Four men from the rebel Free Syrian Army check their assault rifles and sling them over their shoulders. Their commander, Abu Thabet, gives them final instructions before they head through the sniper-ridden neighbourhood of Salaheddine in Aleppo: “Keep your heads down, stick close to the sides of the buildings and walk fast.”
Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and the engine room of the country’s economy, is seen as a vital prize by both sides in the 17-month-old uprising against president Bashar al-Assad.
This reporter joined this Seyoof al-Shahbaa brigade group as it was on its way to assist 20 of their men. Rebels took control of Salaheddine early this month, but last week troops backed by tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships launched an offensive to drive them out.Army snipers are now posted in the area, a southern gateway to Aleppo, after tanks and fighter jets battered rebels for days.
Rebels short of ammunition are up against the Assad regime’s superior firepower, even if tanks are hard to manoeuvre through narrow residential streets in this city of 2.5 million people.
Abu Thabet’s men walk into the edge of Salaheddine in single file, hugging the buildings and holding their rifles tightly. Their leader’s left arm is in a sling after a piece of shrapnel broke his shoulder a few days ago. But in his good hand he holds a pistol.
High in a building, a barefoot rebel sits on a windowsill, holding a rifle ready to return fire on any army snipers.
Clambering up the fallen concrete using a makeshift wooden ladder, the group enters a bombed-out building, where comrades have smashed holes through the walls to create safe passages for them to move around in Salaheddine, out of the snipers’ sights.
“Now we are on a street parallel to Al-Albesa Street,” Abu Thabet said. “On our right are snipers and on our left are snipers. So we will go through these buildings to get to the Salaheddine roundabout.”
This building takes them into a maze of holes through deserted homes and apartment hallways back to back until they reach the roundabout that for now marks the frontline.
There is evidence of abandoned lives all around. A prayer mat lies on the floor of an empty bedroom. Another room has a cabinet filled with china tea cups and crystal glasses. A bird cage stands empty. In a kitchen, a half-eaten jar of pickles sits on the counter, rotting in the heat, while flies circle around a pile of dishes in the sink.
The last hole is through a wardrobe, its back smashed open. Behind it is a gap six feet wide, opening into an apartment where water bottles and bread have been stashed.
About five rebels are crammed in a hallway waiting for orders. In a small living room a candle lights up a sofa set and family pictures sitting on a TV.
“We are now at the Salaheddine roundabout. The new frontline of the battle of Aleppo,” announced Abu Thabet, walking out into the bright street. “The army is just behind this building.”
Abu Yazen, 29, an army defector in charge of the fighters at the roundabout, said: “The army is advancing into the Salaheddine roundabout and bringing more reinforcements.”
Sniper fire starts up, the bullets snapping through the air.
Suddenly, the slow rumble of a tank could be heard from one street over. “Tank, tank, tank,” yelled one man. Quickly, a rebel shifted a grenade-launcher over his shoulder and moved to squat on the rubble-filled ground.
“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar [God is greatest],” shouted one man, raising his arms over his head encouraging the men to join him. All 20 men screamed: “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.”
Seconds later, the RPG goes off with a swoosh and boom.
“I got it, I got it,” cried the man who fired it, as his comrade prepared to fire another grenade.
Then there is the mundane bleep of a text message – a government announcement claiming that its forces control Salaheddine and have cleansed it of rebels. The men laugh.
But minutes later, a tank shell flies overhead and explodes on a building nearby, and a rain of mortar bombs fills the sky with smoke and shrapnel.
As the rebels run for cover in doorways, five tank shells explode and the rumble of warplanes is heard overhead and the battle goes on.