The local Free Syrian Army crew in Baba al-Nasr, outside Aleppo, gears up for a battle.
Sunil Patel had never been published before he decided to go to Syria in August 2012 to become a war correspondent. Before his trip, the 25-year-old worked as a community-support officer for the London Police, lived with his mum and dad, and occasionally volunteered in Palestinian and Kurdish refugee camps. On one of his activist trips, Sunil befriended an ever so slightly more experienced freelance journalist from Canada who promised to take him into parts of Syria that were almost impossible for a foreigner to get to through legal routes. It was a foolish idea for sure, and he almost died several times during his trip, but we still think his story was worth the risk. And no, VICE did not send him there. He did this of his own accord, and we found out about it afterwards.
I met Carlos in an internet café in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan (and obviously “Carlos” is not his real name). I overheard him talking about something involving Palestine and Syria over a Skype call, and when he had finished we struck up a conversation.
Carlos told me that he’d already been to Syria, shooting as a freelance photographer, and that he was going back soon. I told him how I’d been thinking about going there to write about the conflict, but that I didn’t have any experience as a journalist. “You know what?” he said, “I’ll take you to Syria”. He didn’t seem to mind that I was a novice.
That night, Carlos crashed at my hostel. He didn’t have his own place to stay or money for a room, so he slept on the floor. It was a bit dodgy sneaking him in, but worth it, because we spent the whole night talking about Syria.
I got the impression that Carlos wanted someone to travel with. I already had a ticket home to London, but we came up with an arrangement: I would fly back, and when Carlos was ready to return to Syria he would call me and we’d meet up in Turkey. From there, Carlos explained, we could cross the border. “I’ve got contacts” he said. I was a little nervous, but this sounded like a good plan to me. We’d never have had war reporters like Robert Fisk or Seymour Hersh if they’d stayed at home with their mums instead of going into the shit.
Back in London, my parents were not too keen on my plans to travel to a country in the middle of a civil war. They thought I was going to get killed. My sister was really mad. I told them that I’d always wanted to be a war correspondent, and that if I ever was going to have a chance to become a real journalist, this was it. If people want news, somebody’s got to go and cover it. But they didn’t care, they were upset.
The very next day, Carlos called. “Listen, man” he said, “I’m going in. You coming or not?”
My mind was already made up. I told Carlos I’d meet him there and booked the next flight to Turkey.
My plane landed in Istanbul, and then I took the bus to Hatay, where Carlos was staying with friends. The Syrian border is about 25 miles to the south-east. We wanted to get there as soon as possible, but neither of us spoke more than a few words of Turkish or Arabic. Luckily, we met a Turkish family who helped us get there. They took us into their home, gave us tea, and we ended up talking to them using Google Translate, typing words into their computer. We explained that we were trying to get to Syria. Somehow they understood and helped us call one of Carlos’s contacts, who was supposed to meet us near the border to help us cross. We just had to get there.
At this point, Carlos promptly informed me that he was a veteran hitchhiker and had bummed rides all over Eastern Europe, so we decided to hitchhike to the Syrian border. We probably made a funny pair — I’m Indian, so I wasn’t as suspect, but Carlos is a white guy with black hair and a camera slung around his neck. I don’t know whether this made truck drivers more or less likely to pick us up, but we thumbed it all the way down the narrow two-lane road outside Hatay. It took us about seven rides with truck drivers and more than three hours to make it the 25 miles across the border. Carlos’s contact, a guy named Muhammad, drove us the last few miles, into a town called Reyhanli near the Syrian border.
One of the busiest border crossings between Turkey and Syria, Reyhanli is about 35 miles from Aleppo, where the war was really heating up. As we roamed around and tried to get oriented, loads of refugees were streaming into Turkey — to escape the war, I assumed.
