I Went to Syria to Learn How to Be a Journalist

And Failed Miserably at It While Almost Dying a Bunch of Times

By Sunil Patel

Bloody Assad posters after a battle in Baba al-Nasr.

In the morning, three FSA soldiers drove us into downtown Aleppo. I had heard that all access to the city was blocked off by Assad’s forces so I was expecting that we were going to have to somehow sneak past enemy lines. I pictured us ducking down in the backseat and dodging snipers. But it wasn’t like that. We just drove right into the city. The whole place was wrecked—buildings smoking and bombed out, entire blocks ruined. But on some streets there were a few shops open, and occasional civilians in the streets who were going about their business. Every few minutes we heard a missile or mortar explode somewhere.

The FSA guys dropped us off at this big house in downtown Aleppo. There were lots of FSA fighters both inside and outside, where they were running around and firing AK-47s. They were trying to take out one of Assad’s snipers, who was in a building across the street that served as the current dividing line between Assad’s troops and the FSA. This line consisted of rows of FSA-controlled buildings that had been devastated by missile strikes. The buildings on the Syrian Army’s side of the street were relatively intact.

The shooting died down eventually, and the guys who had driven us there left—but not before introducing us to some other FSA guys and telling them we needed a place to stay.

“So here’s the deal,” one of these rebels later explained. “We’re out here to be martyrs. We want to help the Syrian people. If a tank comes by tomorrow and puts our people at risk, we’re going to go out there and risk our lives.” He rubbed his chin and paused. “And I’m sure you don’t want to risk your lives. We will die for the cause of Allah. I don’t think you want to.”

I just thought: Holy fuck. We just got dropped off in the middle of a war zone. Our ride has left, and he’s not coming back. What are we going to do if these guys don’t let us stay with them?

Eventually we talked to our new rebel friend long enough to gain his trust, and he let us tag along with him. The sniper exchange had died down, so he took us on a little walking tour of nearby blocks in the FSA-controlled part of the city. He showed us some buildings that had been destroyed by Assad’s jets and an ambulance that had been torched. Then he took us to a little mosque, outside of which was a corpse. It was a dead policeman. He was one of Assad’s men, and a few weeks earlier he had tried to throw a grenade at the mosque but it had detonated in his hand. The rebels had left his body, and it had since turned purple and yellow. The stench was awful. That’s when I thought: All right. I should not be here.

Our FSA guide then took us to a huge shopping mall. On the ground floor there were still stores selling necessities like food and toothpaste, but the second story was a total wreck. Nobody was around, and there was old food and trash strewn throughout. The windows were smashed, and the stores had all been looted. It looked abandoned, except for the mattresses where local rebels managed to catch a few winks in between battles.

Inside, our anonymous new best friend explained that there was going to be a battle nearby in a few hours, and that we’d get a better view up on one of the higher floors. His unit had received intelligence that one of Assad’s tanks was going to come down the street, and they were going to ambush it. I said that I wanted to go to the top floor—the tenth floor—to shoot photos. “You can stay up there if you want to get hit by a sniper,” he said. But he said the seventh floor would be safe and took us up before he joined his comrades. The view was great. Carlos and I snapped some shots of rebels running around the streets, preparing for the battle at hand.

Three or four hours passed and nothing happened. We smoked some shisha. I became convinced that the supposed battle was the result of misinformation. This is when Carlos decided to head down to the ground floor to shoot some more photos, leaving me on the seventh floor of this abandoned mall.

That’s when it occurred to me: This is a really big building, and the government is targeting the rebels… who have obviously been using this building as a headquarters for a while. This building could get bombed any second.
Maybe my innards heard it before my ears did, but a jet whizzed by just as I was thinking this.

A huge, thunderlike sound exploded from above. My instincts were malfunctioning. I knew it was a bomb, but I just stood there, dumbfounded.

A second later, another bomb dropped, followed by another tremendous boom that snapped me out of my stupor. I grabbed my stuff and starting running down the stairs. I was screaming Carlos’s name because I had no idea where he was, or whether he was even alive. I found him at the bottom of the stairs, terrified. I must have looked the same way.

On the ground floor of the mall, shopkeepers scrambled to collect merchandise from their stores so as to not leave bait for the inevitable looters. Most of the FSA guys had already taken cover, except for the two rebels who stayed on the ground floor with us.

A few minutes passed without incoming fire, enough time for everyone to relax a bit. Carlos started laughing, and I laughed along with him, the way you sometimes do after something really terrible and unbelievable has happened.

The next thing I heard was bam! And suddenly people were screaming. I turned around and saw one of the FSA guys who had been standing next to us splayed out on the floor, bleeding from his head. His skull had been split in two by a chunk of debris from one of the collapsed upper floors. A minute ago, he had been standing five feet away from me. Now he was lying on the ground, bleeding to death. I pulled out a T-shirt from my bag and tried to stop the blood, but it soaked through. He went unconscious as other FSA soldiers ran over, dragged his body into the street, and loaded it into a jeep.

“He’s a martyr now,” one of the rebels told me in English.