Aleppo had withstood more than six millennia of pillage and insurrection, but the past three years have damaged more of its civilisation and displaced more of its people than perhaps all its earlier conflicts. The ancient metropolis, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, is now split into two halves: the Syrian regime runs the west and the armed opposition controls the east. Western Aleppo has had by far the better of the war, with civic services still functioning in most neighbourhoods and war damage minimal. Much of the east, though, is ravaged and empty.
Whole neighbourhoods have been levelled by enormous explosions that have systematically targeted main roads around the city and all exits out of it, as well as marketplaces, hospitals, bread lines and fuel queues. Those who remain in eastern Aleppo, roughly 40,000 from a prewar population estimated at about a million, have been without electricity or running water for more than a year.
Supplies of heating fuel were drastically short this winter and last, even with demand being markedly lower. Almost all public parks have been stripped of trees, which were harvested for firewood. When there were no more trees, families begun cutting up school desks and chairs to stay warm. Comparisons with the siege of Leningrad are no exaggeration in a city that must be a strong contender for the worst place in the world. Both winters, though, were mercifully short, a rare respite in an otherwise withering and relentless campaign that has transformed the modern face of Syria’s biggest city and left those who remain in a fight for survival.