reuters spoke to there and elsewhere in Aleppo complained about the lack of electricity and water. The city power station was destroyed but pylons are being built to carry electricity to the city.
The assistant governor, Qasab, said he believed the power situation would improve in August.
In Kalasa, Ayad pays 2,000 lira ($3.86) a week for a trickle of electricity from a generator owned by a local businessman that operates from 2pm-4pm and from 6pm-1am.
Electricity is also needed to power private wells in east Aleppo, most of which are little more than a pump attached to a pipe drilled down to the water table.
That water is used for washing, with drinking water available from red plastic tanks provided by aid agencies.
How far the lack of services is a result of limited government capacity, the scale of destruction, or out of disregard for areas that were held by the opposition is disputed.
The government says it is even-handed in its treatment of all areas under its control.
In Kalasa, most streets were missing at least one house through bombardment with many others uninhabitable.
One area of alleyways near Mouassassi street was completely razed and neighbors said five bodies were still buried there. Grieving relatives came each day to cry and say prayers over the bomb site.
The dead are never far away. Between Kalasa square and the ruined school is the cemetery, so full that there is little space to walk between graves, and some stones are marked by bullets or shrapnel. War dead were often buried in existing graves, their names added to tombstones in black paint.
Ayad’s mother Heyam stood at the Kalasa breadline, clutching the small pink book on which a volunteer marks the date after giving her eight flat loaves.
The bread is handed out from 8am-10am by volunteers from the UN’s World Food Programme and a local charity called “For Aleppo”.
Although there are three bakeries in Kalasa, none has opened. The owner of two of them, Hamoud Ati, said the government had urged him to reopen but had not given him a permit.
The lack of local bakeries to supplement the bread handouts was a constant complaint in Kalasa. Qasab said he did not know why bakeries had not been given permits.
Iftikhar Sankari took two bags of bread from the breadline but needs to go elsewhere to buy four more to feed her family and those of two widowed sisters.
Her brother died in a barrel bomb attack and her father from a chlorine gas bomb, she said. Her youngest child was shot by a sniper.
“I picked her up and she was bleeding. I carried her to the hospital and they told me she had died,” she said, in tears. “She died in my arms.”
What she wants now, so she can look after her other children and those of her widowed sisters, is water, electricity, schools and bread.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Giles Elgood