We walked across the border. No one stopped us or asked us any questions. We just walked right in. On the other side, more refugees milled around, waiting to cross into Turkey in cars and on foot. We didn’t have an interpreter because we couldn’t afford one. Carlos didn’t have any more contacts, and at this point we were just hoping we’d see some rebels hanging around who we could talk to and who would show us what war was like.
Just then, some men in military uniforms came up to us. “Journalist!” they shouted in Arabic. “Journalist!”
“Yeah, we’re journalists” I said, in English. I think they understood me. “We want to get some coverage. Can you take us with you to the war?”
Then another man appeared. He was a Syrian journalist and spoke some English. “Don’t worry” he said, “These guys are Free Syrian Army. You can go with these guys. Trust me, you’re safe.”
Naturally, we were a little bit uncertain. But we realised this was our only chance. So we thought, let’s just go for it and see what happens. It didn’t seem that dangerous.
We all piled into a beat-up little hatchback Toyota. There were two soldiers in the front, fully armed, and the Syrian journalist, Carlos, and me in the back. The journalist translated for us and said that the soldiers were taking us to their base. There was no noticeable fighting in the towns we passed along the way; homes were still standing, and everything looked fine.
It took about 40 minutes to arrive. When we got to what looked like a school building, the soldiers took us inside, where there were about 30 more soldiers and a Syrian guy who spoke much better English than the guy we’d ridden with. He told us that we were in Idlib. “You’re journalists” he said, “we will look after you. If you want to do stories, if you want to go out with the rebels, I’ll help you.” He wasn’t a rebel himself, he was just their friend. Then the FSA soldiers fed us a huge meal of hummus and falafel.
We ended up spending four days in this area, not doing much. Some children we met nearby in the town of Binnish told us “Don’t go to Aleppo! We love you! We don’t want you to die!” I told them I didn’t want to die either, but I just thought they were joking. Eventually we grew impatient because there wasn’t any fighting where we were, so one night we asked one of the FSA soldiers whether someone could take us into the ancient city, currently under siege. He said “Of course.”
Just before midnight, a commander drove us about an hour east, to the town of Jabal al-Zawiya. I remember thinking: Now we’re travelling with a commander. Things are going to get serious. There are going to be battles all the time.
Jabal al-Zawiya is situated up in the mountains, and we spent that night in a little mud house on a hill. It was filled with old men. They wore military gear and were fully armed. I remember seeing what looked like a coat rack with M-16s draped from it. Bombs exploded in the distance. In addition to the old guys, there was also a young Syrian who had been an English Literature student at university, so he translated for us.
The next day, the former student took us around the area, and we interviewed people who had been affected by the war, including a man who’d lost his 11-year-old daughter a week before when a missile from one of Assad’s jets struck his house. Our guide took us to another nearby town and showed us the remains of a house that the shabiha—thugs who were loyal to Assad—had burned down. We went inside this charred building and took pictures of everything we could.
Still, it was a bit of a letdown. We weren’t in Aleppo, where the real fighting was, and we wanted to go. We wanted to see the bombs we were hearing up close. So a few days later, an FSA commander offered to take us closer to the front lines, to another rebel base on the outskirts of the city. I said, “Yeah, mate, we’re ready to go,” and he took Carlos and me in his car, just the three of us.
The road was rough. We passed some towns that had been totally destroyed: most of the structures had been shelled and were collapsing, with the few homes that remained having been totally looted. Ghost towns.
A few hours later, the commander dropped us off at an FSA base just outside Aleppo. There were about 25 rebels there, and the commander told them, “Tomorrow, take these guys into Aleppo. They really want to go see the war” and with that, the commander left.
None of the soldiers spoke any English, but we tried our best. They didn’t offer us any food like the rebels in Jabal al-Zawiya. Things were obviously a bit rougher here. They’d seen more combat and had been battling Assad’s forces for months, which was made apparent by their gruff attitudes. Somehow, though, they were still friendly. All night long we heard bombs exploding over and in Aleppo, which was about 13 miles away.