The benches in Hawas park in the battered city of Aleppo are now mere metal skeletons, the wood stripped off by residents to burn so they can keep warm in the northern Syrian winter.
After months of battles devastated much of the city, the country’s former commercial hub, the people of Aleppo are trying to lead as normal a life as possible, despite the deadly conflict that has raged for more than 21 months.
“This wood will help heat the house. Without it, we’d probably die of cold,” said 14-year-old Ali as he hacked away at an acacia tree along with his three brothers
With the park benches now bare, residents are now felling trees and uprooting bushes.
Heating fuel costs 300 Syrian pounds ($4.22) a litre, which is unaffordable for most people in the city where violence that erupted in July between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces has destroyed entire neighbourhoods.
“Before the war we’d come to this park for a walk. Now we come for firewood,” said 45-year-old father of eight Abu Mahmud.
Last September and October the city’s Tareq al-Bab district fell under the sights of regime artillerymen, who loosed off deadly salvoes of shells.
Now life has returned, with bustling streets, shops and markets and restaurants open again.
“I needed money so I could feed my family,” said Omar who last month reopened the doors of his mobile phone shop.
In October, he fled to Turkey because of the shelling, but desperate conditions in refugee camps there made him decide to come back once relative calm had returned to his home town.
Abu Mohammed, 68, had his shop blasted apart by a bombardment in October. Now he has set up a fruit and vegetable stall in front of what is left of it.
Every day he heads for one of the districts still controlled by regime forces so he can buy stock. He says he earns around 500 Syrian pounds ($7) a day — around five times less than before.
— Living off charity —
Farther down the road, Salwa flags down a car carrying members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that still controls the area to ask for charity. The soldiers give her some bread, which she accepts with a smile.
“We have no electricity or running water and no fuel for stoves. It’s almost impossible to find work, and we have to live off the charity of the fighters who give us food,” she said.
The FSA distributes food to residents in most of the districts it holds.
In the western neighbourhood of Saif al-Dawla, hundreds of children clutching jugs and tin cans swarm round a drinking water truck sent in by the rebels.
“Of course the situation is not ideal, but there’s less artillery fire now the fighting has moved to the outskirts,” said Mohammed, a teacher in one of the primary schools the rebels have set up in the southern Bustan al-Qasr area.
The street vendors have returned, and on Fardoss Street the delicious smell of kebabs fills the air.
Even though the fighting is less intense than before, the shelling has not stopped altogether. On December 30, four people were killed by shellfire in Maysar in the east, a district that had been spared for a month.
Life has also returned to Sukari in southern Aleppo.
“There are fewer bombardments now, and the people aren’t as afraid,” said Mohammed Kudeymati who has a shop that imports clothing from Turkey. The city’s own manufacturing plants have yet to resume production.
As night falls in Aleppo, lighting is provided by candles or lamps powered by generators. A regular electricity supply is now a flickering memory.
“The war has taken everything from us,” said Ahmed, as he bought food at the market.