His assault rifle propped beside him and a pistol in a shoulder holster, the rebel commander races his car through war-ravaged Aleppo districts like he owns them.
At street corners and roundabouts, he brakes hard as fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) call out his name, reach their hands across the passenger seat, and squeeze themselves across to kiss Abu Haidar’s bristly cheeks.
Rebels claim to “control” more than half of Aleppo in their fight to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But that is a misleading term that does little to explain the spectacle of Aleppo’s human suffering.
“Bashar al-Assad doesn’t have an army, only snipers, artillery, and airplanes,” says Abu Haidar.
Yet with these tools of war, Assad has defined lives of misery for those who remain in this contested city.
IN PICTURES: Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
Weeping has become a fact of life in Aleppo. So has the constant sound of explosions, which reverberate deeply through the psyche of Syria’s second city, an economic hub, control of which is critical to the final direction of this 20-month uprising against Assad’s rule.
Trash piles ever higher on every street, as quickly as the nationwide death toll, which the UN estimates to be 20,000; activists number more than 35,000 dead. Yet in this crucible of a population under extreme stress, life goes on: vegetables are bought and sold, coffee is boiled and served slow, kebabs are roasted over coals, children play games in narrow alleys. While dodging snipers, citizens also walk and shop, take taxis, and pray that the water, the electricity, the phones won’t be cut to their neighborhoods. And there can be dark humor – something that Iraqis perfected in the past decade – that helps people here cope.
Every day, the vast majority of Aleppo’s 2.5 million citizens who remain live to see the next sunrise. How do they do it?