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In war-shattered Aleppo, some of Syria's toughest civilians stay put

Rare visit by a Western correspondent to Aleppo makes clear the jarring toll of nearly three years of warfare

A series of checkpoints and barriers cobbled together from tumbleweeds, discarded furniture and assorted urban detritus mark the path to one of the world's most storied sites: Aleppo's ancient covered market, the heart of the Old City.

Much of the magnificent souk, with its vaulted ceilings, stone arches and hanging lamps, is now a charred ruin. Labyrinthine corridors trod upon for centuries in this former Silk Road terminus stand silent, abandoned except for Syrian army special forces.

The troops are posted about 30 yards away from rebels who occupy the other half of the bazaar, the core of the Old City, a United Nations World Heritage site. Below ground, the two sides engage in tunnel warfare: Rebels seek to blow up military positions from their tunnels, while soldiers aim to thwart subterranean assaults from their own passageways.

At street level, the staccato of gunfire and thud of mortar rounds sporadically break the stillness. And then there are the hellish improvised bombings, loud explosions followed by the cries of anguished survivors.

"If we only had six months of peace, people would come back and this could all be reconstructed," a Syrian army commander said as he strolled through the market, noting that many of the centuries-old stone walls were still intact, albeit blackened by fire.

But a rare visit by a Western correspondent to the government-controlled neighborhoods of Aleppo makes clear the jarring toll of nearly three years of warfare.

This historic city, once Syria's commercial hub, is divided between government forces and various Islamist rebel groups, whose brigades form a semicircle around the town. A stalemate set in almost three years ago, and shows no sign of abating.

President Bashar Assad has vowed not to withdraw forces from the once-bustling city of about 3 million, despite recent rebel gains elsewhere in the north against an overstretched military.

Power and water shortages, along with daily mortar and sniper attacks, leave the estimated 2 million who remain here on edge. The Internet and other communications are spotty. Many of the factories that made Aleppo a thriving industrial capital have been looted and destroyed, the machinery and wiring carted off to neighboring Turkey, business leaders say.

In May 2014, rebels with Al Nusra Front managed to cut off most of the water supply to government-controlled areas for 13 days. The Al Qaeda affiliate is one of several opposition factions in Aleppo. Islamic State, the Al Qaeda offshoot that is a rival of Al Nusra, was driven out of Aleppo city in early 2014 by other rebel groups, but maintains a presence in the rural Aleppo region.

With the airport mostly out of service, the army keeps the city resupplied via a circuitous eight-hour road link to Damascus that skirts rebel territory.

While human rights groups deplore mass casualties from the military's use of so-called barrel bombs on rebel-held territory here and across the country, residents of government-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo speak with dread of rebel rockets, mortar rounds and sundry improvised weapons, such as the hell cannon, a homemade howitzer that indiscriminately fires repurposed gas or oxygen cylinders packed with explosives into the city.

In January 2013, a pair of improvised missiles struck outside the fine arts and architecture buildings at Aleppo University, killing more than 150 students. "Our students bled into their examination papers," said Hassan Saudi, manager of student activities.

The campus, home to more than 100,000 students, is hit weekly by ordnance from the rebel side, according to university officials.

Another threat comes from rebel snipers. Along the city's meandering dividing line, which often cuts between densely populated neighborhoods, authorities have strung 30-foot-high curtains in a low-tech bid to deny targets. The military also deploys snipers, whom the opposition has accused of targeting civilians on its side.

The rebels generally control eastern Aleppo, while the government holds strong in the west, including districts home to Christians in this overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city.

The rebels were able to advance three years ago in working-class neighborhoods where they initially had civilian support. But they were never able to take the Citadel, the towering ancient fort complex that arises from the Old City and provides a panoramic view of both opposition and government-held areas. On a visit to the Citadel last week, army troops manned gunnery positions atop the castle.

Since January, authorities say, more than 400 civilians on the government side have been killed in sniper and bombing attacks. The opposition says hundreds in rebel-held districts have been killed in aerial bombardments.

Just the other day, an office worker at the heavily damaged — and highly fortified — government center near downtown ran hysterically from her office, crying, "My boy has been shot!" Her 11-year-old son, Abdo, was hit as he walked on the street. She received a call from the hospital about the shooting, a co-worker said.

Still, life goes on with a certain air of normality in this hemmed-in city.

Open-air markets in government-held neighborhoods feature ample supplies of fresh zucchini, tomatoes and potatoes. Residents chat in cafes day and night, and children continue to go to school. The city has, to some degree, a jaunty, defiant feel, despite its isolation and the prevalent sense of uncertainty.

"This is where my shop is; where else can I go?" asks Ahmed Obeid, 42, a barber in jeans and a green smock whose establishment sits at the government end of the "passage of death" — a winding corridor through no man's land that long was the only pedestrian link between the two parts of town.

The path closed eight months ago, and each side blames the other for the high number of deaths by sniper fire along the route.

Now residents seeking to cross from one side to another — a five-minute walk in peacetime — must take a 14-hour bus ride past government and rebel checkpoints. Government employees who live on the rebel side must pick up their paychecks on the government side.

Legions of those displaced by the war have settled wherever there is accommodation. Squatter families have moved into a series of bombed-out, once-elegant apartment buildings across the street from the landmark clock tower facing the Old City.

"I had no place else to go, so I found this place and took my family here," said Zahra Araaj, 42, as she sat in the living area of a three-bedroom flat housing her extended family of 15. A car battery provides the only electricity.

Outside, children play on the streets amid the rubble in a district that was once a hub for tourists; now it is blocked off by checkpoints and subject to mortar fire.

"A man was killed right outside by a mortar yesterday," says Araaj, a grandmother and exile from the rebel side whose son is serving in the Syrian military. "But we need a home somewhere."

Many cram into flats in the gritty Salahuddin district, scarred from fighting almost three years ago in which the army pushed the rebels back during intense urban combat.

"This is my home and I'm staying here," said Um Hamad, 41, a mother of five in Salahuddin who, like some others, asked to be identified by a nickname for security reasons.

Since the battle for Aleppo began, she said, her family has been forced to move more than a dozen times. She now has fixed up her apartment and plans to remain, even though one bedroom was sheared off in a mortar strike from the nearby rebel zone.

Electricity in Salahuddin is mostly provided via webs of multi-hued wires that sprout from generators to concrete apartment blocks like elongated spaghetti strands.

Over time, people have become accustomed to the risks and the shortages.

"It's a strange feeling not knowing if a shell will fall on you next," said Hagoup Khoudesian, 35, an insurance salesman who was showing a visitor a bomb-damaged apartment building in the largely Christian Sulaymaniya district.

The residence was struck by a mortar round in April on the evening of Good Friday, as celebrated in the Eastern rite calendar. More than a dozen people were killed and scores were injured. Many in Aleppo's vibrant and diverse Christian minority viewed the timing as deliberate.

Though many have left the city, Aleppo retains a large Christian population, including members of many sects. No official numbers are available, but it appears that a larger number of civilians have fled from rebel-held areas, where damage seems much more extensive.

In the front-line Midan district, home to many Armenian Christians, St. Krikor Church has been hit by mortar rounds half a dozen times. But services continue. The shelling has forced the shuttering of buildings and schools just down the street, including an Armenian college.

"We live in an area amid wanton destruction," said Nersis Sarkisian, a father of two who resides less than a block from St. Krikor Church. "But this is our home, this is my church. We are not leaving."

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.

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