I am traveling with the Free Syrian Army on the front line of the al-Arqub neighborhood in Aleppo. Sniper rounds crack as the bullets zip over our heads. The acidic taste of gunpowder scares my throat and burns my waterless tear ducts. Just a half mile from the gutted and destroyed Dar al-Shifa hospital, we are traveling in an area known by the locals as Stalingrad. The reference plays on the macabre similarities between the Nazi's relentless bombardment of the Russian city during the Second World War, and the unforgiving attacks this part of Aleppo has seen during Syria's uprising. One group of fighters here is so conservative they refuse us the luxury of smoking a cigarette while escaping death on the hollowed streets.
The only signs of life come from atop a bleeding tree scarred and bent by bullets and shrapnel. This bleeding tree offers me a moment of solace, because the pathetic little spruce has refused to die. In defiance of war and the death that follows, this ugly thing sprung two new leaves—green specks of life on the naked branches that defy man's destruction. This sight offers me a faint memory of what the allure of life was before this inhuman war.
Among the rubble on these dangerous streets I see women's clothing, men's dress shoes, and children's toys peering from beneath the debris. A picture of a proud man still hangs on a nail snugged into a wall on the top floor of a half-collapsed 11-story building. A Sunni mosque is also damaged. Even a donation box used by the mosque's members to help those suffering from A.I.D.S. has been looted.
While we walk the streets, rebel soldiers carry their homemade rockets to the front. These rockets are so dangerous that no one dares to stay in the same building or street when they are launched.
As the war continues, the fighters seem to keep getting younger. To some in the West, that may sound like a war crime. But Aleppo is different: The young and old alike feel that the world has forgotten them, and as each day passes the targets on their backs get bigger and bigger. The children are targets simply for living in rebel-held areas and being part of Syria’s largest and repressed Sunni population. In Aleppo, it is better to die fighting than by the hands of Assad's supporters.
For more of Robert's reportage on Syria, see his article, "The Man Who Was There," in our new issue.