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Why They Cross Aleppo’s ‘River of Death’

ALEPPO – For decades this city’s Qweik River was nothing more than a malodorous stream, its current depleted by Turkish dams. But the river has taken new meaning in the war that divided Aleppo, demarcating regime and rebel held territories and serving as a dumping ground for corpses.

Written by Mohammed Sergie Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

In recent weeks, multiple bodies per day have floated to the surface, usually with single shots to the head. These grisly finds follow the January discovery of the corpses of more than 100 young men from the eastern side of Aleppo. (According to <a href=”” target=”_blank”>The Guardian</a>, the men reportedly ventured into government-controlled neighborhoods before disappearing.) As the body count mounts, many residents here have taken to referring to Qweik as the Martyrs River.

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<img class=”size-medium wp-image-6002″ title=”Civilians walk to government-controlled districts in Aleppo” src=”×200.jpg” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”200″ /> Civilians walk to government-controlled districts in Aleppo Credit: Mohammed Sergie[/caption]

In southern Aleppo near the Bustan Al Qasr neighborhood, fighters and activists fish for bodies while trying to dodge snipers. To the north, between the districts of Sheikh Maqsoud and Bi’edeen, civilians cross from side to side relatively safely, sometimes transporting fish to offer for sale in the city’s open markets.

They are some of the thousands of Syrians who move daily between the two sides of Aleppo, with Bashar al-Assad’s regime holding strong in the west and the rebels controlling the east. They move mostly on foot after taking cheap micro-buses to the crossings.

In the eastern parts of Aleppo, drivers shout “to the river, to the river,” to attract fares, seemingly oblivious to the more ominous usage of the phrase, allegedly used as a code for execution by regime soldiers and the Shabiha, amateur fighters loyal to Assad.

Wael, 38, lives in the west side and runs an auto repair shop there, as well as a sister store to the east. “I cross often, to check on the store and bring parts,” he said. Rebels and Kurdish fighters in his Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood don’t bother civilians, he added, but military checkpoints deeper in western Aleppo scrutinize people – especially young men of fighting age.

Sheikh Maqsoud is a majority Kurdish area run by an affiliate of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The group, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Europe and Turkey, tries to be neutral in the Syrian conflict, and civilians are free to pass through its territory. But Wael and other residents said government informers and Shabiha are allowed to roam there as well.

On a recent day at a popular crossing, civilians coming from the west side appeared to be fleeing the violence, lugging their belongings in heavy suitcases. In the opposite flow, residents headed west to collect paychecks, fix mobile phones, and, in the case of Abu Jameel, one of Aleppo’s first protest organizers, escort new Syrian Army defectors.

“Someone needs to vouch for these guys, or else they could be arrested by the PKK along the way or killed by the rebels if they reach liberated areas,” Abu Jameel said.

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<img class=”size-medium wp-image-6003″ title=”The only safe route for vehicles to cross between warring sides in Aleppo” src=”×200.jpg” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”200″ /> The only safe route for vehicles to cross between warring sides in Aleppo. Credit: Mohammed Sergie[/caption]

The river has long been an afterthought in Aleppo, an odorous nuisance. There are few ornate bridges across its waters, no landmarks to direct tourists or lost drivers. But the Qweik had seen a renaissance of sorts in the last decade. Its flow was restored after it was branched to the mythical Euphrates, and city planners exposed the historic stone walls that line the riverbed.

With the water moving again, the river lost its stench. Residents began strolling along its banks. But that was before Syria’s war tore apart the city.

Few Aleppians (or Halabis, as they like to be called), could imagine how the war would defile the innocuous body of water. For most people, going to the river signifies survival – a chance to cross over to the other side of the city. For hundreds of others, the river is death, a final resting place.

Just three narrow metal planks, two for pedestrians and one for vehicles, serve as passable bridges at the Sheikh Maqsoud crossing, currently the only location where people can move between sides with little risk of getting shot. Firefights often shut down the other route, in the  Bustan Al Qasr district.

From day to day, a steady stream of goods moves into the government-controlled parts of Aleppo that are still home to the middle and upper classes. Recently, one driver was transporting fresh fish, waiting in traffic for hours to cross.

“I do this often and don’t mind the delays,” he said. “The people who can afford fish live on the other side, so what can I do? I have to feed my family.”

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