Civilians caught in middle of Aleppo maelstrom

Fighter walks through neighborhood of Aleppo captured by regime forces

ALEPPO - Najah and her 80-year-old husband Mohammed can barely believe the fighting is over in their district of Aleppo, where they spent years on one of the city's most dangerous front lines.
Their home in Syria's ruined second city, where pro-government forces have now retaken most neighbourhoods held by rebels since 2012, sits on a thoroughfare that became known as "the street of death".
"We were caught between the two sides, but we survived," says 65-year-old Najah as she finishes up the housework in their modest first-floor flat.
Bisecting Midan, in government-held west Aleppo, and the Bustan al-Basha neighbourhood insurgents had controlled since mid-2012, their street witnessed some of the fiercest battles of Syria's internecine five-year civil war.
Their quarter was finally retaken by regime forces as part of a Russia-backed offensive, launched last month, to regain Aleppo, but the elderly couple still flinch at the memory of shelling, air raids and hunger they endured for years.
"We were on the front line, shots were being fired from here and here," Najah says, gesturing to either side of the street.
Surrounding their apartment block, which miraculously sustained only minor damage over the years, is a scene of pure devastation. Most buildings have collapsed, pavements are covered in rubble and metal debris clutters the streets.
Walls are black with soot and satellite dishes pockmarked with bullet holes.
Najah recalls how she would go to bed every night obsessing over whether the shelving unit above would collapse on her head.
"Each day, a shell would land and the doors would shake. We waited for death," she says. "We couldn't move and no one came to give us any news."
- 'Had to eat weeds' -
Najah and Mohammed lived a relatively normal life in Syria's former economic powerhouse before the violence roiling other regions following popular protests in 2011 then struck the city in 2012.
"Suddenly, we were caught in the middle," says Mohammed, a taxi driver wearing several layers to shield him from the December chill.
Mohammed's family was split by the violence: his sons' house where his six grandchildren lived ended up behind rebel lines.
Nevertheless, he spent his life savings on furniture for the flat, never contemplating leaving his home even in the midst of war.
"We can't just stay in order to protect our things," says Najah, her hair covered in a white veil with black polka dots. "We had hope that things would not be like this for ever."
But worse than the violence and the fear of instant death was the crushing hunger Najah and Mohammed suffered each day.
Like residents of east Aleppo, who lived under government siege for months, the couple were unable to get food because of the fighting.
"We went out very rarely. We ate what I had saved in the house until that ran out," she says. "We had to eat the weeds we had planted."
A pinch of salt, she says, at least gave the near-calorie-free plants a little taste.
It was not just food that was in short supply.
Mohammed recounts how he dried out and shaped bits of twig before wrapping it in a cigarette paper to finally enjoy "a smoke".
Evenings were spent in sombre contemplation of loved ones scattered elsewhere in the shattered city.
When their son was wounded and had to move his family to another neighbourhood in the wake of another advance, they were left with no way of knowing his fate.
"As night fell, all we did was remember the times when the family was all together," Najah says.