ALEPPO, Syria — Once a neighborhood of more than 200,000, Saladin is now populated by just a few thousand rebel fighters and a handful of old men too stubborn to leave.
After more than 10 days of continuous fighting, the center of Aleppo’s most restive neighborhood is a pockmarked empty triangle, flanked by a battered school that, until last night, served as both a rebel base and a makeshift hospital.
The war for Aleppo, Syria’s most populated city, began in Saladin. Free Syrian Army fighters slipped into the neighborhood early in the morning on July 19, the first day of Ramadan.
Armed groups from the Aleppo countryside slept in Saladin's mosques, supported by hundreds of men thirsting to take up guns against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Two weeks later the main road of Saladin, called 10th Street, is the frontline of what is being billed as the key battle for Syria's future.
“This street is between the Syrian Army and the Free Army,” said Maj. Wasil Auub, a defected pilot and member of the Aleppo military council. “We have to fight them on this street. We can’t say we will be here for two or three days. It may be weeks or months, we don’t know.”
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The flag of the Syrian government flies over an army bunker in neighboring Hamdania, which the regime still controls. Tanks speed down the main road between the two neighborhoods.
Free Syrian Army leaders say they are determined to hold this line. Small groups of men from Azaz, Coptan, Anadan — some of the hardest shelled towns of the Aleppo countryside — have claimed their own shattered buildings as outposts.
“We were civilians two weeks ago. Some weapons came from the countryside piece by piece, others we stole from the Assad army,” said a local fighter and former imam who goes by the moniker Abu Abdu.
Abdu sat in the school-turned-rebel base waiting for the fight and remembering another time.
“I went to this school in 1987,” he said, looking around at the life science models in dusty cabinets. A single bulb seemed to provide the only light in the entire facility.
He said he thought about 10 people have been killed a day since the fighting started in Saladin two weeks ago. They are mostly civilians, he said. But the Free Syrian Army always says that. It's impossible to verify.
On Monday, the Syrian army shelled the area surrounding the school. Big flames shot up from the impact and burning metal smashed through windowpanes. One mortar followed another. Rebels speculated that regime forces were targeting the men trying to evacuate the wounded.
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Inside the school, teenaged rebels carried the unconscious body of one of their friends through the darkened hallway. Medical volunteers hurried over, holding flashlights. A second teen lost consciousness, while the first seemed to cough back to life.
It was a day of explosions. MIG fighter jets soared low enough to rattle windows. The jets would swoop high over the city and dive back down to bomb Saladin again and again.
“No, they are not dropping bombs,” Abu Sayed, a Free Syrian Army volunteer, who is from Saladin, said in disbelief.
But in fact the jets had dropped bombs, on a street of shops and homes, probably targeting a mosque where another Free Syrian Army battalion was staying.
The damage was catastrophic. An entire street block full of twisted metal, concrete and glass. A man walked two small children over a large pile of debris the next morning, while a small bulldozer pushed a path through the rubble. An elderly man stepped out into a second floor room that was now a balcony. A broken pipe shot water in the air like a sprinkler.
“You want a haircut?” a tattooed barber asked sarcastically. “Very nice, my shop now.”
Last night, the school itself was hit. Rebels say it has since been abandoned. But they have managed to still hold 10th Street, the frontline.
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The biggest weapons the Free Syrian Army here seems to possess are two small mortar launchers. They are angled almost vertically so the shells fall just to the other side of the street.
The rebels in Saladin are made up of about five different battalions loosely knit under the banner of the Towhid Brigade. Collectively they claim to have so far destroyed more than eight tanks and killed 150 Syrian soldiers.
The burnt carcass of one tank sits just off the main road. It’s harder to know, however, if the rebel snipers crouched behind sand bags have really sniped that many soldiers.
There’s so many ways to be killed or maimed on this street that ranks need to be replenished almost every night.
“I’m a destroyed man,” Abu Sayed, 31, said. Regime security forces killed his 17-year-old brother during an April protest in Salahaddin. Abu Sayed himself spent months in detention.
He was shot through his thigh during the first days of fighting in Salahadin, and now hustles across the dangerous intersections with a limp. He is fasting for Ramadan.
When he was released from prison Abu Sayed joined a rebel battalion in Anadan, a hotspot of armed rebellion less than 5 kilometers outside of Aleppo. He wasn’t in Saladin when his brother was shot in the heart.
Now Abu Sayed stays alone in his family’s apartment on a ghostly block filled with trash and the occasional pile of rubble. There are no lights. But when he walks down the darkened street the fighters recognize him for his limp.
To understand the scope of the fighting in Aleppo, you have to go to the schools, the university and the parks in the city's center. They are flooded with refugees.
“Today we have 1,300 people in this building,” said a Red Crescent coordinator surrounded by stacks of canned goods at the entrance to a school dorm. Children tumbled over each other in the hallways. The small rooms are now filled with whole families.
Outside in the main park, Abu Daud said he and 35 members of his extended family had first fled the fighting in Damascus for Aleppo.
“We have been here 10 days, the people feed us,” he said.
On 10th Street, the line is static. “We have burned our ships,” Abu Abdu said. He means they will not be leaving.