Rebels confronting Syria’s army and controlling territory in the north of the key battleground city of Aleppo are a motley bunch of fighters with disparate backgrounds.
The mix of soldiers and officers who defected from the army and civilians with no military background whatsoever face forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on the front line in the northern metropolis.
For one of them, a 25-year-old who only gave his name as Adnan, the uprising that engulfed Syria in March last year also triggered major upheaval in his personal life.
The spread of the conflict to his doorstep forced the Aleppo resident into making a tough choice — between joining the rebellion against Assad’s forces, and losing his fiancee.
“My fiancee’s family is pro-regime. They broke off the marriage agreement which was reached seven months ago,” Adnan says.
“I tried to talk to her at first, but now I have taken up arms. I’m part of the Free Syrian Army and if she wants to come back to me, that’s no longer possible.
“I still love her but her family doesn’t want to hear about a revolutionary,” he says bitterly.
Adnan goes into battle with fellow rebels, while on the other side of the front line, his former fiancee has moved with her family to a neighbourhood still under the regime’s control.
Intensifying clashes between forces of the Shiite-dominated regime and the mainly Sunni rebels has been accompanied by increasing hatred between the two sides.
As a Republican Guard defector returns from the front with his Dragunov sniper rifle in hand, fellow fighters surround him and shower him with praise, asking whether he was back from “hunting”.
“Yes, hunting dogs,” smiles the young man dressed in a Bedouin-style keffiyeh who identified himself as Ali.
If the regime officials label the rebels as “terrorists”, then the insurgents are stronger in their words, often calling soldiers “dogs.”
Abu Sofiane defected to join the insurgency and has fought in Saif al-Dawla, an Aleppo neighbourhood that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.
With his fellow fighters he uses “made in Syria” bombs to throw at the soldiers of the “tyrant”.
“Where are Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia when we need weapons,” he says.
With his impeccable hair parted in the middle and beard, he reveals a persona of a true leader among his comrades. When he leaves the base to go to the front, he leads the way and others follow.
At the entrance of the Old City gate, Hayham, wears military fatigues with a sura from the Koran embroidered on the chest.
At 18, he took up arms with his two brothers for “jihad against the humiliation”.
“We have never seen a president do that to his people,” he says referring to the regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-reform protests in early 2011 that turned into anti-regime rallies.
Hayham hopes that one day he will be able to “see victory and then return to a normal life” — which for him is running his modest shop and living with his parents.
At a rebel checkpoint, Abu Smail, a tall and dark man, apologises when asked a question, saying: “I’m a Bedouin. I don’t talk to journalists.”
But the 32-year-old farmer with a neatly trimmed beard opens up to show he is among the few who have a vision for a post-Assad Syria.
“After the fall of the regime we will have free elections and ensure that all Syrian citizens have freedom of expression and political freedom,” says Abu Smail, who has not seen his children and family for two months.