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In Syria, Aleppo residents grapple with hardship, uncertainties

As fighting drags on, Aleppo has gone from Syria's affluent business hub to an edgy, apocalyptic city where life and commerce have yielded to homicidal mayhem.

September 19, 2012|By the Los Angeles Times
  • Rebels help a comrade wounded in a Syrian army strike in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday.
Rebels help a comrade wounded in a Syrian army strike in the northern city… (Marco Longari / AFP/Getty…)

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.

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.

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