This Aleppo neighborhood divides government and rebel forces, and the only things the two sides exchange are hostages and dead bodies.
ALEPPO — A 50-foot sheet of gray canvas divides the neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's troops and rebel forces. A soldier standing behind sand bags at the crossroad gestures to us to come forward. Just a few hours before our arrival, a rebel had opened fire, killing a 15-year-old girl.
Bustan al-Qasr is on the frontline of the battle for the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The regime controls the region to the west of the neighborhood where 1.5 million people live. To the east of the canvas sheet, rebels control an area that has 250,000 civilians. This region, which has faced intense Russian bombings over the past month, has grown quiet since Tuesday, as rebels and their families prepared to evacuate the area.
The military intelligence has sent one Lt. Col. Tayssir to supervise these departures from Bustan al-Qasr. I ask him whether he thinks the evacuation will actually take place. "Inshallah," Tayssir replies, which means "God willing."
"It depends on the big guys," he says in reference to his Russian allies and rebel forces with links to Saudi Arabia. By Friday evening, the evacuations had still not yet taken place, according the French news agency AFP.
In Bustan al-Qasr, the only things the two sides exchange are hostages and dead bodies. There are still people living on the regime-controlled side, as reflected by the clothes drying on balconies. On the rebel side, which holds the Citadel of Aleppo, the few humanitarian volunteers who have been able to enter the area share stories of a lifeless scenery dotted with snipers hidden in what's left of local homes.
"The snipers' emir was supposed to allow us to enter and, as we returned at nightfall, we could see their green lasers on the walls," says one aid worker. He says that the first checkpoint he crossed was controlled by masked men of the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham.
"We entered a huge garage. Then they made us go in a car before we were inspected again, this time by jihadists from Fatah al-Sham," he says, referring to the group formerly known as al-Nusra Front.
"They are the strongest group in eastern Aleppo, we clearly saw that during our three visits," says the aid worker. It is these fighters that the Russians would like to evacuate in order to separate them from other rebels — a difficult goal.
Civilians in eastern Aleppo are paying the heaviest price for Russian airstrikes. More than 350 people have been killed over the past month. In Bustan al-Qasr, regime loyalists accuse groups who are against Assad of ordering foreign fighters to shoot civilians trying to flee rebel-controlled areas.
According to the United Nations, half of the civilians in eastern Aleppo would like to leave the area. "Foreign jihadists will have no qualms in shooting Syrians," says Tayssir.
Is Tayssir's statement true? It's one of the many unknowns in this war in Aleppo where the Syrian army, backed by the Russia air force, is making progress.
The neighborhood of Shihan, which lies in northwest Aleppo, was one of the last areas recaptured by Assad's troops three months ago. The regime's red and black flag flutters above what's left of some stone columns. In the middle of destroyed buildings lies the road to Castello, a rebel supply route to Turkey that was retaken by Assad's forces in July.
Oum Mohamed and her six children live in the rubble of a former military hospital in Shihan. "I left eastern Aleppo a year ago. I lived under tents and I've been living here for a month now," she says, a black veil on her face. "I hope I can return home one day."
Barely a kilometer away, in western Aleppo, life goes on as usual. Shops and cafés are open for business. In the old Jewish quarter of Jamiliyeh, crowds walk past well-stocked stores and houses embellished by mashrabiya motifs.
"I've been able to sleep for two nights in a row," says Ahmed, a student. "We didn't hear any shelling in eastern Aleppo and the rebels aren't shooting at us with mortars anymore."
But, he adds "in the east as in the west, we still have electricity for only an hour a day," he says.