As the insurgents poured into the city, so thousands of residents fled in the face of a government onslaught.
Hassan Abdul Majid, one of the many refugees, told The Daily Telegraphhow he watched as one of the regime’s helicopter gunships attacked an apartment building in the city’s middle- class Hanano district.
“I was bending down in the street to clear some rubbish when I saw the helicopter sit still at the junction,” the father of five, still shocked by the barbarity of the fighting, said. “I waited until it fired into a block of flats facing it. They all collapsed.”
The 35-year-old Mr Majid was speaking after squeezing on to a minibus with his wife and children, and abandoning the war-torn city for the safety of a village in the swathe of Aleppo Province now under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
He was far from the only one. Thousands of families crammed into taxis, vans and the back of lorries yesterday in an attempt to escape what has now become the principal battleground in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Dozens of other families set out on foot, carrying plastic bags with their belongings. An activist said taxi drivers were charging $300, more than the monthly wage of many Syrians, to take families out.
Aleppo’s rebel-held districts of
Al-Haideriya, Hanano and Sakhour, relentlessly shelled by the army, were at the centre of the fighting, with the regime forced to deploy tanks on the city’s leafy streets.
An FSA rocket propelled grenade humbled one – footage of it burning in its tracks quickly spread between opposition activists on the internet – while rebels claimed to have destroyed at least one other.
“This is a large-scale hit-and-run battle,” said a spokesman from the Islamist rebel group the Battalions for the Free Men of Syria. “The whole point is to bleed the regime dry. It is a very long fight, and it will be especially long in Aleppo.”
As the battle raged, Ali Bashir was on the phone trying to hire a lorry to rescue his 14-year-old daughter after she called, begging to escape from the city. “I know ways to avoid the official checkpoints and if there are more dangers, so what, it’s not a call I can ignore,” he said.
Even for those who escape Aleppo, a respite is not guaranteed – even in those areas now under rebel control.
The sprawling market town of Azaz was finally captured by the opposition on Friday, but has since been bombarded by government rockets. The Daily Telegraph visited the town yesterday and found the charred wreckage of tanks buried under the rubble of the aerial bombardment.
Many human victims of the fighting met a similar fate.
“I’ve just buried the bodies of two soldiers in an unmarked grave,” said Jibril al-Rifaq. “Not even a dog should be left like that but everyone else has fled.”
In quieter moments, even ardent rebels admit that they would have spurned the uprising if they had foreseen the scale of suffering.
The opposition now claims that 19,000 people have died in the 16 months of battle. However, few Syrians are surprised that Mr Assad has orchestrated such brutality. Anger at the regime’s unflinching reaction now underpins the growing coalition against the Ba’athist regime.
“Nobody can argue against the president in this system,” said Gen Abdul Razzaq Laz, who defected as the head of the Damascus military academy two weeks ago and is now helping the opposition in Aleppo.
“The West must step in. Assad has done 10 times more than Gaddafi and still he has not been brought down.”
Among the rank and file of opposition fighters who gathered in small village squares to set off for Aleppo yesterday, there was a strong conviction that the uprising was sweeping away its target. “The regime is at our throats for 40 years choking us. It is at our throats every second,” said Abu Mahmoud. “I think because we are right we are winning.
“No matter how many are killed we are throwing off its hands.”
However, Mohahammad al-Haj delivered a grave warning as he watched his colleagues rush south to join those trying to overwhelm the president’s forces.
“I see the dangers of Assad every day and night,” the 30-year old said. “I see it in the skies and the wounded people with shrapnel and bullets in their bodies.”