I Went to Syria to Learn How to Be a Journalist
Sunil Patel had never been published before he decided to go to Syria in August 2012 to become a war correspondent. 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.
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 mom 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 after the fact.
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 war reporters like Robert Fisk or Seymour Hersh if they’d stayed at home with their moms 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 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 southeast. 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 whom 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 realized 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 traveling 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 coatrack 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.