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Rocketed Rubble Becomes Treasure Trove for Aleppo’s ‘Rag Pickers’

ALEPPO — Earlier this month, as fighting escalated here and government forces continued their aerial bombardments, Abu Ahmad searched for the remains of relatives who had been killed in an air raid.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

He said they were struck in the Helwaniyeh district, while getting in their car, not knowing there was a fighter jet above.

After the rocket hit, buildings collapsed, the car and its passengers among the debris. The following day, Abu Ahmad was able to identify the car. “I cannot find a trace of them,” he said. “I want to know where they were buried. How can I sleep without knowing where their bodies rest?”

The targeted area was residential, choked with civilians visiting a popular market. Activists said at least 20 people died there that day.

For some, the site of the rocket hit that killed Abu Ahmad’s relatives was a burial ground. For others, it was a source of riches.

Many civilians in the hardest-hit areas of Syria have been forced into homelessness, resorting to sifting through debris as a veritable source of employment.

Known as “rag picking” in some countries, trash sifting has, in Aleppo and other major Syrian cities, become a popular form of eking out a living. Now it’s affecting even the youngest

Aleppines in areas controlled by the opposition, where aerial strikes and fighting between rebel and government fighters reduces homes and buildings to rubble.

These destroyed buildings often yield items that are not profitable to the naked eye, but are easy to resell on a black market or to residents and businesses in need. Sites attract pickers who wage fierce competition over everyday objects like plastic containers, metal, nuts and screws, and chunks of metal.

“Our home was shelled. Now we live in one of the schools that were turned into a shelter. My father can’t provide for our family because his foot was injured and can’t move,” said Ahmad, 13. He and his brother have scavenged for whatever can be sold on the streets of Aleppo. Often, they don’t find enough, and are forced to beg for food for themselves and their family.

Residents in the area where Abu Ahmad’s relatives were killed have formed teams of engineers and volunteers to fix what has been damaged, including main water and power lines. It is laborious daily work, as the shelling re-damages things that have been fixed.

“With large parts of Aleppo city being shelled and the regime institutions responsible for fixing them not doing anything, we had no choice but to fix the damage ourselves,” said one volunteer. “Otherwise, we would have no power or water. Now we’re working all over the city. The damage sustained is daily, and there’s no one else but us to fix them. Life goes on.”

Mohammed al-Khatieb reported from Aleppo, and Karen Leigh from Istanbul.

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