ALEPPO, Syria — “I returned three weeks ago because there’s nowhere now that is safe, so it’s best just to stay at home,” said Hussein, one of many residents of Syria’s Aleppo leading as full a life as possible in a war that has blasted their city for nine months.
“We used to look for safer, calmer areas, to try and keep our children from hearing the bombing. But there’s no safe place in Syria any more,” added the shop owner and father of four, with gunfire sounding in the background.
As with most stores in rebel-held areas, his shelves are full, despite the fact that Shaar in eastern Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital, has been targeted by air raids.
Hussein sells rice, preserves, dried fruits, cereal bars and multi-coloured sweets.
But nine months on from an all-out army assault launched to stop a rebel advance on Syria’s second city, prices in Aleppo have soared, said 23-year-old vegetable seller Fahim.
“Tomatoes subsidised by the state used to cost 20 Syrian pounds, but now they cost more than 50 pounds a kilo,” he told AFP.
Nonetheless, his shop is still busy.
“Aleppo has always been a centre of industrial and commercial activity, and we have significant reserves,” said Hussein.
“Even if this [war] continues for 10 years, we won’t be missing out on anything,” he added confidently.
Most Aleppo residents believe the war is unlikely to end any time soon.
“If the living conditions of Aleppo residents have improved in comparison to when the battle started [in July last year], it’s only because people have got used to the difficulties,” said Mustafa, a 35-year-old clothes designer.
While residents walk freely in rebel-held areas, insurgents fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad have concentrated on securing the front lines.
A cake shop manager showed off his products, which he makes out of goods bought across the frontline in regime-held areas. Because he frequently crosses into army-held territory and fears being detained at a checkpoint, he spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Army-held districts are much safer. They aren’t targeted by air raids, and in rebel-held districts anyone with a long beard can kill you without reason,” he said.
While the confectioner made only veiled references to jihadist groups in Aleppo for fear of retribution, shop owner Mohammed had another point of view.
“Areas controlled by the [Al Nusra] Front are 100 per cent safe, though districts manned by the [mainstream rebel] Free Syrian Army are less so,” he told AFP.
Because of the general lack of security, many families have locked themselves away at home for months on end.
“This is the first time my daughters have been out in four or five months. Home has become a prison,” said 40-year-old Israa, seated at a bench in a public park in the southern district of Sukari.
She watched, smiling, as her five-year-old twin daughters played with a little blue ball.
Several groups of young people gathered nearby, many of them girls wearing colourful headscarves, chatting and seated on the grass.
In Aleppo, nine months into fighting that has devastated many districts, life has slowly started to return to what passes for normal in Syria today.
Several blocks away, and at the same time, dozens of protesters were again on the march, calling for the fall of Assad’s regime.
Few people pay attention to them any more.