Syria crisis: Life in battleground town of al-Safira
- 19 February 2013
- From the section Middle East
As violence spreads deeper into Syria, the BBC's Ian Pannell reports from the northern town of al-Safira, turned into a battleground between rebels and government troops.
"If you stay here, you should expect that you could be killed at any time".
It is a terrifyingly simple calculation that millions of Syrians like Abdulrahman al-Harkoosh have been forced to make over the last two years.
He used to be an English teacher in al-Safira (or al-Safir), a small town in the Aleppo countryside.
Today the school is closed, the children have left town and he patrols the shell-shocked streets with a rifle slung over his shoulder.
A little over 100,000 people normally live here but the population swelled by another 70,000 last year as families displaced by the fighting in Homs and Hama were taken in by friends and family.
Then the war came to al-Safira.
In a pattern familiar across Syria, rebel fighters advanced into the town, the government responded with massive indiscriminate bombardment and those who could get out, did.
"Every day homes are shelled and houses destroyed," says Abdulrahman, "thousands have been injured, hundreds killed."
He points to where the government's military perch threateningly on a nearby hill: "They can come to the city and kill its people anytime."
Entire homes have been flattened in al-Safira. The exterior walls of buildings have been ripped off and the ground is littered with the burnt remains of daily life.
Every few minutes, the thunderous roar of more shells being launched breaches an uneasy silence in the town.
The road out of al-Safira is stained with the hallmarks of war: the burnt shells of tanks, shards of shrapnel and gaping holes where rockets have landed.
Two weeks ago, the army sent a column of troops and tanks along the desert road that leads to Aleppo to try and relieve beleaguered troops there.
They were met and halted by hardcore Islamist fighters, self-styled mujahideen or holy warriors.
The black flag of the jihadis, inscribed with the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith) is planted in a roundabout on the front line. It marks territory but also declares very publicly which groups lead the battle here.
Foreign fighters from Libya, Iraq and Saudi Arabia together with Syrian Islamists, work their way around houses and gardens, crawling through holes punched into walls to take potshots at the stalled army column.
They have a reputation for being tough, disciplined and brave. With little external help, many Syrians are simply glad of their support and mounting success.
In the last few weeks, rebel fighters, invariably with Islamist battalions like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in the lead, have made key gains in the north.
Towns and cities have fallen; military bases and airfields have been taken, together with their precious munitions.
There are growing fears that the jihadis want to turn Syria into a hard-line Islamic state or caliphate, a vision far removed from the early idealism of a revolution built on a call for freedom and democracy.
There may be another reason to worry about what is happening here.
Only a few kilometres from al-Safira is a vast military complex, home to Syria's defence industries.
It is believed by some analysts to store part of the government's suspected chemical weapons stock, although there is no proof of this.
Even so, it is now in the rebels' sights and that will be enough to send shivers through capitals from Damascus to Washington.
It is two years since the battle between the Syrian government and many of its own people began. Too much has been lost to think of winners and losers but the rebellion is certainly advancing and it is becoming more brutal and radicalised.
Civilians pay the highest price for the ambitions of the government and those it fights.
It is a battle for Syria's future that leaves homes in ruins and lives destroyed, and it makes refugees of the very people both sides claim to represent.
There are renewed efforts outside Syria to find a diplomatic solution to this war. But inside the country, the death and destruction is relentless and hope that it will or even can end soon has passed.
Men like Abdulrahman are resigned to a long, bloody and lonely fight: "Nobody in the whole world is able or really wants to help the Syrian people."