ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - Only in the late afternoon, when the shelling had died down, did they venture onto the rubble-strewn streets.
More than a week of fighting has turned much of Aleppo into a dusty ghost city, with shops shuttered, streets empty of traffic and local people mostly gone.
But in the eerie lull after the big guns fell silent for a while in Syria’s commercial hub, some of the braver, or more desperate, families slowly came back into the city to collect what was left of their trashed belongings.
A couple with their three children each carrying cages of canaries ran along a street after rescuing their pets. Another family carried an assortment of clothes in suitcases on their backs, heading out of the city while they could.
On al-Sharqeya street, residents and shopkeepers stood in awe of the damage as they searched through what was left of the buildings where they lived.
Huge piles of shattered concrete lay in the street, evidence of the destructive power of a helicopter gunship firing heavy machineguns.
“I saw death before my eyes,” said Abu Ahmed, a local man who had decided it was time to abandon his home.
“I was hiding in the alleyway of my building when I heard the whiz of the artillery. Look at my street now.”
The helicopter seemed to have been targeting a school in the street used as a base by a brigade of rebel fighters. It missed the school and hit residential buildings instead.
“This dog Assad and his men are so blind they can’t even target a brigade properly. But I am optimistic - he will see his demise very soon,” said Abu Ahmed, waving a plastic bag with his belongings inside.
Troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have pounded southwestern districts of Aleppo for the past week to try to crush rebels who have brought a 17-month-old uprising to Syria’s biggest city. So far, neither side seems to be winning.
Further into the city is one of Aleppo’s front lines, 15th Street, where at least 20 fighters were taking turns to shoot rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles at Assad’s soldiers when they spotted them in the gaps between buildings.
The rebels took cover behind huge mounds of dirt, rubble and broken concrete.
The buildings around them carry haunting reminders of the people who used to live there. Dusty clothes on a balcony laundry line swing in the wind. A pet shop displays dried-up aquariums and empty bird cages.
The fighters are commanded by a man called Sheikh Tawfiq, who smiles a lot and wears a red chequered head scarf. He has a long wiry beard which he perfumes with musk after his prayers.
He is popular with his men, who kiss him on the cheek as they report for duty on the front line.
Tawfiq was a shepherd until August, when he sold his 100 sheep and used the money to buy weapons and recruit a brigade of men.
They started fighting near the Turkish border, advancing through Aleppo’s rural hinterland to reach the city and the front line they now occupy.
“We have been oppressed, prevented from thinking freely or living with dignity,” Tawfiq told Reuters.
His soldiers are a varied bunch. One sits in a corner taking a break reading the Koran, another jokes to his friend that he seriously needs a joint of hash.
Most are civilians, many of them teachers or students, but all seem comfortable with the weapons they have acquired.
“I was fired from my job as a teacher eight months ago because someone snitched that I was an opposition supporter,” said one man, who refused to give his name for safety reasons.
“I got sick of teaching children things that I didn’t believe in - about the Baath party, grammar rules using only the names Bashar or Maher in the examples,” he said, referring to Syria’s ruling party and Assad’s brother Maher, a military commander. “We need our freedom.”
One of Tawfiq’s men is a Syrian army soldier who deserted five months ago. Ahmed al-Helow, 26 and a Sunni Muslim, said he had been afraid to defect earlier because he was sure that his family would be punished by the authorities.
“The army wouldn’t even give me a holiday because they knew that any Sunni who takes a holiday would directly defect and join the Free Syrian Army,” Helow told Reuters. But in the end he took advantage of a long holiday weekend and deserted.
The army hierarchy is dominated by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, and the loyalty of the Sunni rank and file cannot always be relied on. Many have deserted as the conflict has worn on.
All too soon, the afternoon lull was interrupted. A military helicopter could be heard circling over the city and shooting sporadically towards downtown Aleppo.