Middle East

Syria: Fear and hunger amid battle for Aleppo

Mohammed Khalaf in Aleppo

The old man hobbled past a burnt-out tank and slowly crossed the deserted road, calling for help. He was dressed in a full-length galabeya gown, his face worn by many Syrian summers and his head swaddled in a red and white checkered scarf.

"My family have gone and I need somewhere safe to stay," he said.

At 90 years old, Mohammed Khalaf deserves better. He has lived through many wars and more than one revolution.

Today he sits alone in his house in one of Aleppo's poor sprawling suburbs, terrified by the gunfire and artillery shells exploding nearby.

His family has fled the city. He claims that they left him behind but - old, afraid and confused - his mind is perhaps not as clear as it once was.

He says he remembers the struggle against the French occupation but adds: "They didn't shoot at us during [the Muslim holy month of] Ramadan.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Ian Pannell and cameraman Darren Conway were trapped by fighting in Aleppo. Their report contains graphic images of the victims of the Syria conflict

"Things that are happening now never happened during the fight for independence."

As he left to see if the bakery was open, the terrifying sound of heavy gunfire erupted nearby.

He tried to run for cover, his weathered body no match for his survival instincts and the best that he could manage was an awkward shuffle.

The battle for Aleppo was raging all around. The situation on the ground has completely changed from just a few days ago. The fighting has intensified and the government has deployed thousands of troops and tanks to try to recapture the neighbourhoods it ceded a week earlier.

The commander of the Tawhid Brigade, one of the largest groups of rebel fighters in Aleppo, called us in for a meeting.

Abdul Saleh is a businessman turned rebel leader. He says his brigade has thousands of fighters who control more than 40% of the city's neighbourhoods. It is a claim that is impossible to verify.

He wanted to talk to the tiny group of foreign journalists who had entered the city and he began with a warning that everyone should have their bags packed and their cars ready to leave at any time.

He said the nearest tanks were now just 2km away. With one eye fixed on an escape route I asked: "In which direction?"

In a rare moment of candour about the threat his men face, he replied: "In every direction."

'We die or win'

Despite the threat that grows by the day it was an honest assessments from the armed opposition who often inflate their strength and numbers, masking vulnerability with confidence and tough talk.

"We decided and we promised that we would fight," he said. "We will die or we will win."

But the odds they face are daunting. A conventional armed force with tanks, mortars, artillery, helicopter-gunships and fighter jets is now lined up against rebel fighters armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

However, the terrain of these heavily populated areas works to their advantage.

Many of the fighters are battle hardened in a way that the government's soldiers are not. The rebels are also making their own improvised explosive devices and Molotov cocktails and are perhaps more willing to make the ultimate sacrifice than an army of conscripts and career soldiers.

Image caption The hole-in-the-wall bakery is the only source of food for some residents

Not far from their base the hole-in-the-wall bakery that Mohammed had been seeking had just reopened its doors after being closed for more than a day. Most food shops in the turbulent districts are now closed.

Rebel fighters tried to marshal the crowds as hundreds of hungry and increasingly desperate residents clamoured for the thin round loaves.

Suriya had finally reached the front of the queue and the middle-aged mother thrust her hand through the railings outside the bakery, grasping for the bread. Like many poor Syrians she has a large family to feed and with no fresh fruit or vegetables available this is her only chance to get food.

"A lot of poor people are suffering from a lack of food and water," she complained. "Many are going to bed hungry."

Their suffering does not seem likely to end soon. Food, water and power shortages have made life hard for residents. The ever-present danger from bombs and bullets is making it intolerable.

Thousands of families have already fled the city. Men, women and children are being killed every day, innocent victims of a battle they did not choose and that no-one seems able to stop.

This is just the start of the battle for Aleppo and it is impossible to predict the outcome.

But it will shape the destiny of President Bashar al-Assad, the revolution he faces and the Syrian nation. And it will leave countless numbers of its citizens bleeding and dying.