In a country torn apart by war it can be difficult to envisage what will become of the buildings, towns and cities that people have called home when the fighting stops and the dust begins to settle. What will happen to the empty shells that once housed families; to the streets once filled with people; and to the people themselves, forced to flee their homes and who, in times of peace, will be free to make their way back and start rebuilding their cities from the rubble. Today, as a never-ending barrage of news reaches us about the ongoing crisis in Syria, it seems ludicrous, idealistic even, to contemplate a future for the country beyond barrel bombs, death and the fluttering black flags of Daesh.
But there are those who dare to dream. The Aleppo Project, a recently-launched, cross-disciplinary project based at the Centre for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery (CCNR) at the Central European University in Budapest, dares to look beyond the death and destruction of today and towards an uncertain future for Syria’s largest and arguably most historical city.
“The question we have to answer is if the war ends tomorrow, how do we proceed with reconstruction?” says CCNR Fellow Armenak Tokmajyan. “We don’t have a plan, exactly, but our work will help when that happens.”
Started in September 2014 and spearheaded by CCNR Director Robert Templer, The Aleppo Project aims “to capture the lived memory of the Syrian people” and to put together an archive of grassroots data about the city of Aleppo as lived and remembered by its inhabitants that will one day serve to guide reconstruction efforts in post-conflict Syria, explains Tokmajyan. The original project had intended to focus on the city of Homs, but the emphasis of the project was shifted to Aleppo partly because of the city’s “human heritage” in its status as one of the oldest continually inhabited urban centres of the world and because of its proximity to the Turkish-Syrian border meaning that it is more accessible than the more central cities.
Explaining the impetus of the project, Tokmajyan explains that part of the inspiration came from looking at the history of post-conflict reconstruction in cities such as Sarajevo and Beirut.
“One lesson that we learned from Beirut was that because there wasn’t any grassroots or government plan the reconstruction was taken over by for-profit companies, in that case headed by Rafik Hariri’s Solidere,” he says. “In Syria, we want to avoid the turning over of reconstruction to corporations who don’t necessarily care about the heritage and culture of the city.”
Key to this is the Aleppians themselves. As well as conducting a wider-ranging survey of more than 1,200 Aleppians (94 still living in Aleppo itself and the rest from refugee camps in and around Syria), The Aleppo Project seeks to act as a platform through which ordinary Aleppo residents can express their hopes and visions about the city.
“Most people don’t have the chance to express how they would like their city to be envisioned,” says Tokmajyan. “We hope to give Aleppians a voice in the future rebuilding of their home.”
On the Project’s website, which was launched at the end of October this year, there is a blog section that accepts open submissions from anyone and everyone who wishes to write about Aleppo and post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. One of the categories of the blog is entitled “100 Aspects of Aleppo” and invites people to write about a feature of the city that is important or significant to them; mapping out the memory lines of the city-as-lived through the objects and spaces its residents inhabit. Also launching soon is the Project’s participatory mapping system that will allow Aleppians to input information about their district, as well as help map out areas of severe destruction and develop plans for things such as rubble clearance and the maintenance of public transport networks.
“Because of the way the city has been divided between the government-controlled West and the rebel-controlled East, the rate of destruction is vastly different in different areas,” says Tokmajyan. “In the old city, some buildings have been completely raised to the ground and in the North East there are areas where 85 per cent of the buildings have been destroyed.”
Mapping out and understanding the areas of destruction will also form part of the research conducted by the Project, and the team are looking to publish articles and papers detailing their findings. Despite being based at an academic institution, however, Tokmajyan is adamant that The Aleppo Project “defies academic standards of peer reviewed journals” and instead is more focused on “education and learning”. He is also careful to emphasise the political neutrality of the project, and the deliberate positioning to “stand for the Syrian people and the possibility of eventual reconstruction.”
As Russian and US planes continue to bomb large swathes of Syria, and regime aircraft continue to obliterate large chunks of historical cities, The Aleppo Project may appear to some as nothing more than a vain dream; but then again, in times of desperation, it is the dreamers who will keep the rest of us alive in hope and imagination for the future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.