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

An FSA fighter, after being shot in the stomach by a sniper, in Baba al-Nasr.

Later that afternoon in Aleppo is when everything really got crazy. First, our guide drove us to a couple of desolate neighborhoods to see more battles. At one of them, we met an 18-year-old Syrian-American kid. He walked up to us and just started talking in this American accent. He said he was from Virginia and had come to Syria to join the FSA and help kill Assad. “You think I’m going to let my people be murdered?” he said. He wouldn’t give us his name.

At this point we were being led around by a different FSA guide, and he took us to a base where he did an interview with Agence France-Presse. He told them a whole bunch of lies. When the French journalists asked him whether they got their weapons from smugglers coming in through the Turkish border, our guide said, “Oh, what weapons? These weapons? We’re not getting them from the border. The weapons that we have are the ones we had in the army before we defected. We’re still using the same weapons.” It seemed like total bullshit to me.

He also told the French journalists a story about how, earlier in the day, he’d been in a battle in which he had blown up eight tanks. And I thought: What fucking tanks? I’d been with him all day, and the only vehicle he’d almost blown up was his car, which earlier he had filled with the wrong type of gas. When we confronted him about this, he said, “Oh, you guys just didn’t see the tanks get blown up.” But that’s bullshit. Still, I understand, I guess. It’s propaganda, and the FSA believe they have to do it to make people think they’re beating Assad, to get them on their side.

After the interview, we got a call that a bakery had been bombed and we should come to the hospital where the victims were being treated. It took 15 minutes to get there and turned out to be a total horror show. The “hospital” looked like it had previously been a little hotel.

Out front there were seven or eight bodies lined up along a wall. They were covered up in sheets, their stiff arms and legs sticking out from beneath the fabric. Next to them, a woman was crying hysterically over her son’s corpse. Reporters flocked around her.

This was when I realized that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a journalist. I couldn’t work up the gall to take a picture of her. Eventually, I took a few, but it was excruciating.

Inside, people were hauling in a mess of mangled bodies. Most of the victims were conscious and breathing, but there was blood everywhere. They had a vacuum hose with which they were trying to suck all the blood off the floor. The doctors were trying to treat everyone at once, and it was apparent they were having a miserable time—especially trying to treat one man whose head was oozing pools of blood.

I’d never seen anything like it and absolutely could not handle my shit, so I went back outside. But outside wasn’t much better. A truck had arrived, and a group of men was loading a young guy’s corpse into it. Men and women were crying.

Another man walked up with his daughter in his arms. She was bleeding from her head. He was sobbing and seemed so tired from crying and carrying his daughter that he looked like he was about to fall to the ground. Someone took his daughter and brought her inside; the man collapsed.

How does one report on something like this? What was I going to do, ask people, “Hey, mate, how do you feel about this?” They’d be like, “Oh, you know, I think I feel all right. The bakery’s being bombed, my daughter’s dead…” The whole thing was fucking horrific. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there.

Carlos and I had planned to stay in Syria for six weeks. This was our fourth day in Aleppo, but it was at this hospital that I decided we had to leave. But Carlos didn’t want to go. “We’re being total fucking cowards,” he said. “Everything will be fine tomorrow morning.”

Shortly after we left the hospital, Carlos lost his shit, too. We left the bakery and were driving with an FSA guy. We wanted to go back to the media center, but the driver told us that throughout the day it had been attacked by Assad’s planes and that it was no longer safe for us to stay there. A mortar exploded every couple of minutes as we drove. And suddenly, a jet appeared right over our car. Our driver, terrified it was going to shoot at us, swerved into a tiny alleyway. We hid there, trying to stay out of sight.

I thought we were safe, but Carlos suddenly started to freak out. “Shit! Shit!” he shouted, “They’re gonna come for us! We have to get out of the car.”

And I said, “You’re out of your fucking mind, mate! That isn’t gonna help. If they see a stranded white guy with a camera running around in the street, they’re gonna bomb the shit out of you.” That calmed him down.