Civilians run past a Free Syrian Army checkpoint in the Saif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo
Civilians run past a Free Syrian Army checkpoint in the Saif al-Dawla neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on August 14. © Achilleas Zavallis - AFP/File
Civilians run past a Free Syrian Army checkpoint in the Saif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo
Jean-Marc Mojon, AFP
Last updated: August 17, 2012

Aleppo's residents - trapped and hunted

Night has fallen on the Saif al-Dawla district in Aleppo. A man takes out the rubbish after the iftar meal breaking the Ramadan fast, an old woman unpegs the laundry from her line and quickly shutters her balcony.

Many residents remain in this central district but as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad inch closer after reconquering the adjacent neighbourhood of Salaheddin, the area is emptying fast.

"We know we are no longer just collateral victims of the conflict, Bashar is actually targeting civilians," says Yasmine Shashati, as she makes coffee after iftar for a group of Free Syrian Army fighters in a mosque basement.

She and her two nephews found refuge there after they were forced to leave their nearby flat when tank shells started raining all around the building.

On Monday, one of them punched a two-foot-deep (half-metre) crater in the asphalt and shook her building, which was also being used as a FSA position. A fighter guarding the entrance and a civilian were wounded by shrapnel.

The FSA said Syrian army tanks had targeted them because they had been tipped off to their presence either by the unusual concentration of mobile phone signals or by the ground floor tenant who moved out an hour before the shelling.

Shashati's sister Hanan was killed two days earlier by a sniper. Her sons Abdelkader, 7, and Fahed, 10, had been badgering her for fruit all week and she was on her way to the shop in a taxi when a bullet went through her neck.

"We are from Homs. We escaped the fighting in Baba Amr (neighbourhood) earlier this year and came to Aleppo, where we thought it was safe. Bashar al-Assad is responsible for all of this, he's a bloodthirsty monster," Shashati cries.

Wrapped in an overcoat she hastily threw over her pyjamas when the FSA evacuated her family, she sits on a chair in the mosque basement, nervously digging at her cuticules and keeping a tearful eye on her younger nephew.

Sprawled across the white stone floor of the mosque, where moments earlier medics had been sweeping away the blood of the day's wounded, Abdelkader plays with a pack of mobile phone recharge cards he found.

When two rebels switch on video cameras he is excited to recount how the explosion in front of his flat had shattered all the windows.

There are few ways in or out of Saif al-Dawla and any attempt is a risky affair that involves dodging flying checkpoints manned by the shabiha -- the Alawite-dominated pro-regime militias -- or driving past army positions.

Dozens of cars can be seen driving away from Aleppo towards Atma, with families of six or seven sitting on top of each other on the back seats, bags piled up to the ceiling.

But others can't find the exit.

"There are entire families who have nowhere to go. Some of them have money but they can't find any help, they can't find a safe house and basically live on the street," says one fighter who goes by the name of Abu Haidar.

At one major crossroads in Saif al-Dawla, Jamal comes running to the handful of local FSA youths keeping watch and asks them which street is safe.

"The army shot up a lorry carrying flour today... The snipers are just shooting anybody. They want to make an example by killing some civilians, hoping that the rest will leave," he says, his jaw shaking in anger and fear.

When the Syrian air force's fearsome Russian MiG jets and attack helicopters had done enough damage to force the residents of Salaheddin to flee, tanks moved in and the main FSA units relocated to Saif al-Dawla.

But so did the fighters and now the sequence is repeating itself.

Fighting is fiercest in the districts in the southwestern belts of Aleppo, the country's commercial hub which lies near the border with Turkey.

Most residents have left the area and pro-regime snipers are everywhere.

"Abdelkader and Fahed are used to being on the road by now," says Yasmine Shashati.

"They are already talking about avenging their mother. I know what I'll do when Bashar is gone and this war is over," she says, her voice breaking.

"I will walk through the streets of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus holding a picture of my sister and I'll write on it 'Welcome to free Syria Hanan, welcome to paradise."

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