Gunmen from both sides are picking off enemies--and civilians in Syria's ravaged second city
By Hala Jaber
NOBODY knows what errand the child was running when he was shot in the back by a sniper in an Aleppo street last week.
The boy must have realised that he was taking a terrible risk as he darted through alleyways in the district of Salaheddin during a battle between the rebels who had stormed it and the soldiers fighting to regain control. The child, aged about 12, ventured to within 500 yards of the front line, speeding up every time he reached an opening where he felt exposed.
In the end, a single bullet hit him in the lower right side of his back, between the spine and the ribs. It was lucky for the boy that four men saw him drop to the ground, blood gushing from his wound. They rushed him to a makeshift clinic in a basement. It was a temporary replacement for a more sophisticated facility in a nearby school that had been destroyed the day before by a bomb from a Syrian warplane.
A photographer, Niklas Meltio, watched as a doctor searched in vain for an exit wound and concluded that the bullet must still be lodged in the boy's body. "He was terrified, screaming, writhing in pain and gasping for breath," Meltio said.
The doctor applied a simple bandage and called for a car. There was no time to ask about the boy's personal details or look for his family before he was tossed into the vehicle and taken elsewhere for treatment.
Everyone in the basement said it was a soldier from the army of President Bashar al-Assad who fired the shot. The regime's snipers had gunned down other civilians in those alleys, they said, while those of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) were shooting in the opposite direction.
The boy was one of a growing number of victims in a war of snipers that intensified as the army thrust forward into Salaheddin and other rebel-held districts.
The army used snipers to show the rebels and their supporters that nowhere on the streets was safe. For the rebels, sniping was a way to spread fear among the soldiers and pick off the occasional victim. One soldier described how he and his comrade were approached by a man offering information about rebel positions.
The man offered to stand in front of a building round the corner with rebels inside and ring the soldier's mobile once he was in position.
When the phone rang, the soldier's comrade peered round the corner and was shot dead by an FSA sniper.
Outraged and determined to have his revenge, the soldier redialled the informant. He explained what had happened and asked the man to return to his position and identify the sniper's location. The informant agreed, apparently thinking the second soldier could be killed in the same way.
But when he rang, the soldier stuck his head round the corner, fired instantly and killed the informant. He then came under fire from the FSA sniper but was only lightly wounded.
The regime has been trying for two weeks to stop the rebels taking Aleppo, Syria's largest city, with a population of 2.5m, in a battle seen by both sides as decisive.
It was in the rebel stronghold of Salaheddin last week that the army made its breakthrough.
It bombarded the district from the ground and the air, attacking supply lines until the rebels were cut off from their stocks of ammunition.
Then tanks moved in to push back the remaining rebels, leaving the snipers to hunt one another down. The soldiers slowly defused booby traps, including some left by the rebels beneath dead bodies.
According to the army, the rebels burnt the corpses of foreign fighters and removed documents that would identify them, but 14 Turkish and six Saudi passports were recovered, along with numerous ID cards from Libya.
The army used the same tactics as it consolidated control over Aleppo's 13th century citadel, which is said to have been damaged by shelling.
Last night, the army appeared to be encircling rebels in another district, Sukari. It planned to focus this week on recapturing areas such as Hanano in the east of the city.
Some rebels were believed to have returned to towns and villages in the north of the country in anticipation of a renewed military onslaught once Aleppo's fate is decided.
With no police to be seen, parts of the city were virtually lawless this weekend, with a spate of killings and kidnappings that seemed unrelated to the conflict.
Affluent families moved from neighbourhoods left pitch-black at night by power cuts into hotels with 24-hour generators where women with Gucci watches and fancy leather handbags convened for coffee and men drank beer and played backgammon.
They were horrified by a reported rebel attempt this weekend to free inmates from the central prison so that they could join the fighting.
"You have the thugs, the thieves, the rapists and the murderers locked in there — can you imagine if they were let out?" one man said.
Many people just wanted to get on with their lives. A young Sunni man, who gave his name as Anis, said the conflict had made it harder for him to marry his Alawite fiancée Aya, whose conservative family opposes the relationship.
"Before the revolution, we used to sit and worry about how to solve this problem and plan to marry even if we had to run away together," he said. "Now the problem has been compounded."
When trouble loomed in Aleppo, he drove Aya to the airport, fearing that Sunni opponents of the Alawitedominated regime might kill her if they were found together. She can no longer visit from her home town of Latakia.
Some opponents of Assad's government believe that the military campaign to oust him heralds years of instability.
One, a dentist who can be named only as Marcelle, said when the uprising began 17 months ago, she travelled all over the country to take part in protests against the regime. Now she believes that the FSA, which was set up to protect the protesters, is too willing to use weapons and too susceptible to outside influences.
"We have to say no to the Islamists who do not represent the majority of the street and we have to say no to the FSA, which is turning into a replica of the security forces they are fighting," she said. "They came to Aleppo and achieved nothing but destruction."