ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - At the side of the road sat a woman in her late 20s, veiled, dressed in black, and weeping as she cradled her baby.
“My son was born after three months of siege. There were no hospitals, no diapers, no milk,” she said. “My milk is dry from fear and panic.”
After the Syrian army fought rebels in Aleppo’s Old City, hungry and terrified civilians have emerged from their cellars into a wasteland of ruins.
The rubble and shrapnel on the streets around Bab al-Hadeed district on Friday revealed the ferocity of the battle this week that gave Syria’s army control of the historic area, bringing it close to its biggest victory after nearly six years of war.
Fighting continues in Aleppo, where rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad have lost most of the territory they have held in the city for years.
The booms from air strikes, smell of gunpowder and sight of rising smoke from nearby districts testified to the ongoing violence on Friday as the army and allied militias press their assault.
The commander of a volunteer group in the Tiger Force, the Syrian army’s best-known unit, said his troops had suffered heavy losses in the narrow lanes around Bab al-Hadeed, one of the Old City’s historic gates near the towering Aleppo Citadel.
“The militants had sophisticated weapons, especially sniper rifles, and they were professionals,” said the commander who gave his name only as Ismail. “Their resistance was very fierce. We had a lot of martyrs.”
“We approached them from several directions,” he added, standing in front of a cracked building with burn marks. “They were attacking us, killing us, and then running away ... this area took us two days to liberate completely.”
Rebels had held this part of the Old City for four years and it bore widespread evidence of their presence, as well as of the prolonged siege and the ferocious battle before it fell.
Behind buildings in one street, wood from traditional ornate windows clogged an alleyway. Political slogans and the names of armed opposition groups were scrawled on the side of a bakery.
A graffiti warning said: “beware snipers” and gave instructions on dodging bombardment. “We will not fall. Down with Assad,” was another slogan.
Inside a former furniture shop lay materials for producing shells: household gas cylinders loaded with explosives and fired by rebels from guns known as “hell cannons” that caused many civilian casualties in government-held parts of the city.
The rebel-held area of Aleppo was entirely besieged since the summer and pounded by government and Russian air strikes, shelling and barrels of explosives dropped from helicopters.
In one neighbourhood, the minaret of a mosque had been shelled, while its dome had suffered great damage. In the streets around, some shop fronts had been walled in with concrete blocks after their metal shutters had been smashed. Outside a school textbook outlet, discarded tomes lay strewn on the ground.
At one point, a group of soldiers marched past, escorting two recently captured rebel fighters.
For civilians, the sudden eruption of pitched battle in the area had come as a terrifying conclusion to years of deprivation and bombardment.
Dozens of displaced civilians, including children, had gathered in the road with their belongings after fleeing the Saliheen district, where fierce battles continued.
Maher Tashtash, aged nine, said the bombardment had been frightening and that rebels had told them they faced death if caught by the army. His brother Mohammed, 12, said they had hidden in the basement of the building until the fighting passed.
Both the rebels and the government side have accused each other of manipulating Aleppo residents’ fears for their own advantage by warning of atrocities.
Even the dead were not spared the carnage. In the Dar al-Islam cemetery near Ibn Sina street in al-Hamdaniya, graves were destroyed. People were instead burying corpses in open public ground.
Ismail, the Tiger Force commander, said he was confident of a swift victory for Assad’s forces.
“I think the operation needs a week at most to be concluded,” he said.
Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Peter Graff