Civilians dodge bullets just to get bread at Syria’s ‘death crossing’

Afraid of sniper fire, women run near the Garage al-Hajz checkpoint -- the only crossing point in the divided city of Aleppo. Every day people in the war-torn city risk the dangerous journey across the front line to get vital supplies of food and other goods, such as soap and toothpaste. Farouk al-Halabi

ALEPPO, Syria – The daily struggle for food has become a deadly game of cat and mouse for civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo, as they are being forced to dodge sniper bullets to buy bare necessities.

Dubbed the “death crossing” by locals, the front line between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who are estimated to control just over half of the city, and the rebels seeking his overthrow, has become a no man's land for civilians trying to get to the city's market.

People walk past a makeshift barricade at the Garage al-Hajz crossing, a passageway separating the rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qaser district from the regime-controlled Al-Masharqa neighborhood, in Aleppo on July 18, 2013. Muzaffar Salman / Reuters

Every day, thousands try to cross the bombed out remains of the city's once vibrant Bustan al-Qaser district, but when they reach the Garage al-Hajz checkpoint – the only crossing point in the city – they know that silent assassins loyal to the Syrian government are lying in wait. 

On the ground, people tell NBC News that government snipers are taking potshots at ordinary civilians. 

“They killed a lot of civilians and a large number were wounded,” a local coordinator in the Bustan al-Qaser neighborhood, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told NBC News. “But people are risking their lives to get food.”

The road can be open all day or just for a few hours, depending on the activity of the snipers. Farouk al-Halabi

He added that residents had implored fighters from the opposition Free Syrian Army to open a small crossing after they moved into al-Rashdeen neighborhood, cutting off the market from people on the regime-held side of the city.

But with fighters from both sides nearby, the danger of being caught in the crossfire from opposition militants shooting back at the snipers is incredibly high.

Mohammed, a lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, lives on the regime side of the city. He said he witnessed a young man die next to him as his identity was being checked by officials.

“A regime sniper opened fire on the people passing by,” he said. “He killed a young man in front of my eyes. I could have been killed instead.”

But he added that his critically ill mother is living with his brother on the rebel-held side of the city, so he had no choice but to run the gauntlet. 

Multiple brands of cigarettes are available for sale in rebel-held districts of Aleppo, but the price has increased dramatically since the start of the conflict. Farouk al-Halabi

Nariman, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that when her father and little brother failed to return from a trip to the market, her family feared the worst.

“My mother cried and said goodbye to them as if we would never see them again,” said the 24-year-old student, who also lives in regime held territory.

“We were never so afraid, it’s too dangerous there,” she added.

Fortunately her father had just been held up by army officials and eventually returned with some bread, vegetables, toothpaste, soap and other things.

"I do not even remember the last time I ate meat," she said, adding that inflation is rocketing as supplies become scarce.

Many schools in rebel-held areas of Aleppo are closed, with the buildings in use as bases for the Free Syrian Army or as shelters for refugee families. Many children are working to earn money for their families, and some are also having to make the perilous journey across Aleppo's front lines to buy and sell goods. Farouk al-Halabi

Even those who manage to cross safely are viewed with suspicion and interrogated when they arrive.

Mohammed said officers on both sides had used “obscene words” and accused him of spying when they quizzed him about his reasons for crossing the city.

"Why would women and children and even elderly people risk their lives?" he said. “I think the answer is very simple. Because you are compelled.”

An elderly woman is transported by cart in Aleppo. Those in need of medical treatment have to be taken across the front line to hospital in a government-held district of the city. Farouk al-Halabi