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

A dead Syrian police officer outside a mosque in Aleppo.

 That night, an FSA soldier whom we met inside the shopping mall took us to a rebel base in another part of town where it was safe for us to sleep. These new FSA guys were extra-nice. They even gave us our own mattresses and said, “Stay for as long as you want. We want journalists to write about the war.”<

The next day, thankfully, was much quieter. This new camp included a rebel-staffed media center, with access to computers and the internet. The connection wasn’t very good, though, and a group of Syrian journalists were hogging the equipment. I wrote up a quick story and sent it to an editor at the Independent in London, along with my photos. I’d still never published anything, but I hoped they’d run the story. One of the Syrian journalists kicked me off the computer before I received a reply.

The rebels then took us to Salaheddin, a district in Aleppo that Assad’s men and the FSA had been battling over for weeks. The neighborhood was devastated, and nearly every building had been destroyed. It was hard to tell that any sort of community had existed there in recent times.

At nightfall, sounds of war began again and didn’t cease till the next day. By now I was used to it and managed to get some sleep in between explosions, at one point lifting my head up to realize that no one else was awake and thinking, Fuck it, I’m going back to sleep.

Our third day in Aleppo was pretty tame, aside from seeing another dead body. We were in the middle of a battle in the Bab al-Nasr neighborhood. Somewhere around 20 FSA fighters were trying to take out a sniper perched in a building above, and one rebel got hit. I didn’t actually see it happen, but I definitely saw the guy screaming after he was shot. Everyone on the scene helped drag him into a pickup truck, where he died shortly afterward.

That night, back at the base, we met a really interesting guy who was in charge of radio communications for the FSA. He spoke to us in English, explaining how the rebels were all using walkie-talkies and that this was a big problem. Assad’s troops could easily tune in to their frequencies.

On our fourth day in Aleppo, I was awoken by a nearby bomb blast around 7 AM. A few more shells dropped and then it went quiet.
I walked outside to see what had happened. A missile had hit a playground about 100 feet away from our base and left a huge crater in the ground. Another missile had torn a wall off a man’s home nearby.

Near the guy’s home, a big mob of Syrians had formed. Carlos and I walked over to check it out. Some French journalists who were staying at the base came along, too, as did a bunch of FSA rebels. Half of the guy’s house was gone, and his neighbors had crowded into the courtyard. The French journalists were interviewing people, when suddenly the crowd of Syrians started picking up stones and throwing them at us.

“Ah, you French bastards!” someone shouted. “You Western pieces of shit! You don’t care about us!” Then the people turned on the rebels, directing their stones at them. “Get out of here,” they said to us, “and take the FSA with you!”
(An FSA guy later translated for me exactly what the mob had said; but even without being able to understand their words in that moment, it was pretty clear they didn’t like us.)

I didn’t know it then, but civilians in Aleppo are targeted because they’re in the vicinity of a rebel base. So there are tensions between civilians and the FSA. Later, I saw a bunch of FSA guys beat a shopkeeper when he asked them to get off of his roof. He was afraid a jet would bomb his store. The rebels got down off the roof and punched and kicked him, then locked him in his shop.

But back to the mob: The people were just screaming at the FSA guys and throwing stones at them, and the FSA guys were shouting back, and the French journalists were recording it all. There are a lot of citizens in Aleppo who do not fully support what the FSA is doing. They don’t support what Assad is doing, either. There are, of course, plenty of people who do support the FSA. It’s just not everybody. The spectrum of views is varied and complex.