ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - Abdelrahman left school at 17 to join the Syrian rebels in Aleppo. His parents never heard he had reached the city until they got the call to pick up his body.
By evening, his father was in the city, standing on a hillside crammed with white tombstones and fresh graves. Abdelrahman’s comrades used their bare hands to seal his final resting place, their clothes stained with mud and the boy’s blood.
After 17 months of revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rules, rebel fighters have finally advanced into Syria’s largest city.
But fighting in the historic northern stronghold grinds on in a seemingly endless loop of army shelling and rebel ambushes. Each side claims victory, but neither seems to gain much ground.
Only the number of dead and wounded marches steadily on.
“He was shot once in the head and once in the chest. I had no idea he had already left. I only heard because they called to tell me he was martyred,” said Abdelrahman’s father, a tall man with a grey beard and a yellow robe. He shakes his head slowly, still unable to believe what has happened.
“He was half way through tenth grade but he emptied his whole life to devote it to the revolution.”
The hands of a dozen fighters and local residents reach out to comfort the father, Abdelqader, who only gave his first name.
“He was the first to go in the fight,” shouts one. “The martyr is the beloved of God,” the mourners chant, waving the green, white and black independence flag of the Syrian rebels. “God, we have no-one but you.”
In the distance, the watchtower of a government army post is silhouetted by the setting sun. It is within easy range of the tiny hillside funeral, but not a shot is fired. The soldiers may be wary of rebel forces in the area, but no one knows for sure.
With the battle for Aleppo raging and no clear winner in sight, both sides seem keen to avoid showing their dead. Most are quickly sent home to their families, denying journalists the chance to film their funerals.
But the pain-racked wounded at the opposition’s tiny hospital in Aleppo are testament enough to the sufferings of a population at war with itself.
Of the five young men being treated by an exhausted team of medics, four are from Assad’s forces.
“We will be better than the regime, and we will treat all the wounded,” said a doctor sympathetic to the opposition who came to help. He is too frightened to give more than his first name, Ahmed, and covers his face with his green surgical mask. “This our duty,” he said.
Rebel soldiers escorting their captives stand by quietly, watching with pride and curiosity.
“We found them abandoned by their regime when we stormed a police station. See, we do right by them,” said one rebel fighter
A young government soldier called Hamid gasps in pain as medics stitch a large gash in his hip. Rebels pepper him with questions, asking why he never joined their cause.
“I have something to say. It is to Assad’s army: You are traitors,” Hamid said. “They locked us up if they thought we would try to flee. All my friends have already deserted but I never managed it.”
Two more soldiers are moaning on an operating bed, their backsides being stitched up by nurses.
Ahmed, the doctor, turns to another Assad soldier. His leg is ripped open, and blood trickles down from the table and oozes out of the tiny operating room.
“I have had at least 45 people come through here today, and I’ve lost four rebels,” Ahmed said.
In the next hospital bed, a rebel fighter shakes his head angrily as he rubs the fresh bandages wrapped around his foot, shredded by machinegun fire in an afternoon battle.
“If the regime catches us we are tortured and killed. And we are using our medicine to ease their pain? I don’t think this is right. But maybe we took the nobler path,” he said.
Not all are so merciful. Rebels at the hospital eagerly play each other a video of a pro-Assad militiaman they captured in the fighting.
“They shot him and slit his throat. And I don’t feel bad. He was a torturer and a criminal,” said one fighter.
Outside the hospital, young men in a truck are waving flags and cheering for the teenager, Abdelrahman, one of at least 15 fighters killed on Tuesday.
But at the graveyard, his father quietly reaches out for one of his other sons, whose eyes are stained with tears. They stare blankly at the ground.
“I have three sons — well, two,” the father mumbles. “I don’t know what happened. He was just a student. He was only seventeen.”
Editing by Giles Elgood