BEIRUT – As government troops close in on Aleppo, some residents are preparing to flee Syria's largest city while others are hoarding food in case of a long siege, even laying out bread on rooftops to dry it out for storage.
The U.N. warned Tuesday that hundreds of thousands of people could be cut off from humanitarian aid as siege conditions tighten around the rebel-controlled eastern part of the city.
The threat of starvation haunts Aleppo's residents, who have seen images of emaciated children and adults from other blockaded parts of Syria. An estimated 1 million people are trapped in besieged areas, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Siege Watch project.
"There is a lot of fear, especially after people saw Madaya," said opposition media activist Karam Almasri, referring to a besieged town in southern Syria.
"They don't want the same to happen to them," added Almasri, who lives in Aleppo's war-ravaged neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr. He and others spoke to The Associated Press via Skype or social media.
Aleppo looms large in Syria's 5-year-old conflict, both as the country's former commercial capital and a bastion of the opposition in the north. The city has been divided since 2012, with the government controlling the western portion, while the eastern part is held by insurgents. Many neighborhoods and historic buildings have been ruined by street fighting and aerial bombardment.
A government offensive in the countryside north of Aleppo has cut a vital opposition supply route from the Turkish border, leaving just one corridor from the east to the outside world. That route is squeezed between two government fronts to a border crossing farther west and is exposed to heavy bombardment by the Russian air force. Those airstrikes are helping Syrian forces, supported by Iranian, Lebanese, and Iraqi militias, to advance.
The only other routes to the north are blocked by militants from the Islamic State group and, to a lesser degree, by Kurdish forces.
Aid operations also have been disrupted.
"We've been able to access Aleppo through the western route, but it's become very risky," said Dalia Al-Awqati, programs director for Mercy Corps in northern Syria. The international relief organization provides food assistance to 66,000 people in eastern Aleppo.
The prewar population of the provincial capital exceeded 2.1 million, but there are no accurate statistics about how many people still live there. The U.N. estimates only 300,000 remain in the eastern part, warning that they could be cut off from aid if Syrian government and allied forces encircle the city and leave no way out.
"We are talking about very vulnerable families that have lived through years of conflict. The possibility of a siege is starting to wear very much on them," al-Awqati said.
Aleppo already is facing bread shortages because the price of diesel fuel has doubled in the past two weeks as supplies from Turkey have dwindled.
"Some bakeries have stopped production because diesel is too expensive," said Almasri, noting that the price of bread cannot be raised except by an order of local councils, which have not adjusted them yet to the soaring cost of fuel.
"Life here is tied to diesel," he said.
Many people who can leave are preparing to do so, said Bahaa Halaby, another opposition media activist. "We call them the smart ones. ... They are packing their bags so that they don't get struck by the planes."
But tens of thousands are likely to remain, some because they have no means to find somewhere safe to go, and others because they choose to stay.
Tens of thousands of people who already have left are stuck out in the cold at the border with Turkey, which so far has only allowed a few thousand to enter.
"We are choosing one death over another," said Halaby, who plans to stay around Aleppo. "Let us die in our land and in our homes (rather) than in the cold at the border."
Those still in eastern Aleppo are starting to hoard food and other supplies.
Halaby said he has seen people laying bread on their rooftops to dry it for storage.
"I don't know how we'll eat it. We haven't tried it yet," Halaby told the AP. "But if you eat it with lentils, it will fill you up. It won't leave you content, but it will fill you up."
Almasri, who said he had stored up about 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds) of goods already, also will stay in Aleppo for now, but he added that he didn't know about the future.
"I did not leave when things were even tougher. I think the siege will be easier than the barrel bombs," he said. The deadly bombs, usually dropped by helicopters, cannot be precisely targeted, and a report last year by the Physicians for Human Rights said the bombardment had demolished much of eastern Aleppo, including most of the hospitals.
At the moment, there are several factions of insurgents in those neighborhoods, ranging from Islamic battalions linked with the pro-Western Free Syrian Army, to al-Qaida's Syria affiliate, the Nusra Front.
Activists worry that if the factions don't coordinate their defense under one leadership, government forces could choke off the enclave within two weeks to a month.
The loss of Aleppo would be a devastating blow for the opposition.
"Aleppo is the supplies warehouse for all north Syria, for revolutionaries from Hama to the Turkish border," Almasri said. "After Homs fell to the government, Aleppo is the most important opposition city."
Still, he remained hopeful the opposition could hold out against the government.
"We haven't reached the end of the story yet. Some areas go, others are captured. We are used to this," he said.