BEIRUT: The 28-year-old Syrian attorney turned down a scholarship to study economics in Germany in order to remain in his native Aleppo after rebels took it over in 2012, promising a new administration and life free of the rule of President Bashar Assad.
Four years later, besieged in the ruins of Syria's largest city and once its commercial heart, Mohammed Khandakani's dream is in serious jeopardy after Syrian troops, aided by Russian air power, closed the lifeline of the rebel-held area after weeks of fighting.
The siege and neglect from international and regional powers who claim to support the rebels collided to deprive him of "brief feelings of independence and freedom," Khandakani said in a telephone interview from inside Aleppo. A resident of the Maadi neighborhood, close to the city's old quarter, he now fears for his two children, wife, mother and other relatives.
Khandakani, who volunteers with the city's medical council and documents casualties of war, is among tens of thousands of Syrians trapped in the rebel-controlled part of Aleppo, struggling to survive the crippling encirclement of their once-thriving city. Bread and medicine are being rationed, and as fuel runs out, many are relying on bicycles to run errands past skeletons of buildings and rubble that litter the city's narrow alleys and streets.
For those who remain amid the government siege that began July 17, the battle for Aleppo is a pivotal point in the Syrian civil war.
"I have seen death in all its forms. I have seen people suffocate. People burn or people under the rubble for 12 hours," Khandakani told The Associated Press. "I would die but not live in exile or live under the regime's hands again."
Aleppo, with thousands of years of written history, has always held symbolic and political significance in the nation's civil war. The city emerged as a key battleground after rebels opposed to Assad seized parts of it in the summer of 2012. Since then, relentless fighting has laid waste to entire neighborhoods, carving the city into rebel- and regime-held zones, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing tens of thousands more to flee.
Six years into the nation's civil war, government forces aided by massive Russian air power are on the ascendancy again and have completely encircled the rebel fighters in Aleppo. Holed up in the city's eastern neighborhoods, where they had hoped to set up an alternative opposition capital, the militants are making their last stand.
One rebel fighter described a recent visit to the city.
"It was like walking into Hiroshima. It is beyond destruction and far worse than what you see on TV," Cpt. Abdul-Salam Abdul-Razzek, a spokesman for the Nour el-Din Zinki rebel group, said in a telephone interview
Deserted and bullet-riddled buildings and sand mounds serve as dividers between the city's government-held sectors in the west and south, and rebel-held eastern and northern neighborhoods. Aleppo's ancient quarter, a world heritage site as one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, is divided between rebel and government control in a complicated labyrinth of alleys and streets.
In the eastern part of town, the only remaining female gynecologist is running out of asthma medication for her aging mother and can barely keep up with the skyrocketing food prices since government forces encircled the sector where she lives.
Fuel is running out and may force the doctor, who gave only her first name, Farida, to protect family members who live under government control, to shutter her medical practice.
Yet she has no plans to leave. "If you empty the city, consider the revolution over," the 37-year-old said.
Farida has been separated from her parents, who live in the government-held zone, for most of the past four years, even though they live just a few streets a part — easy walking-distance before the war. Now they manage to see each other only occasionally, after taking a long and dangerous route cutting through rebel-held territory.
Her mother, who came to visit a month ago, has been unable to return home since the 2 1/2-week-old siege began but considers the government offer to open humanitarian corridors to be more threatening than reassuring.
"I would say a quarter of the people I know want to leave, but many won't be able to because they are either related to rebels or are disabled," Farida said.
In the lower-income eastern part of Aleppo where she lives, there were limited protests against Assad in 2011. When rebels from the northern rural areas pushed their way into her neighborhood in 2012, Farida chose to stay with her then newborn daughter and her husband, one of the area's few remaining eye doctors.
A new rhythm was established after the initial celebrations: Roads allowed in goods and fuel and access was possible to other rebel-held territory, neighboring Turkey and even government-controlled areas by using back roads and long detours.
Aleppo became the most cherished prize of the rebels and their supporters, who set out to administer their new area. But airstrikes and unguided barrel bombs lobbed from government helicopters soon made death and destruction a new reality.
Farida lives near one of the front lines, where approaching can be at a lethal price because of sniper fire.
With the sector besieged by government forces, bread is being rationed; there is no stored wheat because of fear of bombardment. Vegetables from nearby farms are scarce. No eggs are available, and people have been largely surviving on rice and cracked wheat.
The family has not been able to find chicken, and prices for what is available have skyrocketed: A kilo (2.2 pounds) of red meat now costs about 5,000 liras ($10), up from 3,000 liras ($6) before the siege — already a crippling price for families whose monthly earnings can be as low as 10,000 liras ($20).
A new generation is growing up with malnutrition and vitamin deficiency, Farida said, adding that it's the food shortage, not the warplanes that are most scary. "No one runs from strikes or the sounds of aircraft anymore," she said.
Wissam Zarqa, a 34-year old English teacher, returned to Aleppo last year from Saudi Arabia where he went after the 2011 outbreak of protests to evade mandatory military service. He now teaches English as part of a condensed curriculum to help students catch up after schools closed. His wife, an engineer, also stayed to help rebuild Aleppo.
"Those who stayed behind in Aleppo are many. Those who stay willingly act differently and are ready to defend their existence to the last breath," Zarqa said.
On Sunday, when a rebel counteroffensive began, residents burned tires, hoping the smoke would obscure the government forces' view and prevent deadly airstrikes.
Khandakani marched with the protesters urging them on. Anything, he said, "is easier than surrendering, even if we are besieged for two years."
Although supplies of medication are dwindling — only 600 ampules of a drug used to stop post-natal hemorrhages remain — Farida's biggest fear is losing her four midwives. "If they leave we will really have a problem. I find myself praying they don't," she said.
Still, she is determined to maintain her spirit.
"The siege is just starting. If we all pass on negative energy to one another, we will not be able to survive," she said.