'For the first time in this city, I feel like all of us are equal'


While some residents welcome the rebels, others seem wary of the ragtag fighters who have seized parts of the city, writes ERIKA SOLOMONin Aleppo

THERE ARE no coloured lights, no crowds of shoppers thronging the markets for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in rebel-held Aleppo. Rubbish lines the roadsides, and a few worried faces make their way past quickly.

While some Aleppo residents welcome the arrival of the rebels, others seem wary of the ragtag fighters who have seized parts of this ancient city, which for months stood on the sidelines of the 16-month revolt against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad that has shaken most of the country.

The revolt finally came to Aleppo last month, with rebel fighters from the countryside pouring in with ambitions to “liberate” Syria’s economic centre and its 2.5 million inhabitants. The army has hammered back in some areas with helicopter gunships, artillery and mortars.

In some of the slums on the outskirts of the city, men in traditional white robes cluster on the doorsteps of each other’s squat, cinderblock homes. They debate the situation as they while away the final hours before they can break the daily Ramadan fast for the evening.

Some are excited to be under opposition control, but admit that freedom has been less comfortable than they hoped.

“I would say 99.9 per cent of the people aren’t fasting. How can you fast when you hear mortars and artillery hitting the areas nearby and wonder if you will be next?” says Jumaa (45), a construction worker with deep wrinkles etched into his leathery skin. “We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer. It’s a sad Ramadan.”

Despite that, Jumaa is excited to see rebels on the streets of Syria’s second city. “My spirits are high. Seeing them from my doorstep makes me feel the regime is finally falling.”

Crouched on the next stoop, his neighbour sees it differently. “All we have now is chaos,” Amr grumbles.

Some of the men object angrily. “But they are fighting to free us from oppression,” one says.

Amr shakes his head. “I’m still oppressed, stuck between two sides making me choose. I just want to live my life.”

When crowds of children rush to greet Free Syrian Army rebels driving past on flatbed trucks, others grab their mothers’ hand tightly and stare at the ground.

Rebel fighters, most of whom have come into the city from the countryside, are bewildered by the mixed reception.

“I think many Aleppans want to be rid of the regime but they want us villagers to do it for them, lose our relatives and jobs. They want this without suffering themselves,” says a fighter named Mustafa, who came from a nearby village to fight in Aleppo.

At the market, in a neighbourhood on the city outskirts, most shops are shuttered, and those open have little more than canned and boxed goods. Each day, vans and taxis crammed with families, pillows and blankets head out of town.

Down one alley, a family put all of their belongings – clothes, beds, closets – into a moving truck. “We’re going to the country,” says the father. But he refuses to say why. “We just felt like it.”

Closer to the city centre, in the stone alleyways heading towards wealthier areas, there are plenty of fresh vegetables, meat and nuts on offer. But few shoppers are tempted to buy. Some warily eye fighters manning machine guns and checking people’s identification on nearby streets.

The rebels seem to have their hands full trying to run the parts of the city they control. Gunmen now patrol traffic, smiling at taxi drivers who wave and joke with them: “How do you like playing government?”

Mounds of rubbish are piled up, some so high rebels make them into roadblocks.

Whenever rebels idle their trucks on the street, residents come up asking for help to get petrol for their cars. Many beg the fighters to open more bakeries so the breadlines move faster, and spare people an exhausting hours-long wait in the hot sun.

But some people who are queuing nod approvingly. “They don’t let anyone cut in, no one is better than anyone else now. The bakers aren’t allowed to hike prices on us,” says Umm Khaled, her face wrapped in a conservative black veil. “For the first time in this city, I feel like all of us are equal.”

Down the street, a crowd of men gather to watch rebels inspecting a burned-out police station they stormed last week.

Papers, stray shoes and police caps litter the charred building. One man shakes his head as he watches the scene. “We don’t even know these fighters, they don’t talk to us much. But people here just accept whoever has power,” one man whispers. “I’m not with anyone, I am with the side of truth. Right now, that is only God.”