A week in Aleppo - witnessing the fierce battle for Syria's largest city
Amid the stench of death and the legacy of settled scores, the sound of Beyonce echoes in the Ramadan evening
Salheddine at dusk is a portrait of destruction. Many of the buildings which were standing 48 hours earlier have now collapsed into the street following more pulverizing shelling from tanks, mortars and, increasingly, air strikes.
Broken lampposts form jagged arches in the narrow, twisting lanes; burst pipes on walls drizzle water on to the rubble.
The dead are more noticeable now; bodies are lying on the streets, and a stench comes from those who have been buried under the debris. There is echoing gunfire all around. No one is quite sure who is shooting at whom and there is an intimate proximity of the two sides. The rebel fighters I am with are just an alleyway away from the forces of the regime.
One of the tyres of our car has burst. Opening the trunk we discover that the spare has two bullet holes in it. Bari, an opposition activist, goes bounding after a group of fighters until it is pointed out that a helicopter-gunship was hovering over the buildings, getting ready to fire. He was shot the day before by a sniper - it was only a minor wound and he considers it a badge of honour. But he escaped lightly in this killing ground.
There are killings taking place elsewhere in Aleppo, often in secret, scores being settled after 40 years of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses. Particular targets of vengeance are the Shabiha, the paramilitary loyal to President Basher al-Assad, and the secret police, the Mukhabarat. At one police station I find bodies of dead officials shot in the backs of their head. “Were they killed after they surrendered?” I asked. A young rebel fighter grinned and said: “They didn’t surrender, they were caught,” before being angrily told to shut his mouth by an older colleague.
Yet elsewhere in Aleppo, life of sorts goes on. People shop for food in the shops open for Ifthar, the breaking of the day’s fast during the holy month of Ramadan. In between the protests and religious music coming from loudspeakers, the voice of Beyonce floats out from one storefront. A young fighter lays down his Kalashnikov and starts singing Wonderwall.
The battle for Syria’s largest city and commercial centre will be of huge significance in deciding the outcome of the revolution. But no one is quite sure what will happen in the coming days. There is trepidation and a sense of loss. The two sides confront each other at the historic Iron Gate of the City with a cobbled road going up to the great Castle. There are firefights, heritage damaged by bullets and shrapnel. Haji Omar Obeida, 83, stands looking through rheumy eyes: “My beautiful Aleppo is dying around me.”
FROM THE FRONT LINE: KIM SENGUPTA'S REPORTS
Saturday 4 August
‘You can only patch up people for so long. Most of the seriously injured we can’t save. The only way to end this is to defeat Assad’
Thursday 2 August
In Aleppo, Kim Sengupta finds members of pro-Assad tribes hiding behind closed doors in fear of revenge raids
Wednesday 1 August
Violence and expectation of more destructive strife to come, added to the sense of fear and the growing stream of refugees fleeing their home.
Tuesday 31 July
In Aleppo, Assad's forces are locked in bloody battle with a splintered opposition. Kim Sengupta, the only foreign reporter in the heart of Syria's second city, reports
Monday 30 July
Kim Sengupta in Al-Bab, Aleppo Province
Sunday 29 July
Kim Sengupta in Al-Bab, Aleppo Province
Saturday 28 July
Special report: Syrians brace themselves as war planes join the battle for Aleppo. Kim Sengupta reports from Al-Bab
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