Power outages put Aleppo back in the dark ages

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“When I see a light on, I'll run to have my photo taken with it,” laughs Sheikh Yazen, a resident of one of many districts in Syria's Aleppo that have been plunged into darkness by extended power outages.

“We haven't seen that in Fardoss for four months,” he says.

Syria's conflict descended on the northern city, which was the industrial and commercial capital of the country, in July 2012.

Months later, power cuts in rebel-held parts of town, such as Fardoss, have left hundreds of thousands of employees out of work.

Electricity supplies across the country have almost halved since the anti-regime uprising broke out in March 2011 because of shortages of fuel to feed power plants.

The official media blames the shortages on the country's security and the risks involved in transporting fuel.

Syria's Electricity Minister Imad Khamis said in February that widespread blackouts have caused economic losses of around $2.2 billion over the past two years of conflict.

He said the sabotage was by armed militants, who – he added – had killed dozens of power sector workers since the outbreak of the anti-regime revolt.

Water has been available for the most part until now, but cuts have started in recent days.

In war-battered Aleppo, the poor have had to adapt to life without electricity, while those with the means have splashed out on generators that consume vast amounts of fuel at soaring prices.

“We wash our clothes by hand, use candles for lighting and wood for cooking. It's like we're living in ‘Bab al-Harra’,” said Ahmad, a man in his 40s, referring to a Syrian television series set in the 1920s.

“We only take a shower every two weeks because without electricity to run the pump the water can't climb up to our floor,” he said.

At night, entire neighborhoods of Aleppo are plunged into darkness, except for rare home windows lit up and some shop fronts using low-voltage LED bulbs to conserve energy.

Sheikh Yazen himself has turned his personal misfortune around, taking up a new profession as a generator salesman after his shoe shop was burnt down in the fires which swept the Old Souk last autumn.

Standing in front of 20 generators stacked in a corner on the pavement, he waved around an order book. “I sell dozens of generators every day,” he said, “even if the price has gone up from 5,000 Syrian pounds ($50) to 15,000 pounds.”

He has to make a daily trek to government-controlled areas to stock up again. “It's only one kilometer as the crow flies but I have to cover 25 kilometers (15 miles) in detours to get there.”

To get back, he has to cross army checkpoints with the goods.

“They've let us know that we have to pay for a ‘cup of coffee’,” Sheikh Yazen said with a smile and a wink, referring to the bribes in return for right of passage.

But business in generators is booming and he is quite willing to cough up.

In almost every shop in rebel-held parts of Aleppo, a generator is parked on the pavement in front, emitting a constant grinding noise.

In a tailor's shop, Mohammed waited for his sewing machine to finish off the hems of a set of curtains,

“We only turn the generator on for one hour a day,” he said. “It uses up a liter of petrol every two hours, and a liter costs 150 pounds ($1.50) so we can't afford to waste time.”

He pointed with contempt at his small orange generator.

“This is a low-end model, a Chinese sub-brand. It's the cheapest one my boss could find,” he sighs. “It was 13,000 pounds ($130).”