Four lives derailed by Syria's brutal war


Aleppo (Syria) (AFP)

A promising student, a humble merchant, a skilled craftsman and a young builder -- these are just four of the millions of lives thrown into turmoil by Syria's brutal five-year war.

The peaceful protest movement that broke out on March 15, 2011 has morphed into a conflict that has changed the trajectory of Syria's people.

AFP tells the stories of four lives turned upside-down by war.

- The maths-loving student -

Covered in grease and engine oil, Othman al-Najjar, 12, wriggles out from underneath a car in the mechanic shop he works in south of Damascus.

Since he fled a flashpoint suburb east of the capital in 2014, he and his older brother Rashed have become the primary breadwinners for their family, earning the equivalent of $5 (4.50 euros) a week.

But Othman had dreamt of a different future.

"I would have liked to be an architect. I used to like maths a lot in school, and I wish I could have finished my studies," he says.

"My whole life changed after the war."

The scrawny boy wipes down an engine part before returning it to the car he is working on.

According to the UN's children agency, millions of Syrian children are out of school and live in poverty.

"Before everything started, I used to study and play. But now, my face is constantly pressed against car engines and covered in oil and grease," he tells AFP.

- The father and merchant -

In the divided northern city of Aleppo, rebel fighter Yasser Nabhan carefully rolls his military fatigues over his prosthetic right leg in the opposition-held Sayf al-Dawla neighbourhood.

Syria's war has transformed Nabhan from a successful textile merchant, to a rebel sniper, to a handicapped administrative assistant.

"I used to sell fabric in the souk, one of the oldest in the world," and lived with his wife and four daughters, Nabhan recalls.

"Those were some of the most beautiful days of my life," he says.

Nabhan says he took up arms gradually, spending his days at his shop then picking up a sniper rifle in the evenings to shoot pro-regime militiamen.

But after a fierce battle southeast of Aleppo city, he experienced what he calls a "paradigm shift."

"I was wounded by a roadside mine in clashes with the regime in Khanasser in 2013. My life changed, I lost my leg and was permanently handicapped," he tells AFP.

Nabhan now heads the public relations team of an Aleppan rebel group.

His family fled to Turkey four months ago, and Nabhan feels lonely, but free.

"I can't describe this feeling. I could never leave my city -– the freedom that I feel here is something I could never get anywhere else in the world."

- The builder-turned-photographer -

In Damascus' Sayyida Zeinab neighbourhood, Muntazar says his life was changed by the war in a way unlike many Syrians.

The 25-year-old sits comfortably behind a small desk, where his camera, a set of batteries, and his laptop are carefully laid out.

"I used to work in construction in the village of Zahraa in Aleppo, but my work completely stopped when the village was besieged," he tells AFP.

To fill his days, Muntazar began taking photos of regime loyalists on the front lines and was soon hired by pro-government media.

"The crisis has been horrible for many people, but fate improved my situation. I now earn many times what I used to when I was a construction worker," he says.

"My hands and clothes were always covered in dirt, but now my hands are satisfied with capturing pictures and memories... How times have changed."

- The craftsman in exile -

Across the border in Lebanon, Khaled Halabi puts the finishing touches on a hand-crafted oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument made of wood.

The handsome 31-year-old hails from a long line of renowned artisans: an oud his grandfather made for legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum sits in a private collection in Cairo.

But Halabi's career has turned out drastically different than that of his ancestors.

"We used to make between 50 and 75 ouds per month in our factory near Damascus," Halabi tells AFP.

"Our products were very high-quality compared to the rest of the Syrian market. But when the crisis started, we were no longer able to reach the factory," he says.

Halabi moved to Beirut with his wife and daughter in 2014, joining more than one million Syrians seeking relative safety across the border.

He and his business partner, Khalil, craft at most 10 ouds per month, which Halabi says is barely enough to cover his basic expenses.

"The war has hardened us. We had everything... Here, we can't think long-term," Halabi says.

"We would all prefer to go back to our country. If we had just a tiny idea of what Syria's future will be like, we would return immediately."