Syrian civil war: Inside the battle for Aleppo

In Syria, the battle for Aleppo rages on, the death toll mounts, and the blame game continues. Nelofer Pazira reports from the front lines of the fighting.

Nelofer Pazira observes the fighting from the Syrian army's side

Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been badly damaged by the fighting in the war that rages on. (Nelofer Pazira)

Aleppo is the newest battle in the war for Syria, so far a slogging 'no-sides-win' shoot-out between gunmen and tanks which has left hundreds of civilians dead and tens of thousands of its citizens stunned to find their ancient city in the firing line.

Since armed opponents of the Assad regime stormed into Aleppo six weeks ago, even the great heritage sites of this wealthy metropolis have been badly damaged.

But merely getting to Aleppo is a feat in itself.

The journey from Aleppo airport to the government-held city – nine tortuous kilometers – was as frightening as it was revealing: piles of gravel and rocks, garbage trucks turned upside down, and bullet-scarred buses, all used to block the road through the Al-Bab area.

The motorway into Syria's largest city was cut. So my brave taxi driver had to swerve through this wasteland at high-speed, to bypass the barriers and avoid being targeted by either side in this wretched war.

Emptiness was the order of the hour; no one to be seen for more than six kilometres, just signs of what had passed – shuttered homes, burning garbage and the air heavy with smoke, sinister and eerie under the setting sun.

Only at the city outskirts did we find a few courageous souls who had ventured out to observe how normal life had been neutered by war, men walking past heaps of debris and a couple of families and then children, incongruously dressed for the Muslim Eid festival in their dresses, dots of colour amid the grey and beige of the damaged landscape.

Civilians caught in the crossfire

Exhausted Syrian government troops, in motley uniforms, rest after battling their opponents in Al-Hatab Square in Aleppo, Aug. 22. Nelofer Pazira (Nelofer Pazira )

This city of antiquity and architectural beauty has become a battleground; nowhere is safe and both sides are fighting to win a war that's swelling the civilian death count.

The old French garden in Aleppo is now home to hundreds of displaced Syrians who have camped out for more than a month, using the garden facilities and surviving on what they can find to eat through people's charity.

There, under the thunder of mortar and crackle of gunfire – with the ominous sound of a helicopter above us – a man speaks of the desperation of his family.

The opposition ordered them to leave their homes. "We had no choice but to run away," he says. His nephew was shot by rebels when he left his car to buy bread, he says; the boy sits beside him, his arm sheathed in bandages, his face in pain. 

At first people are reluctant to talk for fear of the reprisals they may face from both sides. Yet once they begin to describe their suffering – whatever compels them to break that seal of silence – they speak with an unexpected freedom. When people lose their fear, it seems, they cannot be made to feel fear again.

Twenty-year-old Abdul Rahman, who works for one of Syria's television stations, speaks in broken English about the wishes of his generation. "We young people in Syria, of course we want freedom," he says. "For me it's no longer about whether this president rules or someone else. It is now about the world trying to free us. If the Gulf countries are so keen on freedom, why don't they free Palestine? The Palestinians need their help more than we do. We can free ourselves."

A Free Syrian Army soldier shoots his machine gun against Syrian Army positions in the Izaa district in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 8. (Manu Brabo/Associated Press)

The more people I talk to, the more I hear this same mantra: of the West and its Arab allies using Syria in their proxy wars against an emerging Russian power and a supposedly diabolical Iran.

Foreign fighters and the Free Syrian Army

The Syrian army's generals repeat the same phrase, "foreign fighters – Turks, Afghans, Chechens, Libyans and others" fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The FSA is also called the 'Free Army', 'militants' or 'terrorists' – interchangeably by both locals and Syrian army officers – for there is no end to the lexicon of opposition groups inside Syria battling to overthrew President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

And they are well-armed, as I quickly discover in the glass and cartridge-strewn alleyways of the old city of Aleppo. There are slogans on the walls that speak of 'Liwa al Tawhid (the Unity Brigade), 'God is Great' – along with insults against Assad.

The Syrian Arab Army – the official title of the government's army – has been battling insurgents who originally took refuge in the Al-Sharaf mosque and the adjacent Christian school for disabled children. When I talked to Syrian army officers more than 24 hours later, the government's soldiers were still fighting to 'clear' the area from snipers hiding inside civilian homes and on the roof of the apartments and shops.

A Syrian government soldier stands guard as civilians gather at a breadline in Al-Hatab Square in Aleppo's old city. (Nelofer Pazira)

We have just passed Al-Hatab Square – where a bakery opened only minutes ago to serve a long line of hungry and distraught people, and where I took pictures of exhausted soldiers – but it has turned into a battle zone again; the bakery shut, the soldiers retreating to the corners of the roads, waiting for the next sniper round.

This is a house-to-house battle where the superior fire of the army and their T-72 tanks cannot compensate for the mobile and elusive snipers of the opposition. Here today, gone in a minute. The Syrian army is fighting a ghost enemy.

Fighting around Aleppo's ancient Citadel

Is it possible to see the medieval Citadel? The army officer in charge of the battle in Al-Hatab nods.

He calls someone on a mobile phone that is tucked away under his flak jacket. "It's dangerous, but you can go," he says.

When I arrive near the Citadel, a soldier is waiting.

The Citadel, one of the world's oldest castles in one of the world's oldest cities, has evidence of past civilizations dating back 3,200 years. It was a major draw for tourists, when tourists still came to Aleppo. Holding the Citadel has as much symbolic value as military value for the warring armies.

"We must run because there are snipers," he says as we set off at speed.

The badly-damaged outer gateway of Aleppo's medieval Citadel frames a postcard view of the old city on Aug. 22. The gate was damaged when Assad's armed opponents attempted to break into the fortress in August. (Nelofer Pazira )

Then we wait – "five minutes" he says – taking shelter at the entrance of the Carlton Hotel. The Hotel is looted and some doors have been torn out, but the famous old black Renault car is still there, so far undamaged.

We finally reach the steps of the Citadel where the outer gate and its 700-year old wooden door have been smashed to pieces.

"The militants wanted to take over the Citadel," explains an officer, "the guards were inside the castle and the militants used 300 kilograms of explosives to blow the gate so they could enter," he says. That was in mid-August.

The door still lies in bits, the place where the explosives were placed is now a hole on the ground. "The militants claimed it was the government tanks that destroyed the gate," he says.

In a war for which each side is quick to blame the other, it is clear that the gate's destruction was the work of explosives rather than a tank shell. But while the blame war continues, it is the world's heritage that is been destroyed here – much like Syria itself.

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