ALEPPO, Syria – The rumble of engines in the sky immediately set the Aleppo neighborhood below on edge. Men peeked from shops anxiously at the Syrian warplane circling slowly overhead. Housewives emerged on balconies to gauge whether they were about to be hit. But the kids hanging out on the street were unfazed. One kept dribbling his basketball.
Finally, the jet struck. Engines revving louder, it dove and unleashed a burst of heavy machine-gunfire into a nearby part of the city. It soared back up under a hail of rebel anti-aircraft fire, then swooped back down for a second strafing run.
The women on the balconies broke into tears, fearing for the children in the street. But the boys just pointed at the jet, shouting "God is great" in challenge. "God send you to hell, Bashar," one boy yelled as the jet flew away.
With death lurking around every corner, the survival instincts of Aleppo's population are being stretched to the limit every day as the battle between Syria's rebels and the regime of President Bashar Assad for the country's largest city stretches through its fourth destructive month. Residents in the rebel-held neighborhoods suffering the war's brunt tell tales of lives filled with fear over the war in their streets, along with an ingenuity and resilience in trying to keep their shattered families going.
And while residents of the rebel-held areas express their hatred of Assad's regime and their dream of seeing him go, they also voice their worries over the rebels and the destruction that their offensive has brought to their city. Graffiti on the shutter of a closed store declares the population's sense of resignation: "God, you are all we've got."
Since the rebels launched their assault in July to drive government forces from Aleppo, the two sides have fought to a stalemate. Each holds about half the city of 3 million people and neither is able to deal the other a decisive blow. While government-held areas have seen some fighting from occasional rebel forays, the opposition districts are hit daily by artillery, mortars, sniper fire and airstrikes. Hundreds of civilians have been randomly killed by shells or mortars while waiting in bread lines, shopping for food or in their homes.
Rebels drive the dusty streets at breakneck speed, ferrying the wounded to a field hospital. Thoroughfares packed with cars one moment abruptly empty out — a sign that up ahead a sniper is active.
Men methodically scavenge in the city's heaps of garbage, many of which smolder from unsuccessful attempts to completely burn them. Entire city blocks are eerily deserted, the mounds of debris from the apartment buildings a testimony to bombardments that drove residents to flee. Grim-faced families piling up belongings onto a pickup truck or a taxi to ferry them to a new home and a new life away from danger are a common sight.
Signs around the city advertise basements for rent, where many families crowd for relative safety.
Bab el-Sheaar Square, located near one of the city's many front lines, shows the destruction to the once vibrant life that distinguished Aleppo, Syria's capital of commerce.
Oblivious to the rattle of machine-gun fire and the whistle of mortar rounds landing only 100 or 200 meters away, a 12-year-old boy bicycled across the square, heading home from a visit to his cousins just as the shelling picked up. "I am not afraid," the boy, Younis, declared. "I only fear God."
Another boy, 14-year-old Ahmed, pushed his cart selling sahlab, a hot, milky drink with nuts. With few people in the square, he wasn't finding many customers.
"I want to live, that's it," he said. "I have younger siblings and they need to eat too." He and other residents refused to give their last names or asked that names not be used for fear of retaliation from the regime.
The owner of a household goods store near the square was looking to salvage his business.
"I am renting a new store in an area under government control," he declared as he cleaned his shelves of blenders, juice makers and water boilers that an employee loaded onto a car. "No one likes to see this destruction, but no one wants the regime to stay either."
Corrugated-iron store shutters litter the square, blasted off in the fighting. Electrical cables dangle from damaged buildings. Air conditioners hang off their hinges, waiting to take a fatal plunge to the street below. Bullet-riddled shop signs paint a picture of what was once available: "Al-Zein frozen goods. All types of Arabic ice cream" and "Al-Moayed's cheeses and milk. Natural flavors, perfect quality and nutritional value."
A poster torn to the ground advertises South Korean mobile phones that come in pink and sky blue, proclaiming, "Add a spark to your life. Your first love."
Standing in the relative safety beneath the large overpass running through the square, a group of men discussed the war's impact on their city, from the frequent and lengthy power and water cuts to the steep rise in the price of basic goods like bread, fuel and sugar.
As the men denounced Assad's regime, 46-year-old agricultural engineer Abdul-Jalil, listened quietly. Then he followed an AP reporter into a side street.
"If you have time, I want to tell you my version of what is going on," he said in a conspiratorial tone.
"I don't support the regime, but I am crying rivers of blood for my country," he began. He described what he called the unruliness of the rebels. The fighters damage people's homes by knocking down walls to make passages they can move through without exposing themselves to snipers. They steal electrical cables and furniture.
He said rebels had forced him from his home to use as a base — and that they had done the same to others. He now lives elsewhere with his in-laws.
One of his sons is an army soldier based in Damascus, and Ali had to spend a small fortune by the family's standards — 3,500 liras, or about $50 at black market rates — to fly him home to Aleppo to see his family, he said. Coming by road would have risked being abducted or worse at rebel checkpoints.
"I have not had a single day of work since July," he lamented. His family lives off the debts he collects from farmers he supplied with irrigation pipes on credit.
"What we have now is destruction and theft. Maybe, it is divine punishment for not observing the teachings of our faith," said Abdul-Jalil, a Muslim.
Amid the carnage, there are refreshing signs of cheer.
In his salon, barber Bashar Khatab chatted happily with his customers and joked as he negotiated the price with a mother who brought her two small boys for a haircut. "You come now and you wait a few minutes for your turn," he joked to one client. "Before all this started, your wait could be two hours."
When the man in his chair asked for his hair to be washed, Khatab led him to an outside sink used by the neighboring grocer because the water was out in his salon.
"You will never forget this haircut," he told the man with a laugh. "Where else in the world can you get a haircut and then have your hair washed in a grocer's sink?"
With his ginger red hair fashionably spiked up and wearing trendy jeans and a T-shirt, the 35-year-old father of three daughters even claimed to find the thud of artillery shells and the crackle of gunfire soothing.
"They help me go to sleep at night. Even my girls now are not bothered. They used to be scared. Not anymore."
Others find comfort in unusual places. Ali, a father of two boys aged 4 and 18 months, draws his happiness from his birds.
The 33-year-old Ali has moved with his family to a basement after an airstrike in July partially damaged his small apartment. He can no longer commute to the factory where he worked because of the fighting. So he is on the sidewalk near Bab el-Shearr trying to sell his 14 canaries.
Passers-by ridicule him for trying to sell birds when most of them are struggling to make ends meet. But Ali, in a tracksuit and plastic flip-flops, is not discouraged. Birds have been a hobby since childhood and he seems as happy talking about them as selling them. He boasts his canaries give passing children something pleasant to look at and he answers their questions about the birds' original habitat, mating habits and food preferences.
"They ask me hundred questions and then they leave without buying, of course," he says without a hint of bitterness. "It's like a free lecture on birds."
"That bird in a cage by himself is a promising male," he explains enthusiastically. "He is alone to eat a lot and grow stronger. When he is ready, I will introduce a female to his cage so they can marry and start a family."
His last sale was a week ago.
So, how does he survive? Ali balks at saying the truth directly — that he lives off the charity of relatives and friends.
"Do you want me to beg on the streets? Let us just say that kind people don't forget me or my family," he said, sighing as his eyes welled up.