It was getting dark as we arrive in Jadeideh, an old Christian neighbourhood in Aleppo's UNESCO-listed Old City. The chants of Allahu akbar ("God is greatest") were incessant with the shooting. The Free Syrian Army had commandeered an old, recently renovated Damascene house to serve as their billets. The plush rooms constructed with thick stone walls sit around a courtyard centred on a water feature and a jasmine bush. The place is a small, boutique hotel, the sort of place I could never have afforded when I last came here as a backpacker, nearly three years ago. The rebels said that they have contacted the owner, who now lives in Spain, and have his permission to use the place for a few days. They are respectful of the space, but I've seen what has happened to other buildings they have occupied, and fear that thick wooden doors may be torn apart by shells and gunfire.
Abu Mohamed is a balding, middle-aged, gentle man with a pistol tucked into the back of his belt. He speaks in softly-spoken, slightly broken English. My colleague, a writer, knows him. "How are you today?" he asks. Abu Mohamed replies despondently. "Not good" he says. "The Syrian army killed my very good friend just three hours ago."
He shows us to a room where we can spend the night. Wooden beams span the ceiling, there is an en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning. "We will eat in one hour, you are very welcome," offers Abu Mohamed.
It would be nice to relax in this opulence, after a day of running through the Old City, ducking from sniper fire and seeing the neighbourhood eroded hour by hour by bullets and shells. But the fighting still rages, seemingly surrounding this small oasis. The shelling is regular, although a little distant. The sound of gunfire is frequent, and not the rapid succession of AK-47 cracks: the slightly deeper, more deadly sound of sniper rifles and PKMs.
I find it incomprehensible how these guys fight in the pitch-black streets, aiming only at muzzle flashes. The army had shelled a sub-station earlier in the day, and so there was no power in this neighbourhood. The only light is from hand-held torches. As we walk along a narrow street, a strong flash of light is shone on our faces. "Ana, ana" says the rebel accompanying us. "It's me."
An elderly man appears from an alleyway, the soldiers leap up. Everybody is tense; the gunfire is close and waging a war of attrition on nerves. Muzzle flashes break the darkness as the FSA retort.
Abu Mohamed arrives and repositions his men, after noticing that a mirror concealed in an abandoned bakery has been shot. They were using the mirror to spot their enemy, without exposing themselves to a gunman's bullet.
The night lights up as tracer fire from loyalist troops spews out of an alleyway, just 30 metres away. Judging by the arc of the fire, the Syrian army is just 100-150 metres away. My eyes scan the stepped horizon of the rooftops.
The balding commander breaks his demure, shouting insults to the loyalists, rhetorically asking them why they fight for "that dog, al-Assad".
An incoming shell whooshes in, and we take cover in an alleyway. It's the first time I've heard one that close in the Old City, and a boom is not far behind. There is gunfire from every direction, and the shelling gets closer.
The rebels bring out a stand-alone loud-speaker with a microphone, akin to a karaoke machine. Abu Mohamed launches into a tirade to his nearby enemy. They don't answer. Another man brings out his mobile phone, and fires up the MP3 player with revolutionary songs. Suriya bada hurriya ("Syria wants freedom") from the tinny speaker is amplified to fill the night air, echoing off the buildings. I find it disconcerting as we can no longer hear the incoming fire, and it may provoke a move by the Assad forces. The sound is maddening, and that's without having my ideology taunted. Psy-ops, the Free Syrian Army way.
The loyalists used to hold this position just a couple of days previously. The rebels have been taking ground, little by little. "Sometimes maybe 100 metres, sometimes just 50 metres" explains Abu Mohamed. The stars glisten overhead.
At around 1am, two shells land much closer. There is still a lot of gunfire around. A helicopter has been circling for the past couple of hours. Men sleep in the courtyard, beds dragged outside around the fountain as the sweet smell of jasmine combines with the acrid taste of cordite. Others sit around and load their rifles. They ask us if we would like to move our beds out into the courtyard. I'm sweating feverishly in the heat, but we decide that it's best to have a ceiling overhead.
"Allah is the only roof we need" Abu Mohamed says, or words to that effect. "Every man has a certain number of breaths. Maybe two million, maybe ten million. But we cannot change that. Not plus one, not minus one."
The following day, I would find the following words written in my notepad: "I wonder if I will survive until the morning.... There have been times this evening that I severely doubted it."
At 4:10am, I was woken from what had been a half-sleep infused by the sound of the raging battle. Yalla shebab, yalla! ("Come on, guys, come on!") The gunfire was intense and I was aware of some close shelling. I jumped to my feet, thinking that our bastion was under attack. They'd come across the rooftops I told myself. I shook my two colleagues out of their slumber. We had all dozed with our shoes on, and knew immediately where to grab our kit in the dark.
But it was just a "troop rotation". One shift had ended, and another was beginning. The commander was rallying his men.
Five minutes later the muezzins start, the call to prayer echoing around the Old City, intertwined with gunfire and shelling. Above in the pre-dawn sky is the flash of a jet's lights.
At 8:35 in the morning bells begin tolling from a church, a strange sound in this land of headless minarets.
Before we leave with his fighters to cover more of the fighting, Abu Mohamed offers a jasmine flower over tea. "When you come back to Aleppo, this is your home" he says. "You are very welcome here."
We spend the rest of the morning a few blocks away in the Jewellers Square, where goldsmiths' and money dealers' shops are shuttered closed. There is one way into the square, dashing across a road covered by a regime sniper. The tourist signs marking the Old City now bear witness to the whistle of RPGs, and I feel the shockwave of a shell impact close-by. The rebels are fighting on three fronts, using homemade pipe-bombs against much more sophisticated armaments.
A few alleyways away, we encounter another group of fighters, holding out against a tank, or an armoured personnel carrier. I can hear the low rumbling of its engine as a man in a suit, a cigarette drooping from his lower lip, hurls a pipe-bomb around the corner. The battle ebbs-and-flows up and down the narrow street. We retreat, we creep back. The fighters are low on ammunition. A van storms up, where bags of bullets are distributed to this small band of men. They rearm with their deadly pick 'n' mix, swapping magazine clips.
I was later told that they lost 100 men that day, and the man in the suit, "Scarface" as we nicknamed him, was shot five times, but is still alive.