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In Syria, Aleppo residents grapple with hardship, uncertainties

Rebels help a comrade wounded in a Syrian army strike in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday.
(Marco Longari / AFP/Getty Images)

ALEPPO, Syria — The elderly woman, covered in a long black gown and matching headdress, was despondent. Tears of anguish flooded her eyes. She stood at the entrance to the cobblestone streets of the Old City, pleading with the rebel fighter.

“Why can’t you get the bakeries running?” she implored, saying she had spent four hours seeking fresh bread for her family. “We are not accustomed to living like this.”

At the receiving end of her exhortations was a strapping 27-year-old country boy with a white T-shirt, sandals and a rifle who called himself Abu Mohammed.

“We can’t do everything,” he shrugged, blaming government forces for blocking fuel supplies to operate the bakeries. “We can’t fight a war and run a city.”

Once Syria’s business hub, Aleppo is now an edgy, apocalyptic place where the daily routines of life and commerce have yielded to a bewildering and at times homicidal mayhem. The city seems almost equally divided between the government and rebels, and there has been relatively little advance by either side in more than six weeks of fighting. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

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Until late July, when armed rebels moved in and seized a number of districts with surprising speed, the city of more than 2 million people had been largely immune from the violence that had been sweeping much of Syria for more than a year. No more.

As President Bashar Assad’s government has fought to reassert control, Aleppo has become an exhausted expanse of bread lines, fuel shortages, inflated prices, panicked families and abrupt Syrian military bombardment. Gutsy drivers race headlong through desolate intersections, providing a terse explanation: “Snipers.”

Territory seems to shift at the edges of a meandering front line that stretches for almost five miles. Most residents seem to have abandoned front-line districts such as Salahudin and Izaa. . But multitudes still live in other areas, enduring the thud of artillery, the whir of helicopters and the roar of jet fighters that send them scurrying for cover.

The violence comes from both sides.

In the last week, a pair of car bombs killed more than 30 people in government-held districts, according to official media. Twenty soldiers, their hands bound and many of them blindfolded, were found executed recently, their blood-soaked bodies displayed curbside like trophies.

The city’s ubiquitous bread lines are especially vulnerable.

“My son left in the morning with the bicycle and said he would get it fixed,” recalled a man riding that same bicycle along the serpentine streets of the Old City. He gave his name as Abu Habib, 45, an electrician who depends on the bike to commute to daily repair jobs. “I told him to bring back some bread with him.”

That was one day last month. A rocket or bomb from an airplane exploded near the bread queue, killing many, including his son, Habib Barade, 16, and maiming others, the father said.

“Why is no one helping us?” the soft-spoken electrician asked before pedaling away, with a younger son, Mohammed, 10, hitching a ride and waving goodbye.

The exodus of Aleppo continues as the fighting drags on.

Traffic circles have become makeshift terminals for those fleeing. Some seek refuge with relatives or friends outside the city, while others hope to reach nearby Turkey, where spartan tent cities await them.

Minivans cater to the exit trade, made up mostly of families. In the Mashad district, a teacher who gave her name as Umm Ahmad, 33, was looking for a ride out with her husband and two young daughters, both with wild curly hair.

Not far away, bloodied victims arrived at a clinic situated in an anonymous office tower. One man, carried by several rebel soldiers, appeared almost unconscious as he was lugged inside from a sedan. Blood poured from his midsection, staining his shirt a scarlet red. “Shrapnel,” someone explained matter-of-factly.

Almost all the victims treated here are civilians, victims of shelling and snipers, explained a nurse.

“The people have become the enemy!” lamented a tall, distraught man, speaking to no one in particular, on the street outside the clinic. The day before, a sniper shot his brother, a civilian, he said.

On street corners everywhere, heaps of uncollected trash smolder. Garbage collectors are heroes.

At the Bab al Hadid, or Iron Gate, district at the entrance to the Old City — where both sides appear to vie for control of certain streets — a commotion greeted a dump truck and bulldozer that arrived to pick up weeks worth of refuse. Residents were ecstatic.

“May God bring comfort to the country,” said the refuse boss, who declined to give his name but said he was 47. “The blood of my people is being spent.”

The welcome given the trash crew often eludes rebel fighters. Some Aleppo residents clearly view them as hillbilly interlopers whose presence has meant ruin and destruction. Away from the presence of rebel troops and operatives, people whisper their hostility.

“They brought us war,” said a disgusted melon seller in a busy produce market.

The enmity that the rebels sense from many residents is somewhat mutual. Fighters, mostly from the countryside, say the city dwellers don’t seem to want to pay the price for liberation. Many fighters have lost loved ones and seen government offensives pummel their towns and villages.

“Aleppo people are used to living well,” said one bearded rebel commander. The former Syrian Army colonel turned defector was having lunch with others in a makeshift command center of the Aleppo Military Council, which was formed to try to impose some order on the fragmented opposition effort. “This is an affluent place. People don’t like living with shortages.”

The shelling has sheared off or collapsed the roofs and upper floors of many buildings, especially in the half a dozen or so neighborhoods just behind the rebel front lines. Rebels often pass the time in relatively secure ground-floor units, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and biding their time, waiting for an attack, word of an advancing tank or incoming mortar shells. If there is electricity, the television may be on. Fighters sometimes punch holes through walls to move from building to building, shielded from sniper fire.

Sometimes, there is a moment for reflection.

“My father didn’t want me to take up arms,” said Yassir, a young fighter who used to work in a tire shop. “But when he saw the shelling, he saw the people getting killed, he understood.”

Yassir and others were gathered in a small tea shop about 100 yards from a towering mosque that is next to a kind of sniper’s alley, where a rebel was taken out with a shot to the head the day before. The skilled government marksmen with their Dragunov sniper rifles can’t quite reach the tea shop.

Yassir is lively and animated. Some fellow combatants, however, appear stern and almost shellshocked, having spent weeks withstanding bomb and tank attacks. Complaints about a lack of ammunition and the paucity of sophisticated weapons to target tanks and aircraft are ubiquitous.

Back in the Old City, a barber who gave his name as Abu Saleh opened his shop for the first time in six weeks. He said he had left town but was now hoping to attract clients, perhaps among the rebel fighters constantly passing by en route to and from the front lines, deeper inside the warren of twisting alleyways.

A photo of his late father, a red fez on his head, gazed down on the unadorned establishment with its old-fashioned metal barber chair, a relic of 40 years of cuts and shaves.

It was good to be back at work, said Abu Saleh, if only for the illusion of normality.


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