The Batash family work by hand in Aleppo’s al-Mouassassi Street to clear debris from Syria’s civil war off their patch of road, an early step in their efforts to overcome the harsh aftermath of fighting in the city that ended in December.
Heyam Batash, 56, has sores on her hands from scrubbing clothes in freezing water; her sons Ayad and Youssef forage firewood from the rubble of fallen houses and her grandchildren fetch bread from a charity-run bakery nearby.
“We use wood for heating, we receive aid. We receive bread everyday and we live like this,” said Heyam, wearing a purple dress and black headscarf. “I hope our conditions will be better than this and by God will we gain victory over these terrorists, and the country returns to what it was like before.”
How far families like theirs are able to rebuild their city districts and regain hope of future prosperity will test the government’s ability to restore its long-term authority in the areas it recaptures from rebels.
Living in bitter cold, without electricity or running water and using paraffin lamps for light, the Batash family are among the tens of thousands of Aleppans returning to the rubble of their neighbourhoods rather than fleeing as refugees.
Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war, was split for years into government and rebel zones until the army retook the insurgent-held east, where al-Mouassassi Street is located, in battles that devastated whole neighbourhoods.
When the rebels departed under terms of surrender, tens of thousands of residents of east Aleppo chose to leave with them rather than face what they feared would be a campaign of reprisal by President Bashar al-Assad and his army.
But tens of thousands of others chose to remain in their war-damaged homes and have since been joined by others who had fled rebel areas to seek shelter with the government in western districts of Aleppo earlier in the conflict.
It is a pattern that has been repeated across Syria, where advances by the government aided by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite Muslim militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan have restored its military control over large areas that were held by rebels.
The family’s story during the years of fighting in Aleppo shows how ordinary Syrians have suffered at the hands of both sides in the war, enduring eviction from their homes, looting, bombardment, death, disappearance and enforced separation from loved ones.
Al-Mouassassi street was once a lively focal point of their close-knit neighbourhood in al-Kalasa district, with shops at street level and stone-clad apartments above, the home of middle- and working-class families who had lived there for decades.
The Batash family have been residents since the 1980s when Heyam’s father, a retired army sergeant, built their house for some of his 10 offspring, who lived on different floors of the building with their children and grandchildren.
But the narrow street, about a hundred metres long, is now piled with rubble, most of its buildings damaged by bombardment, some blackened by fire and many of its inhabitants scattered as refugees across Syria, or in neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey.
About five families and a few other residents now live in the street after staying there for all but the worst of the fighting or returning home after the army recaptured it in December.
Small children with dirt-ingrained hands and few clothes against the cold, and cats with soot-stained grey fur pick among the piles of debris. Loud bangs, like a door repeatedly being slammed, attest to the fighting that continues outside the city.
When shells first started to fall in their neighbourhood in Ramadan of 2012, killing a little girl in the house behind theirs, and as rebels took over Kalasa soon after the fighting began, the family’s different branches took diverging paths.
Heyam’s brother Eymad, 54, decided to stay in the street with his wife and family because they had nowhere else to go and wanted to protect their home and belongings.
He described the rebels who ran the neighbourhood, who he said were mostly men from the countryside around Aleppo, as being idealistic at first but increasingly divided among themselves, dictatorial in their rule and prone to looting.
The government’s bombardment of east Aleppo by artillery, air strikes and improvised, highly explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopter, has laid waste to large areas of Kalaseh and nearly killed Eymad.
He survived one shell blast on the street, that destroyed most of a house’s upper floors, by ducking into a doorway opposite, and he watched a barrel drop onto a building near the top of the street, causing a fire and razing the block behind.
“The first mortar hit the cemetery at the beginning of the war. That was when people got scared because it was the first time they heard mortars. Most people left and we followed them a few days later,” Eymad told Reuters. “We stayed for two months then we returned and I stayed here till now. We got used to this (the war)”.
Although government bulldozers are clearing rubble from the main road at the top of al-Mouassassi Street, opposite a large cemetery, it has not yet turned to smaller roads.