Aleppo siege: 'We are crying and afraid'

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Media captionThe children of eastern Aleppo have never known a life without war

A biting winter's chill seeps through embattled Aleppo as a city braces itself for what could be the worst months of a war approaching its sixth year.

Driving into government-controlled west Aleppo, through military checkpoints, a landscape of skeletal buildings is a monument to Syria's spiral into violence.

The fate of Syria's second city now looms as a bellwether for the course of this confrontation - ominous for some, enticing for others.

"By the end of December, we'll drink wine to celebrate a new year, and our triumph," says a young soldier standing by a green bus plastered with photographs of a smiling President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian forces, bolstered by Iranian-backed militias and Russian air cover, are advancing with speed across a swathe of rebel-held territory in eastern Aleppo.

Many predict it is only a matter of time now before the whole city is in the government's grip.

An array of opposition forces, including groups linked to al-Qaeda and Western-backed fighters, are retreating to more densely-populated areas in south-east Aleppo, regrouping and vowing to fight back.

The story of Syria's war is one of shifting momentum on the battlefield and of prolonged painful sieges. But there's an air of an endgame or, at the very least, a decisive moment - not just for Aleppo but the entire war.

The boom and crack of shelling on what remains of the rebel stronghold reverberates across the entire city.

Across the skies, there's a rumble of warplanes. Each day also brings news of mortar rounds fired back into the west.

But the bustling heart of Aleppo's government-controlled expanse can seem strangely normal on its surface, even surreal. The story of Aleppo is also a tale of two cities trapped by war, both suffering, but in different ways.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Smoke in east Aleppo is seen from the relative calm of the west

In the west, traffic is brisk. Children skip and laugh as they spill through school gates into the rutted streets.

In a popular restaurant, loud music wafts from a glittering room filled with women and girls in their finest dresses of sparkles and lace to celebrate the feast of Saint Barbara in the eastern Orthodox Christian calendar.

"I think this celebration is even more important than it was last year or the years before the war," says Nora, 27, who has been left breathless from her dancing.

"In reality, we are not laughing," she says, brushing back ringlets of hair perfectly coiled for the occasion. "We are crying and we are afraid."

"But this party gives us a chance to remember we are human beings."

The ominous thud of the war outside is muffled by the hubbub within these walls.

No-one escapes the agony of Aleppo's war. But on rubble-strewn streets in the rebel-held east of the city, the future is now cast in apocalyptic terms.

"Death is a favour from God to us in comparison with going back to the regime," says an English teacher, Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, who broadcast his plea to the world on social media.

"Put yourself in my situation. Someone killed your children, killed your neighbours, killed your friends, destroyed your schools, houses and hospitals. And after that, you can go back to him?"

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images

But after years of war, and months of a government siege pushing people to the brink of starvation, tens of thousands are now trying to escape what the UN calls a "slow-motion descent into hell".

In their search for safety, many are fleeing to the west, where government buses transport them to a derelict industrial zone to process their cases.

Abandoned warehouses which were once the focus of heavy fighting now act as a way station for the displaced and dispossessed.

"It's paradise compared to where we had been living," says one elderly woman dressed in black who would speak only in confidence about their journey into the night.

Five families escaped together, she says - they defied opposition fighters who warned they would be killed by the Syrian army if they crossed over.

Like many others, she recounted how they came under rebel fire as they tried to escape.

'We only have each other'

As she speaks, a young woman in tears, cradling her infant child, approaches us.

"My 18-year-old husband was taken away by Syrian forces for questioning," she says. "I don't know where he is."

All that is left in her life are the clothes she wears and the baby she carries in a blanket.

"All my family and my husband's family are dead. We only have each other."

This is the human face of Syria's punishing war nearly six years on - a people trapped between warring sides in the worst of the fighting, and its worst humanitarian crisis.

The fear in Aleppo now is, as fighting intensifies, it will get even worse.