Aleppo, Syria – There is no doubt that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are still in charge.
Fighter jets constantly roar through the skies. We almost got used to that sound after spending a few days in Aleppo city and its surrounding rural villages. Reality struck soon enough. The sound of the jet was much louder than usual. It was now flying low over the village that day.
It was time to take cover but there was no place to hide. Houses in this region are mainly one-storey and there are no shelters. All we could do was lie on the ground and wait and hope. An explosion close-by hit with a bang, shaking the room.
We survived. Some did not. But for a few minutes we shared their fear.
The target was 150 metres away. Houses were hit. Two people were killed and at least a dozen were injured.
I don’t know what was going through the mind of the pilot of the Mig jet. Did he think these houses were legitimate targets since the village was a stronghold of the armed opposition just like many areas in the Aleppo countryside? Did he know that women and children were still living here?
‘We will be killed’
“I didn’t think I would live,” one of the men of the village told us after the strike. We were praying at the mosque when the rockets landed. “Khaled died today and I will most likely be next. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week… I don’t know. But one by one we will be killed.”
The Syrian military, according to opposition fighters, threatened to step up attacks like this one if Free Syrian Army (FSA) units who use this region as a rear base don’t withdraw from the city of Aleppo
But in Syria’s financial capital the rebels are digging in for what is increasingly looking like a protracted war.
In areas of the city where fighters have a presence, bombardment and shelling are constant.
More often than not the civilians living here are the ones who are getting killed and injured. The shelling and strikes have been described as indiscriminate.
Buying bread is dangerous; people have been killed in government strikes while lining up outside bakeries.
It is hard to really know who people living in the city blame for their suffering.
The opposition has armed men on the ground in some neighbourhoods. The state has their informers, even in rebel territory.
“Those who were known to work as Shabiha (government-backed thugs) left areas where we are now present. But there are other government thugs who stayed and people don’t know them, “Abu Mohammed, a fighter, said. “They give the army intelligence on where we are.”
Syrian authorities have accused their opponents of using civilians as human shields. I asked that question to one of the fighters in the city. He rejected the accusation.
“When we were protesting peacefully the security attacked us. So we are not to blame for taking up arms. We didn’t bring war to our people… They did,” the fighter who preferred to remain anonymous told me.
Out of choice or against their will, communities here are being punished for harbouring the fighters.
“We have no choice but to continue this fight,” Omar, an opposition fighter, said. “There is no turning back to the lives we used to have. There is no way we will accept this regime.”
Omar, who is from a rural village, used to be a school principal. He took up arms six months after the protests started. “We came under fire for taking to the streets and asking for reform,” he said. “When we saw the reaction of the state, we decided to take up arms to defend ourselves.”
But Omar knows that the odds are against the rebels. “Then if you were all aware that your weapons were no match to the government’s arsenal… Why did you think militarising the conflict was the way forward?” I ask. “Did you think the international community would immediately intervene like they did in Libya?”
“No, we knew that we weren’t going to get that kind of help. But none of us ever thought the Syrian army would turn their guns … Use their jets … Their tanks against us the way they are doing. We really thought that the army wouldn’t kill the Syrian people.”
They were wrong.