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

Doctors scramble to treat the wounded after Assad’s troops bombed a bakery in Aleppo.

 That night, because the place we’d been staying had been destroyed, we were directed toward a safe house for journalists on the outskirts of Aleppo. It was where the French journalists and New York Times reporters stayed. We hadn’t even known it existed.

We accompanied four journalists on the drive there, during which we had another close call when one of Assad’s jets began following our taxi, which prompted one of the reporters I was with to take a photo with his flash. The pilot responded by swooping back around and firing two missiles at us on the highway. They missed, but our taxi driver almost had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t really believe what was happening anymore. It was the most ridiculous ten seconds of my life.

The taxi driver was screaming at the guy who took the photo, and I thought he was going to burst into tears. And I said to Carlos: “Do you still want to stay in Syria?” Finally, he admitted we should leave.

Somehow we made it to the safe house, and the next morning the Syrian guy who ran the place arranged for a taxi to come pick us up and take us out of Aleppo. But when it arrived, Carlos and I didn’t have enough cash. I’d only brought about 5,000 Syrian pounds (less than $75) into the country with me, and I only had about 800 left. The driver said that wasn’t enough to get us all the way into Turkey. He said that for that amount he would take us as far as the town of Azaz. That wasn’t too far down the road, but we just wanted to get the hell out of Aleppo and so we got in.

On arriving in Azaz, it was apparent the town had just been completely obliterated by the war. But we found another taxi there. We didn’t have any money, and he said it would be $20 to the border. I ended up bartering, giving him my iPod for a ride.

When we finally got back to the Turkish border, three FSA soldiers on the Syrian side wouldn’t let us through. They were nice but firm. Apparently, we’d entered Syria illegally and therefore we couldn’t exit legally. Our passports weren’t stamped. They told us we’d have to go back to where we got the taxi and find some other way to get through to Turkey.

The only choice we had was to catch a ride back to Azaz with some other FSA guys who were buddies with the border guards. They drove us there and then helped us get another ride from Azaz to a part of the border where it would be easier to sneak through—a barren stretch of land with an industrial plant on it.

The guy who dropped us off there turned to Carlos and me and said, “OK, we’re here. Now just run!”

“What if some Turkish soldiers decide to shoot the fuck out of us?” I asked.

“That’s why you’ve got to run!” he said.

Shitting ourselves, we sprinted across this stretch of desert for five minutes. We made it back to Kilis, Turkey. It wasn’t the same as being back in London, but I was just happy to still have my cock and be wearing socks. And to not be in Syria anymore. I no longer wanted to be a journalist. I was thinking maybe I’d go into politics instead.

In Kilis, I checked my email for the first time since arriving in Aleppo. The editor at the Independent—the one to whom I’d sent my only dispatch and some photos—had replied. His message said that, unfortunately, they’d have to pass on my story.
That was officially, without question, the end of my career as a war correspondent.

For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.