Poor neighborhood in Aleppo is focus of battle for Syria

Syrian rebels in Aleppo rush a wounded man to a hospital.
(Ahmad Gharabli, AFP/Getty Images)

ALEPPO, Syria — The car slams to a halt in front of the rebel field hospital on Shariyeh Street in the Salahuddin neighborhood, and a young man, his white pants drenched with blood, is carried haphazardly inside. But there is no doctor here.

Yelling ensues about where to take him. Field hospitals move regularly after being hit by shells or rockets in this city that has become a symbol of the battle for Syria. Finally, three men carry Zaher Dikyan, 24, back out and into a microbus and lay him on the floor, where he continues to bleed.

The microbus careers down the narrow, rubble-lined roads, turning violently and stopping suddenly to avoid hitting barricades. In the back, Dikyan’s head flops to the side and he closes his eyes.

“Stay with me, stay with me,” Abdullah “Abu Saeed” Kakeh yells at him, giving him two thumbs up for emphasis.

PHOTOS: Syria conflict (graphic content)

Two weeks after opposition fighters took control of the poor, crowded neighborhood in southwest Aleppo, Salahuddin is the battered focus of an intense fight for Syria’s second city.

As more areas of the country continue to fall into rebel hands, the offensive could be a decisive one for the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose forces are pounding Salahuddin with tank shells, helicopters and occasionally warplanes.

Here, death can come from above, or from around the corner. A quiet settles, to be quickly broken by the jarring explosion of a shell or a sudden barrage of gunfire.

Salahuddin once was home to 100,000 people. Now its streets are mostly empty save for rebels manning checkpoints and guarding streets, waiting for the crack of a sniper’s bullet or the explosion of a shell. The few remaining residents are fleeing, carrying with them children, refrigerator bins piled with food and plastic bags full of clothes.

Shariyeh Street, which residents say was attacked by a MiG-21 warplane Tuesday, looks as though a tornado had passed through it not once but several times. The faces of the buildings appear as if they have been clawed off by the shelling, and wires hang down onto the rubble-covered street where cars sit crushed under the debris. On top of one apartment building, the top floor has almost collapsed.

Smoke rises from shelled homes and garbage burning in dumpsters.

In surrounding neighborhoods, life trudges on quietly but normally: Clothing and pastry stores are open and residents walk the streets carrying the food they have bought to break the Ramadan fast.
At another point, Kakeh, 29, is standing in the entrance of an apartment building, asking whether anyone needs cigarettes, when suddenly the building is jolted. A shell has hit the structure next door and sent shrapnel flying down the street.

This is 10th Street, the front line of the fight in Salahuddin, which runs parallel to the highway that separates this neighborhood from Hamdaniyeh, where snipers and army tanks are estimated in the dozens are be pointing their turrets this way. The only thing that lies between them and the rebels is a row of apartment buildings.

The metal grates on the front of the closed shops are pockmarked by shrapnel.

“He doesn’t care as long as he stays in power,” says Capt. Muhammad Hamood, who commands the rebels on this street, referring to Assad. “Right now being resolute in the current situation is the most important thing, because they are attacking us. Now we need the strength of will and faith of the revolutionaries to be able to beat them and burn them.”

Since the uprising against Assad and his family’s 42 years in power began last year, Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, has been viewed as remaining on the sidelines. Protests have sprung up regularly, but they have been small and short-lived compared with the mass demonstrations in other parts of the country. The violence that has ravaged parts of Syria had mostly spared Aleppo, until the offensive began two weeks ago.

Before that, about a dozen rebel fighters had come to Salahuddin and begun openly protecting protests; the first Friday there were clashes, and reportedly the rebels killed several security officers. The next Friday, security forces didn’t attack the demonstration.

Emboldened by what they viewed as swelling popular support in Aleppo for the opposition Free Syrian Army — and inspired by the fighting in the capital, Damascus — rebel fighters went to the military leadership in the suburbs to convince them that the time was right to try to liberate Aleppo.

On a Thursday in late July, dozens of rebels entered Salahuddin and pro-opposition neighborhoods in the northeast. They attacked security checkpoints, sparking the beginning of the rebel offensive in Aleppo. The next day, government tanks moved into position and began shelling.

Now, despite the danger from above, rebels appear to control what happens on the ground. Checkpoints dot the streets and all who pass through might be questioned as to why they are there. Sometimes they don’t allow people to pass, either for their safety or because they fear that they might be thieves. At one checkpoint, the rebel fighters grab two teenage boys accused of stealing cigarettes and handcuff them together.

When asked about their chances of successfully liberating the city, rebels answer in vague, religious terms.

“Either martyrdom or death.”

And when pushed for an answer: “Whatever God intends.”

But their military plan is summed up by one word: resistance.

Over on 15th Street, Sheik Tawfeeq Shahab Deen, a religious leader who is the military commander on the street, sits on a plastic chair surrounded by eager fighters. At the end of the street, gray smoke rises from an apartment building just hit by a tank shell.

The intersections are fraught with risk as snipers shoot at anything that crosses. “We should attack the tall buildings and liberate them so the snipers can’t shoot at us,” one young man says.

“What are you saying?” Deen says. “Right now holding our ground is our strongest weapon. Also our resistance in the last few days sends a message.”

An emaciated kitten sits expectantly at his feet, nudging a small box of bullets with its nose. These are the few weapons and supplies that have come to them from the military council based in the safer suburbs.

The men trying to save Dikyan drive desperately to the adjacent rebel-controlled neighborhood of Sukari.

They reach Al Quds hospital, which has been taken over by a tiny pro-opposition medical team, and carry him inside. Rebel fighters, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, stand around the entrance unfazed; this is not an unusual sight.

“There’s a doctor inside, but he’s a gynecologist,” one of the staffers says.

Dikyan had been hit by shrapnel or a bullet near his crotch and is bleeding internally. He requires surgery and a blood transfusion, but they don’t dare take him to a hospital in a government-controlled neighborhood.

“So we leave him here to die?” a relative of Dikyan asks no one in particular.

His blood type is O-positive and none is available, so Dikyan is given a transfusion of another type.

No one expects him to survive.