— -- Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and commercial center, has become the symbol of the country’s five-year war, epitomizing the suffering of a people and setting up the pivotal battle that could decide the war’s outcome.
The city is divided in two, with government forces in the west and rebels in the east. For years, the sides have waged a savage fight for control. Over 450,000 people have been killed and 11 million Syrians, more than half of the country’s population, have fled their homes, creating one of the worst refugee crises in modern history.
The ancient city of Aleppo, once home to nearly three million people, is a shell of its former self. Some of the war’s fiercest street fighting has taken place in Aleppo, where extraordinary amounts of blood have been spilled. Four years of nonstop war here have left mile after mile, block after block, in ruin.
Then in mid-November, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched an all-out assault, hoping to retake the city once and for all.
In the neighborhood of Hanano, the streets are eerie, filled with the sounds of war, but also unsettling silence. In many places, it is a virtual ghost town. But some families are daring to return.
There is a main gathering area in this neighborhood where people can come to get food and warm drinks from aid agencies but they also come to register to let local authorities know they are going back to the homes they left behind years ago.
One resident, Samir Dawalibi, fled two years ago. He returned home to find his building in shambles, and the windows and doors of his apartment blown out. His home had been ransacked, his TV and air conditioning unit stolen.
Dawalibi said he had not expected his home to be “destroyed,” but he was “very happy” to be back.
“This is my house, my memory,” he said.
Another resident, Ahmad Mardinli, brought his sons back to see their home for the first time in four years.
“They said, ‘Daddy, we want to go whether it’s at night or not we want to go and see our homes and our neighborhoods,’” Mardinli said through a translator.
Mardinli is a government worker who fled the neighborhood with his family when the rebels took control, leaving almost everything behind. His 4-year-old son, Majed, was just a few months old at the time. All he has ever known is war.
ABC News' Alex Marquardt walked the five bombed-out blocks to their apartment building and went up the stairs with them to their front door. Before they left years earlier, Mardinli had built a brick wall in front of their door to protect their belongings while they were away. It was still in place when they arrived.
After breaking down the wall, Mardinli’s children ran inside to find many of their belongings still intact. The boys were overjoyed to re-discover lost toys: A Transformer, a Tweety Bird toy and tricycles that had been hidden away.
Mardinli said he felt confident they would be able to stay home this time.
But all around there is a bittersweet mix of homecoming and despair. Others said they had been to their homes, saw what was left and turned back around because so much had been lost.
Tens of thousands, maybe more, are still caught in the middle of the fighting.