BEIRUT – Residents in the rebel-held districts of Aleppo now have a reprieve from the incessant bombings by Syrian government warplanes. They have a promise of an end to the crippling siege that has left produce stalls bare.
For nearly a week under the cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia, families have been able to leave their homes and visit each other. Children play on swing-sets in the streets. Hospitals have gone to a normal routine of treating the sick and helping pregnant mothers, rather than struggling with those wounded by war.
Still, war-hardened residents of Aleppo's eastern districts — one of the last large urban centers defying President Bashar Assad — are skeptical the cease-fire will hold.
Many of them say the truce, which began last Monday, is a trap aimed at forcing them and rebel fighters to surrender. Some urge rebel fighters to rest and regroup, then resume fighting that they say is the only way to freedom.
Once Syria's largest city, Aleppo has been a horrific battleground since 2012, divided between government and rebel-held areas. Over the summer, the 250,000 people living in the opposition districts endured more than 40 days under complete blockade after government forces captured all roads out of the area.
Rebel reinforcements broke a hole in the blockade in August. But in heavy bombardment over the following weeks, more than 700 civilians were killed. Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes retook the roads and clamped the siege back on. Then the truce came into effect, sealing both sides' positions in place.
Here are voices from inside Aleppo, from residents and activists. Since access is impossible for journalists, all interviews were conducted through social media.
THE RESCUE WORKER
Ibrahim Alhaj doesn't have to wake up to the sound of barrel bombs that jolted him out of bed almost every day.
The 26-year-old was always one of the first on the scene whenever the crude but devastating bombs hit. He is a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of volunteer first responders also known as the White Helmets. He films rescue efforts and documents any "double-tap" attacks — a common government tactic of striking a target again shortly after the first hit to cause more casualties.
Alhaj, father of a 9-month-old child, carries his life in the palm of his hand, as the Arabic saying goes.
So he cherishes the few extra hours of sleep.
"In the last few days, we rested for a large part. We hope it lasts," said Alhaj, speaking in a Skype interview. "On the sixth anniversary of the revolution, we are tired."
The cease-fire coincided with the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated with big family meals, new clothes and gifts.
Celebrations were muted. Alhaj dropped any hope of finding meat, but roaming the markets, he didn't even find fruits or vegetables. Only canned goods. Produce and meat get in only when the roads to the countryside are open.
Also, there's no fuel. So family visits are limited to relatives within walking distance. But at least Alhaj could take his wife and little boy out of the house after so long cooped up indoors.
On Friday, Alhaj returned to work — administrative work.
His group is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But he sees its role as bigger: In the future, civil defense will be needed to help rebuild — after Assad's fall, he hopes.
"We will be honored to build the new Syria and get rid of this sectarian regime," he said.
Dr. Farida, the only female gynecologist in eastern Aleppo, now has the small luxury of working in a hospital that is not packed with war wounded and without the fear of being shelled as she operates.
On a single day this week, she delivered a baby and had two back-to-back emergency operations, including one to save an unborn baby. Then she returned home in the afternoon in time to receive guests for the holiday, took her daughter out to play in the park, and — she noted happily — she had a coffee outdoors in the park.
But she has little faith in this cease-fire.
"If they don't open a corridor to come and go and let out humanitarian cases, what good is it?" she said. She spoke on condition she be identified only by her first name to protect family members who live in government-controlled areas.
So far, U.N. relief supplies have been unable to enter, waiting for the various sides to work out a corridor into rebel-held areas.
During the brief breach of the siege in August, the hospital secured a number of missing medicines against hemorrhages and other pregnancy emergencies. She worries this new stock will run out in less than a month.
What makes Farida more skeptical is that the truce allows for continued airstrikes against the Fatah al-Sham Front, the affiliate of al-Qaida in Syria formerly known as the Nusra Front.
It is one of the most powerful Syrian rebel factions and has been crucial on Aleppo's front lines defending opposition areas. Rebels say that if they break ranks with Fatah al-Sham or stand idly by while airstrikes hit the group, that will allow Assad's forces to retake the city. For Farida and other residents, the plan to keep striking it simply aims to crush the resistance against Assad in the city and will spell the end of the cease-fire.
"Fatah al-Sham is the faction that defended us most," she said. "If it weren't for them, Aleppo would have been handed in long ago."
On the fourth day of the cease-fire, Wissam Zarqa started a new term teaching English and creative writing to adults.
It's part of a parallel education system that has sprung up in rebel-held areas, where volunteer teachers like the 34-year-old Zarqa hold classes using their own curricula.
With the quiet of the truce, Zarqa said he and his colleagues decided to start their third term of adult courses at the Institute of Language Studies, a private academy, a little earlier than planned. On Friday, he was in the classroom getting things ready, arranging chairs. There's no electricity, so they'll rely on LED batteries. In the past weeks of fighting and flight out of the city, the number of students has dropped from 20 to around 10. Still, classes are going strong.
Zarqa said the truce is doomed to fail because rebels don't accept that one faction will still be hit. He and other activists want the rebels to keep fighting. On Thursday, he joined a demonstration against letting in aid.
"We don't want aid to come through. We want (rebels) to fight to break the siege," he said. "We need this uprising to go on. The worst thing that can happen is to have a half-finished uprising."
Why spend the time teaching English?
"Even fighting should have someone who can understand the situation around. ... In (an) uprising you build and fight, if you have to."
Mohammed Zein Khandakani, a 28-year old attorney, says the relief of a truce is incredible, given the months of horror.
"It is an unexplainable feeling to wake up and sleep to the sound and smell of bloodshed," he said. "Those killed are friends, families, innocent people who want to live only in peace, dignity and safety."
His greatest joy of the past week has been to take his two children and his widowed sister's children to the amusement park after four months locked inside.
He is also preparing for the start of classes at the medical center where he works as a volunteer, which aims to act as a teaching hospital for Assad-free districts. It was bombed three times, once with a blast that damaged even a floor two levels below ground.
The cease-fire has opened his dreams of a turning point after nearly six years of war in which "many have lost their minds." Families have been torn apart. His own father is in Germany, his mother and brother in Turkey, one sister in government-controlled areas, and the widowed sister with him in Aleppo, where her husband was killed in fighting.
"Imagine if it lasts," he said of the truce. "Imagine if the door opens, and the prison is no more."
But his hopes are clouded by worries. The truce's terms are murky. The haggling over the humanitarian convoys offends him.
"Are we locked-up animals that need food and drinks?" he said. Aleppo's people want to be free to come and go, not be penned in and dependent on convoys.
And ultimately, Aleppans won't accept surrender, he said.
"We don't want to leave our city and in the meantime, we don't want the return of Assad's rule to our city."