This story appears in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
On the third floor of a crumbling building, a pink sunset glowed through the clear plastic sheet covering a gaping hole in the wall. Sixty-year-old Amira Garman sat in a powder blue cardigan on a swinging bench beneath a gold-fringed yellow canopy. A broken chandelier with a single bulb doused the little room in shaky light. Through the makeshift window she looked down at Al Yarmouk school across the street, its playground now littered with bullet casings and an improvised cannon.
Garman’s family had lived on the top floor, now a maze of caved-in walls and rubble. “I want to be in my home,” she said. They took shelter in this room, one of only two occupied in the building. On their street, shops reopened among the debris; people bustled along with eyes to the ground. As fighting continued elsewhere, a fragile normalcy was returning to Aleppo. But the immense task of rebuilding loomed.
Their neighborhood of Kallaseh, in obliterated east Aleppo, had been surrounded by the Syrian Army after the government’s months-long siege to reclaim the city from pro-democracy rebels and others opposed to President Bashar al Assad’s regime. Once Syria’s largest city, Aleppo had been home to nearly four million people, but hundreds of thousands fled. Across Syria millions more have done so during the brutal seven-year war. More than 400,000 have been killed, and the United Nations has accused Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons to kill scores of people in several towns.
Garman and her family fled to the countryside about three years ago. “We were robbed by the armed group,” her husband, Saleh, said, referring to anti-government fighters, many of whom were once his neighbors. Saleh was imprisoned for a year after opposition forces found a picture of the former president, Assad’s father, in the family’s home. In December 2016 the army reclaimed parts of the city. A year later about 300,000 residents had returned. Many men who return must complete military service.
On a Friday afternoon in Saadallah al Jabiri Square, families ate cotton candy and clambered over giant, multicolored letters spelling out “I ♥ ALEPPO,” installed last year for World Tourism Day. Visitors from around the globe used to flock here. A ripped banner on a damaged building read: “Aleppo is your city and needs you to defend her.” The square, desolate during the war, buzzed with life. A group of guys chatting about soccer had come from Damascus to study architecture and was traversing the city with maps, plotting its reconstruction. Rayyan Aloulou, 18, took photos with her mother, who had traveled 10 hours by bus from their home in opposition-held Idlib, once a 45-minute trip.
At the public park nearby, photos of pro-government fighters, considered martyrs, were nailed to olive trees—a reminder of Assad’s hold on the area. Young men practiced parkour on the grass, cheering on each daring flip. Women sat alone smoking on benches, eyes distant, while pimpled teenagers sipped espressos. In a fancy restaurant nearby, a family threw a lavish baptism celebration. At the Citadel of Aleppo—once occupied by the Syrian Army and still rumored to be used as a military base by Russian allies who have backed Assad’s government—a 14-year-old in a pink jacket was visiting for the first time since the war began. “It’s so beautiful, but the damaged part is so sad,” Maryam said. She had a scar above her eye from shrapnel and was now learning Russian in school. “We hope that Syria will be better again.”
Among half-collapsed buildings, shop shutters were freshly painted in the colors of Syria’s flag—seemingly a mark of protection. A thin 12-year-old, Ahmad Samman cycled past the few intact balconies where laundry hung. His father disappeared during the war. Ahmad was back in school but worked in a barbershop to help his family. Those returning were tasked with rebuilding the area without electricity or water. At night the loneliness of the families there sank in.
On the city’s outskirts, displaced families sheltered in warehouses. “Everything is so expensive now,” said Ayasha Khalil, 16. “We have no home.”
Back in Kallaseh, Garman’s adult son worked to rebuild the family’s home. Garman hoped more families would return, but the wounds are still fresh.