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Syrian opposition fighters carry an injured comrade on a stretcher during clashes with government forces in the Hanano district of the northern city of Aleppo on April 17, 2014. / Baraa Al-Halabi, AFP/Getty Images

ALEPPO, Syria - Standing amid dust and rubble, Abu Ahmad remembers better times in Hanano, a neighborhood in east Aleppo.

"I still miss the old men there, sitting on the streets, inviting strangers to have tea with them," said the 28-year-old former computer programmer. "Sometimes I would be late for class because of them - it was impolite to refuse the invitation to talk."

Once home to about 215,000 people in Syria's largest city, Hanano now lies in ruins after more than six months of relentless bombing.

For years, middle-class Syrians aspired to live in the neighborhood, purchasing homes in developments under construction after the husbands finished their mandatory military service.

Now, in the fourth year of the Syrian civil war, government planes have dropped thousands of barrel bombs - improvised explosives filled with shrapnel such as rebar and lead pipes - on Hanano at a rate of as many as 20 per day. It's not clear how many in the neighborhood have died, but fighting in Aleppo has often been some of the most intense in a conflict that's claimed more than 150,000 lives.

The battle for Aleppo has raged since mid-2012, when opposition forces gained control of half the ancient city. It has remained divided between the government-held west and the rebel-held east, with a dangerous front line snaking in between the two. Fighting has been most intense recently in the eastern suburbs, where fighters are vying for control of a road that leads to the rebel's stronghold.

In the western part of the city, markets bustle, and voters took to the polls earlier this week to cast ballots in the presidential election, but in Hanano and other eastern neighborhoods, no one voted in the race won by incumbent President Bashar Assad in a landslide, according to Syrian government officials.

Here, housing blocks stand deserted. The streets look as though a tornado rolled through town. Few, if any, buildings are unscathed. Debris falls from crumbling concrete edifices. Broken awnings and shutters hang at angles. The remains of people's lives litter the streets - a hairbrush, a doll's head, torn curtains.

"Everybody is dead or left," said Abo Mustafa, a local resident who had been making payments on a house destroyed by an airstrike.

There's a rhythm to the sounds of the bombings: the buzz of the jets and helicopters overhead, the loud booming noise when the bomb lands, then the sirens as first responders - the Aleppo civil defense force, a group funded with foreign humanitarian aid - rush to the scene to pull the dead and injured from the rubble.

The bombings usually occur between 6 and 10 a.m., when daylight makes targeting easier but most residents are still in their homes.

In a small pocket of Hanano, about 500 people remain. Muhammad Ahmad, 22, spends his days drinking tea in the area with his friends.

"The situation is very bad here," he said. "All the time shelling, all the time bombing, all the time strikes by the regime. Everything is destroyed."

Last summer, before the Syrian government launched its barrel-bombing campaign in earnest, Hanano was still thriving. The neighborhood bustled with residents shopping, including women and children. In an NGO office that acted as a makeshift Internet café, young men updated their Facebook pages with war photographs.

Away from the front lines in war-torn Aleppo, the neighborhood was one of the last to attract the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a radical group that swept to power across northern Syria last year, enforcing a harsh form of Islamic rule. Recently, moderate rebels have pushed ISIS forces out of the city and into the east of the country.

The departure of the terrorists has improved life in the city, at least marginally. In the meantime, those left behind are on the edge of hope.

"All the students have left the area after the regime started bombing," said Abu Hassan, 27, a former teacher. "Some have gone to Turkey. Some have gone to the areas controlled by the regime. Now I just sit. I don't work, I don't do anything."

Hassan and others in Hanano could flee to Turkey or Jordan. They could also seek refuge in zones controlled by Syrian government troops, where barrel bombs don't fall.

But Muhammad said he will remain. As he watched an old man ride a motorbike slowly up a road in the neighborhood - the sound of the engine echoing through the cavernous stillness of the empty street - he said becoming a refugee wasn't an option.

"My family, they left to the regime area, but I can't go," he said, explaining that government troops would detain him in the safe zones because he'd either be suspected as an ex-rebel or drafted into government forces. "In Turkey, I don't understand the language, and they don't understand mine. Where would I go?"



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Months of bombings leave Syria's Aleppo in ruins

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