Syrian civilians desperate to check on their homes pushed into fluid front lines around the devastated Salaheddine district of Aleppo on Sunday, even as sniper fire cracked out and rebels warned them to stay away.
Civilians drove their cars up to rebel checkpoints demanding to be allowed through, apparently convinced by government messages that the army had regained full control of their neighbourhood, where battles have raged for three weeks.
“Snipers, snipers,” the rebels manning the checkpoints shouted, but some women sat there, confused and stubborn, insisting they had to go through to check on their homes.
“I have to go in,” pleaded one man. “My neighbour told me my house is being looted and I need to get my stuff. Please let me in, I left with only the clothes on my back.”
One exasperated fighter eventually responded: “Say your prayers and go, just go.”
Aleppo is vital to President Bashar al-Assad, struggling for the survival of a ruling system that his family and members of his minority Alawite clan have dominated for four decades.
Dozens of Salaheddine residents surged back after Syrian state television broadcast assurances that the area was now free of “terrorists” and that families were returning to their homes.
“Congratulations to Aleppo for the liberation of Salaheddine from the terrorists with the help of the families of Salaheddine,” read a text message from a mobile network.
Outgunned rebels who have been fighting army troops backed by warplanes, tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships were unimpressed by the residents besieging their checkpoints.
“All these civilians are people who are against the revolution. They believe Syrian TV propaganda that the area is cleared of fighters,” said a rebel calling himself Abu Islam.
Nearby, just off Saif al-Dawla street on the eastern edge of Salaheddine, a bullet struck a young man aged about 20 in the stomach, killing him. Rescuers dragged him to the side of road, where his father cried hysterically. “My only son has gone.”
Inevitably, many of the casualties in the street battles convulsing Syria’s biggest city and economic hub are civilians.
In one field hospital, a doctor treated a nine-year-old girl hit in the waist by a sniper’s bullet. Lying on her side, her feet jerked as the doctor cleaned and bandaged her wound.
“We were walking this morning to get bread from the local bakery,” her father said, his face solemn and expressionless. “She was wounded when snipers started shooting randomly in our direction.”
The doctor, who asked not to be named for his own safety, said three civilians had died in his grubby four-bed “hospital” on Saturday. He and his six non-medical volunteers had treated 10 more for their wounds in the makeshift facility.
“I’m a surgeon and my profession is to deal with blood daily, but in this place, I wept from what I saw,” he said.
The doctor said many of his patients had serious shrapnel wounds in the head, chest or stomach. “Many children are being injured because of their homes falling on their heads.”
He said he received more than 15 casualties a day, all civilians. “Some will die, others are badly injured.”
Out in the streets in and around Salaheddine, a southern gateway to Aleppo, fighting intensified.
Fighters at one intersection on Saif al-Dawla Street took turns to fire assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup vehicle.
A huge truck drove up carrying broken concrete blocks and rubble to create barriers against army tanks.
Yasir Osman, commander of the Abu Bakr al-Sedeeq Brigade, said his fighters had seized weapons and ammunition overnight after overrunning a petrol station in Salaheddine being used as an army base and killing its commander.
But he acknowledged the army was also inflicting losses. Three of his men were killed and seven wounded on Sunday.