Qamishli, Syria – Wheelbarrows have become essential for living in Alaya, a district of Qamishli, about 700km northeast of Damascus.
Local residents dump their garbage almost anywhere in the district, then they load their wheelbarrows up again with mud, which they use to insulate the corrugated roofs of their houses. Alaya is the poorest district of Qamishli, a city of about 200,000, and the only one where trash is never picked up; garbage collectors say they are taking their lives into their hands by entering the region, where dormant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) cells are believed to be stationed.
About 250 families, both Arab and Kurdish, are now stranded in the mud and debris of Alaya, including Salah Osman’s. From the doorway of his home, he says he cannot bear it any longer.
“Do you see all this garbage all over the place? My daughters spend the whole day trying to keep it clean but neighbours keep throwing their waste here,” Osman told Al Jazeera.
“Why don’t the Kurds come to clean this district? We are ready to pay. We cannot continue like this,” Osman said, before stopping another teenager attempting to empty his wheelbarrow nearby.
After Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, Kurds in the country’s north opted for a neutrality that has pushed them into clashes with both government and opposition forces. Today, they remain in control of three enclaves where they form the majority: Afrin, Kobane and Jazirah, where Qamishli is the main city.
The power balance in Qamishli is particularly sensitive as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are also present in the city centre, and the airport is under their control. Accordingly, there are two different administrations working in parallel in Qamishli, although the Kurdish one remains in charge of all basic city services, including garbage collection.
Local resident Tarik Barko – a former garbage collector in Qamishli within Assad’s administration, before the Kurds took control of the area – says the amount of waste in Alaya has continued to grow.
There is a group of people in the neighbourhood who attack the garbage collectors every time they try to get in.
“From the 20 trucks we had [under the former municipal administration], only four remain operational and they never come to this district,” the 41-year-old told Al Jazeera. Barko said the majority in Alaya had no objection to the Kurds picking up garbage, but their reasons for not doing so are “understandable”.
“There is a group of people in the neighbourhood who attack the garbage collectors every time they try to get in,” Barko said. “The attackers are not siding with the regime; it’s just a gang of criminals.”
From a Kurdish administration building in Alaya, about 100m from the district’s northern gate, Alaya council delegate Ahmed Sulayman said their office counts on two garbage trucks and eight volunteers, “all of them willing to work”.
“Given the [Assad] government’s neglect over this district, we decided to take action in January 2013. But every time we’ve tried to collect the garbage or deliver fuel to the neighbours, they have welcomed us with stones, or even shot at us,” Sulayman told Al Jazeera, noting three of his men were wounded.
“We even told the residents in Alaya to set up a committee to conduct both the cleaning and the fuel delivery themselves, but it didn’t work,” Sulayman recalled. He believes that ISIL fighters are behind the attacks, noting: “They can’t stand the Kurdish presence in the city.”
The Asayish, a Kurdish security force present in the district, cited two recent bomb attacks in the area. Asayish commander Naif Ahmed Hussein, speaking to Al Jazeera from the force’s checkpoint at the southern entrance of the district, said while one explosive device was successfully deactivated, another hidden in a pile of soil exploded but “luckily enough, no one got injured”.
“We are pretty sure ISIL has dormant cells in the district,” Hussein said. “They want to intimidate us so we leave the area.”
Hussein Ahmad, the head of the cleaning department in the Jazirah region, told Al Jazeera that Alaya had turned into a “nightmare” and accused the Assad regime of “remaining indifferent to the residents’ growing problems”.
In downtown Qamishli, Kurdish garbage collectors could be observed working alongside portraits of Assad and Syrian flags.
Garbage collection was already rare in a country where sewage systems, pumping stations and other water infrastructure have suffered severe damage, according to the World Health Organisation. Complicating matters, the Save the Children Foundation found that 60 percent of hospitals in the country have been destroyed and the production of drugs has decreased by 70 percent.
Manad Mohamad, a volunteer doctor at the local medical council, told Al Jazeera that Alaya poses yet another challenge for an already beleaguered medical system.
“We are treating diseases we had forgotten about long ago, such as tuberculosis,” Mohamad said. “If no urgent action is taken in Alaya, we will have to get set to cope with a massive rat plague, or an outbreak of cholera.”