In Aleppo, every footstep is a crunch. The streets are strewn with rubble and broken glass from destroyed buildings and shattered windows. It's a sound that distinguishes a walk around this war-torn Syrian town from any other city in the world.
Abu Jamal is a young fighter from Brigade North Storm, a unit of the Syrian resistance. His comrades just call him "the sniper" because he spends his days creeping over rubble and broken glass from one building to the next in search of a firing position.
Abu Jamal is stationed in Bustan al-Basha, a district devastated by bombs and shells. Hardly any civilians live here anymore. A few fighters invite him to take tea with them in front of an office building that used to house a bank. I too sit on a stool on the sidewalk. Abu Jamal warns me. "That's not a good place to sit," he says, pointing to a big window on the first floor. "The shockwave of explosions can burst the window pane. The falling bits of glass could kill you." Sure enough, when we pass the same spot the next day, the window is broken, its glass strewn across the sidewalk and the street.
There are rusting bits of metal everywhere. The shrapnel comes from exploding artillery shells and aerial bombs whose sole purpose is to kill. The explosions send them hurtling through the air. They tear people to pieces and slice gaping holes in skulls. The shrapnel doesn't distinguish between fighters and civilians, men and women, old people and children. After impact with the ground, the pieces, often twisted into bizarre shapes, are red hot. You can burn your fingers on them -- Aleppo's children have learned that lesson.
Pulling Body Parts From the Rubble
If you want to survive in this city gone mad you watch out for flying metal and rubble. If an aerial bomb explodes in the area, people stay under shelter for at least 10 seconds afterwards -- that's how long it takes for the debris hurled into the air from the crater to come raining down, often over a distance of hundreds of meters, with deadly force.
It takes longer for the grey dust from the explosions to settle. It comes from pulverized buildings. The victims of aerial attacks are often coated in fine dust from head to foot. It leaves them looking ashen even before the color of life has seeped from their faces.
Shelling by artillery and bombings from aircraft are such common everyday occurrences in Aleppo now that people don't let it stop them go about their lives -- provided the explosions are far enough away. When the bombs start falling close by, there's chaos and fury -- at President Bashar Assad and his air force, but also at the rebels, for whose presence Assad is exacting revenge on the civilian population. Once the fighter jets have turned away, magnesium flares continue to burn in the sky trailing white smoke. The magnesium is intended to distract heat-seaking missiles from the engines of the jets.
In the streets, meanwhile, men and youths set about looking for dead and wounded people in a building that has taken a hit and been partly destroyed. It looks like an earthquake has struck the place. The floors are pressed together tight like an accordion. The concrete floors are too heavy for the rescuers to shift. A bulldozer is brought in. It tries to tear apart the giant bits of debris with a steel cable. But the cable breaks.
Elsewhere, a boy aged 12 or so pulls body parts from the rubble as if it's the most normal thing in the world. He neatly wraps the dusty, bloody limbs in a woollen blanket. "Do you want to see?" he asks. I decline. There's nothing left to identify anyway.
Air Force Shifting Focus from Aleppo
Those who are able to move into the lowest floor or the basement of buildings that are at least six stories high. Bomb attacks usually only destroy the top four or five floors. Anywhere below that point offers better chances of survival, unless the building is hit by a ballistic guided missile, which Assad recently began firing on Aleppo. The warheads of those missiles -- depending on their type -- range from 600 to 1,000 kilograms (1,300 to 2,200 pounds), heavier than any of the bombs dropped on Aleppo by the Syrian air force. The 11-meter-long rockets level entire rows of houses down to their foundations, leaving behind nothing but dust and death.
In stark contrast to the largely untouched cities in western Syria, which are still controlled by the Assad government, Aleppo is slowly but surely being reduced to rubble. However in recent weeks, the intensity of the bombardment on the city has actually declined. The air force is concentrating on a number of besieged army bases across the country. Helicopters fly in supplies while fighter pilots target the positions of the rebels attacking the bases. The air force simply doesn't have enough manpower or supplies to keep up its assault on Aleppo.
That may be a reason why many refugees have returned here. The streets and markets are full again, and the economy is adjusting to the new circumstances. The war, coupled with increasingly frequent power outages, has brought virtually all factories to a standstill. Machinery is often plundered and sold for parts in Turkey. One cigarette factory had virtually all its equipment cleared out and carted away. The looters left behind nothing but tons of tobacco -- perhaps an indication that they belonged to the ultra-conservative Salafist movement, which forbids smoking.
Blackouts Create Market for Smuggled Fuel
Abu Ahmed used to own a clothing shop. The store is still there, located on a street corner with a few unsold leather jackets hanging on the walls. But the owner has switched his business to selling more profitable goods: heating oil, diesel and gas. Low-quality fuel reaches Aleppo on the black market from Iraq.
Business is good, since the power outages have made the hum of gas-fuelled generators ubiquitous in the city. "Demand is strong," Abu Ahmed says, "also because of the rebels and their pickup trucks. I can look after my family pretty well again. Still, the living conditions are hard. I have to be on guard day and night, and we have no electricity at home, no running water, no cooking gas and no heating."
On every third intersection, resourceful street vendors sell generators labeled "Made in Korea." There's also no apparent lack of meat and vegetables, even if many people can't afford them. But the vendors have learned that they can't operate like they used to, concentrating all their business on a single market area. Markets, hospitals and bakeries, all favorite targets for Assad's artillery and airstrikes, are now spread across the city, less centralized than they used to be. Even in the old bazaar of Aleppo, which the front line currently runs through and which is partly burnt down and destroyed, small, hidden bakeries are producing batches of pitta bread. On the outskirts of the city, a butcher slaughters animals for meat, leaving a small river of dark blood flowing down to the nearest street drain.
Urban Warfare Leaves Signs Across City
Everywhere you go in Aleppo, mountains of garbage are piling up. Children climb them and rummage for recyclable materials. In the city parks, youths saw down the few remaining trees, selling them as firewood to residents willing to pay whatever price to stay warm. Near the front line of the battle, handwritten messages scrawled on signs warn of government snipers. In some of the most dangerous areas, like near the Nasser Gate leading to the ancient part of the city, rebels have parked garbage trucks to serve as bullet traps.
Large sheets hung above the alleys keep people out of sight from snipers. Along the large highway leading out of the city, diggers have raised up a mound of earth taller than a person. This wall also serves as a shield from bullets, since the Hanano military base is only about 1.7 kilometers (1 mile) away. "Unlike us, Assad's troops have large-caliber rifles that they can fire on us from 2 kilometers away," says Abu Jamal, whose work as a sniper gives him some expertise in the matter. Numerous vehicles and civilians have been fired on while trying to cross the multi-lane road.
The pedestrian bridge that goes over the highway at this point has long been closed due to shots fired from the military base. Safety is found only behind the mound. Just a few meters to the left or right of it, the death zone begins.