In Aleppo, where residents must dodge daily mortars and bullets, there is another, more mundane killer on the rise: death by electric shock.
The electrical problems began when the Free Syrian Army took over the eastern countryside of Aleppo, trapping a contingent of Syrian troops in the thermal power station. Refusing to leave, they mined the area around the building to prevent anyone from approaching. When the trapped soldiers regularly ran low on food and supplies, they would cut off the power supply for the entire city. They employed this strategy at least twice per month, leaving the city without power for four days at a time.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent made it a priority to protect the last source of electricity in the city and was able to secure a verbal agreement between the warring sides to leave the station unharmed.
But this deal faltered last Thursday, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked the station and took over after two days of fighting. There has been no electrical supply for the city since that date and negotiations are ongoing to find a way to get the station running again.
With ISIS in control, it remains to be seen whether the hardline al-Qaida branch will allow the city to receive supplies—and under what conditions.
A Checkerboard of Public Services
Aleppo has long suffered from undependable and unequally distributed power, which compelled many residents to resort to the amateur splitting of cables to siphon off crucial electrical supplies.
The situation is the most dire for those living in the eastern, rebel-controlled side. While the army cannot enact a blockade against the eastern side due to the rebels’ hold on the countryside, cutting back utilities can be used as punishment. On a normal day, these residents receive only six hours of electricity. Compounding those difficulties is that a number of transformers have been irreparably damaged — either burnt during clashes or broken from an overload — which has plunged entire districts like Sheikh Maksoud and parts of Tariq al-Bab into months of darkness. And the desperate economic situation has led to burglary of electrical and phone cables, leaving neighborhoods stripped of their infrastructure.
While the conditions in the regime-controlled west side are far better, residents there also receive inconsistent coverage. Those who neighbor important officers or security centers will get the most reliable supplies, while other neighborhoods get the dregs. Residents have nicknames for the three levels of service. The intelligence and military centers are on what is dubbed the “security line,” and their power supply is never cut off. Next is the “golden line,” or areas where residents receive over 16 hours of electricity per day. Last is the supply line of the general public, which provides 10 hours maximum.
This is assuming that the thermal station is fully functional, which is often not the case.
Splitting Cables to Survive
In response to erratic supplies, Aleppo residents have taken to splitting cables to draw their own power and preempt the imbalanced distribution. As a result, the streets are full of dangerous, makeshift cables rigged by amateurs. Those who take on the task of bringing critical electrical supplies to their families — swapping cables to divert power lines — have frequently been killed by electric shock in the process. The chaotic web of cables has also caused many fires because of the heavy loads puts on these illegal lines.
The loss of a dependable electricity supply has created a plethora of dangerous side effects, the worst of which is the scarce water supply. When the electricity stops, the main city pumps cannot operate, and so water often cuts out along with the power.
Telecommunications have also suffered, with batteries running out of charge before power returns.
While the electricity distribution in Aleppo is erratic, the gas supplies have only become more scarce. Many residents, who turned from gas to electricity for their cooking and even heating needs, now face an uncertain future as the winter approaches. Should the supplies be as scarce as the previous year, residents will be forced to chop down what remains of Aleppo’s forests to survive.
A Lifelong Dissident Falls to Shock
Last week, Aleppo lost one of its oldest political strugglers — not to a sniper bullet or regime torture, but to electric shock. It was a tragic end for a man who spent the bulk of the 1980s in Syrian prison tormented with jolts of electricity.
The death of Abu Aboud (a pseudonym requested by his family for security reasons) brought greater attention to the inequitable allocation of electricity and public services.
Following Abu Aboud’s funeral, one of the attendees remarked on the irony of his friend’s fate. Under the regime of President Hafez al-Assad, Abu Aboud had been jailed from 1980-1986 for his membership in the Communist Party. During his time in Aleppo Central Prison and the notorious Tadmur Penitentiary, he suffered from multiple methods of torture, including electric shock.
In the end, his friend noted, Abu Aboud was killed in the same way, but during the son’s rule.
Yacoub al-Rahawi is a pseudonym used by the author for security reasons.