By Lisa Barrington
BEIRUT, July 4 – When builder Abu Salem repairs a shell hole in a house in rebel-held southern Syria, he knows it might not be the last job he does on the structure.
“There is a chance the buildings will be hit again,” he told Reuters. “But in the short term people should be able to take refuge in their homes.”
Abu Salem heads a group of 12 construction workers who rebuild and patch up buildings damaged by barrel bombs, air strikes and shelling in and around Syria’s Deraa city.
With no access to modern tools, and materials made expensive by the war, Abu Salem’s men break up buildings, mix concrete and carry loads by hand. Despite the difficulties, they have kept their sense of humour.
Three months ago a video circulated widely on Syrian social media showing masked men kneeling in formation, brandishing staffs and rising to shouts of “God is Great”.
At first glance it looks like a typical example of the belligerent propaganda footage often posted by armed groups in the Syrian conflict. But it isn’t what it seems.
“In the name of God, I am Abu Salem al-Muhameed and I announce the formation of a Concrete Pouring Brigade in the free areas!” Salem shouts into the camera in an unmistakable parody of fired-up rebel leaders fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
“If you destroy, by God we will rebuild!” he cries as his men wave pickaxes and shovels and then descend into laughter.
After the You Destroy and We Rebuild Brigade’s video appeared, people began stopping Abu Salem in the street.
“They said: you are the best brigade formed since the start of the Syrian crisis,” he told Reuters by phone.
Syria’s war has destroyed the national economy and fractured the country into a patchwork of areas of control which bisect trading routes, raising prices and causing local shortages of vital commodities.
But money can sometimes talk louder than political loyalty, and across Syria goods still find their way across front lines, with heavy bribes and taxes paid at checkpoints.
Abu Salem lives in a rebel-held area but sources his building materials from government-controlled zones.
Cement secured from Damascus may cost about 30,000 Syrian pounds a tonne at source, he said, but arrives in Deraa at a price of 50,000 to 55,000 pounds after passing through all the checkpoints.
“By the time they get to us the price has become 50, 60 or sometimes 100 percent more than their real price,” said Abu Salem, a 39-year-old father of five who was a builder before the war.
Abu Salem is passionate about his mission to reverse the destruction, but laments he can’t do as good a job as he’d like.
There are no engineers, modern construction techniques or cement mixers. He and his colleagues reuse rubble and steel from destroyed buildings and do everything by hand.
“The quality of building has changed significantly … If there was equipment we would be able to build faster and better. But these are war conditions,” said Abu Salem, who has had to vacate and repair his own house because of air attacks.
Brigade members are paid in accordance with what customers can afford, averaging the equivalent of a mere four or five U.S. dollars a day.
“It’s always just (enough for) food and water. There are no savings because of the high prices,” Abu Salem said.
Abu Salem said he and his men stood ready to help whichever parties eventually agree to rebuild Syria. “But if someone comes with a rocket or a weapon and says ‘fight’, I won’t,” he said.