Rebel forces control most of Aleppo, Syria's largest city
There is still sporadic fighting there
Some residents have returned, others have only retrieved their belongings
Food is in short supply and, as a result, prices have skyrocketed
Editor’s Note: CNN’s Arwa Damon and crew are some of the few international reporters in Syria, which has been restricting access of foreign journalists and refusing many of them entry. Read more from CNN inside Syria.
In a small village outside of Aleppo where we are hunkered down for the night, our host apologizes profusely. He doesn’t have enough blankets for us and it’s bitterly cold.
He and his family were forced to flee their home in the city to their unfurnished, humble residence in the countryside with nothing but the clothes they could carry. He spent 25,000 Syrian pounds – around $300 – to pay a truck driver just to bring out the bedroom furniture and a TV from their Aleppo home.
He couldn’t afford another run.
We went to stay with his brother, who was also full of apologies because he couldn’t offer us tea. The power was out and there was no cooking gas.
In the dark, we chatted about the situation in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. There, airstrikes have transformed buildings into heaps of rubble, and most of the city is now under rebel control. Many Aleppo residents fled when the fighting began, finding themselves crowded into relatives’ homes or in refugee camps as winter set in.
The bitter cold and financial hardships brought them back. Others, like this family, returned only to retrieve some belongings and then quickly left again.
In Aleppo, the battle lines are fluid and, in some neighborhoods, snipers are a constant danger. Where the fighting has subsided, there are other threats.
“The incredible cost of living is causing a lot of problems,” our host’s brother told us. “Criminality has gone up significantly. Each day we are catching thieves, even young boys. People are hungry and cold.”
The cost of a canister of cooking gas in this village jumped from 450 pounds to 3,500 – from about $5 to $45 – and that’s when it’s available.
“If the situation doesn’t improve soon, people are going to start tearing each other apart,” he laments.
Skyrocketing food prices and shortages mean some Syrian children are eating only one small meal a day, if that. Residents in one Aleppo neighborhood have taken matters into their own hands, collecting money to buy food for the neediest – but it’s never enough.
Children elbow and shove each other, the smaller ones trying to wiggle through for a ladleful of cracked wheat cooked in a huge vat in the middle of the street by the neighborhood volunteers.
Amid the chaos, little hands try desperately to grab small bags of hummus passing overhead. A block away, residents clamor for bread.
Fatme waited in line for three hours. She had fled Aleppo with her family, and returned a month ago when they thought it might be safe. They were wrong. Her husband was wounded by shrapnel in an explosion shortly afterward.
“Of course I am afraid,” Fatme said. “But what can I do? Are my children not going to eat?”
Across the city, what were once staples are now luxuries.
A child carries away two bowls with the burnt remains of the cracked wheat. It’s all too much for one of the volunteers, Abu Abdo.
“Until when are we going to live like this?” he cries. “Look, people are eating burnt food!”
Everywhere in Aleppo, there is evidence that the fighting has taken a heavy toll on the most vulnerable.
Close to the bombed-out Dar el-Shifa hospital – once the city’s main field clinic, now a pile of debris – families pick their way through rubble. Some stop and peer up at what is left, expressions of shock and deep sorrow etched across their faces.
Few are able to comprehend what has become their reality.
Hamza, 14, gathers with other children near a massive crater filled with grimy water from a burst water main, exploded in a blast a few days before. His parents sent him to fill a container with water after an airstrike cut off their supply.
He speaks softly, his arm in a sling.
“I was wounded in a strike in the village we fled to,” he says simply.
Gunfire rings out on the streets of Sakhour, an Aleppo neighborhood that regime forces hope to retake so they can cut off a main artery for opposition forces and reopen a route to Aleppo’s airport. Amid the street fighting, a group of women invite me into a house, venting their frustrations and anger.
“We know freedom has a price, but how long can we keep on living like this?” one woman asks.
Another tells of how her roof caved in from an explosion.
“Each time I hear one, I look up and expect to die.”
She and her family moved around three times before they ran out of money.
“At least if there was work, anything, it would be a little easier,” she says.
For many children here, gunfire has become background noise. Khawle, 12, sits on the sidewalk, cradling a neighbor’s infant daughter. She doesn’t move or stop talking as the gunfire intensifies, simply hugging the baby and rocking back and forth.
Others flinch at the sound of each pop and blast of weapons.
Every time Saleh Hadidi leaves his house, his 4-year-old daugher clutches his leg and begs him not to go.
Metal rods protrude from his bandaged arm, a bullet wound he sustained at a government checkpoint that he says was meant for his daughter.
“She was sitting in the front (of the car) when the gunfire started and I put my arm around her,” he recalled. “She was drenched in my blood, and the soldiers were screaming, accusing me of being a rebel fighter. They held a gun to my head three, four times and she was screaming, ‘Daddy!’”
The girl flinches and clasps her hands, looking away as her father recounts that day.
As we leave a woman whispers to me, “Sometimes I want to die rather than live like this.”
Journalist Ammar Cheikhomar contributed to this report.