The first thing you notice walking into Abu Muhammad’s two-room house in the Hanano residences in northern Aleppo, near the Manasher al-Breij front line, is how empty it is for a family of five.
In the main room, a small television rests on a plastic table. There is a fridge and, most importantly, a primitive stove. To sit, Abu Muhammad, his wife, and their three children share two cushions and a pillow. In the bedroom, there are just mattresses.
There is not a stick of furniture left in the house, which is somewhat ironic since Abu Mohammad’s business before the war was selling imported wood. Like many residents of the area, the family has broken up their furniture and is burning it this winter to keep warm and heat their food.
Before the war, he says, his financial situation was “above average.” Now, he earns about 500 Syrian pounds a day driving a taxi, which is about US$2.60. The family is running out of furniture to burn; now they also burn whatever they can find, including shoes and nylons.
Abu Mohammed described the struggle to keep his family alive this winter in an interview with Syria Deeply.
Syria Deeply: Why were you forced to burn your furniture?
Abu Muhammad: Since the beginning of winter I have not been able to bring a single litre of diesel or a single gas tank into my home. I can barely provide food for my family, so how could I ever afford a gas tank when its price is more than what I make in a week? The price of a litre of diesel has reached 250 Syrian pounds and the gas tank costs more than 5,000 pounds.
Syria Deeply: Are you the only family that has had to do this?
Abu Muhammad: Of course not. Most of the people living in the Hanano residences are facing the same tragedy. Everyone here has the same situation as us: notice the black smoke coming out of everywhere as people burn their furniture and their old clothes.
Syria Deeply: When was the first time you burned your furniture and clothes?
Abu Muhammad: The first time I had to burn my bedroom was to cook food. After that I started with the living room. We also use what my children pick up: pieces of wood, shoes and old clothes from the destroyed houses. Doctors in the local council warned us of the danger of burning nylon and shoes since the smoke could make our children sick.
Syria Deeply: Has you or someone you know gotten sick from the fumes?
Abu Muhammad: About a month ago, one of my friends on al-Kalase Street gathered lots of old shoes and lit them on fire, and in the blink of an eye his seven-year-old son lit a piece of paper from it and threw it at his baby brother. The house was burned down and the baby died.
Syria Deeply: How do you feel as you burn your furniture?
Abu Muhammad: Please don’t remind me of how I feel burning my furniture, which I struggled to buy as a result of my own sweat and hard work. When I spoke with my wife about burning our bedroom set, she cried and told me to do whatever I felt was best, since the safety of the children is more important than anything. We started burning it and we slept on the ground. After one week the whole room was empty. Now I’m burning the living room furniture like I mentioned earlier. After a while it will also be gone and I will have to find other things to burn.
Many families here are living the same way, because most men can’t get jobs and cannot make any money. I remember those moments I worked so hard to save money, little by little, to finally buy that furniture. I also sold my wife’s gold jewelry to buy a refrigerator and a washing machine. Thank God these can’t be burned, but in the worst case I could sell them.
Syria Deeply: We saw you burning furniture outside, what’s the point of that?
Abu Muhammad: There are big pieces of furniture that I cannot burn inside, so I take them outside. As for the little pieces or the wooden pieces, I break them and burn them in the stove inside the house, but when we burn stuff outside our neighbors gather around the fire to get warm since everyone here is suffering from the cold. Our neighbors and us live most of our lives together. When there is shelling we gather in the shelter and when it’s cold we gather around the fires. Whenever somebody sees black smoke coming up from somewhere, they head towards it.
Syria Deeply: Most houses in the area are abandoned. Why is that?
Abu Muhammad: Most people left their homes because of the heavy shelling. The Hanano residences are considered one of the most-shelled areas in Aleppo, and they are still being shelled by the regime’s air force, and that’s because they close to the front line. There are only a few hundred families left, yet there used to be over 40,000 families.
Syria Deeply: What do you think of what’s going on in Syria now?
Abu Muhammad: This war left has no one unharmed. Everybody has lost. We hoped the world would pay attention to us and see the massacres we’ve been suffering for four years. We asked for freedom and dignity. We deserve them and we will fight for them in spite of all the martial complications, and all the armed groups, such as those enemies of the Syrian people, Daesh [ISIS]. We are the owners of the land and we will triumph.
Syria Deeply: Do you see any solution for Syria in the near future? What would that solution look like?
Abu Muhammad: I think it must be a military solution and not political at all, because he who kills people in prisons and starves them and burns them alive cannot be faced with humanity, and surely not with a political solution The answer must be the union of the rebels under one flag, and by aiming our guns at the government. Everything else is a waste of time.
Syria Deeply: Tell me a little about your kids. How old are they? Do they go to school?
Abu Muhammad: I have three boys. The oldest is Muhammad. He’s 13 years old, Issa is 10 years old, and Yamen is six years old. Unfortunately they don’t go to school. They left school last year when the regime dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo. Most schools were destroyed back then, and the closest school to our home is three kilometers away. I am afraid to send my children to school with the constant shelling by the government forces.
Syria Deeply: How do you see your children’s future?
Abu Muhammad: My wife suggested we go to Turkey and live there so that the children could continue their education as well as keep them safe and away from the horrors of the war, but living in Turkey requires a lot of money I don’t have, I can’t even afford to drive the road to get there. How will I ever cover the rent and the daily expenses? What hurts me the most is that there’s nothing I can do for my children and their future but to pray.
Syria Deeply: What do you think the future will hold?
Abu Muhammad: Before the revolution I was considering improving my business to give my children a better future, and everything was going well, but the non-stop war forced me to leave my job and work as a taxi driver. I feel sad when I see the children, and not just my children. They don’t play and they don’t go to schools. It hurts me when one of my kids asks me to buy him a toy and I don’t have the money to buy it. This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced. It’s weird, this feeling I get when a helicopter is flying above our house and my family is panicking, and we try to comfort ourselves by praying to God to keep it away from us.