I Survived the Bombs and Gunfire of Aleppo, but Syria Is in Shambles

This journalist defied death to be close to the conflict—and knows she was lucky to get out alive, unlike too many others still living in the war-torn state.

A rebel fighter carries his rifle down the stairs in a building in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Feb. 9. Syria's war has claimed more than 136,000 lives. (Photo: Mahmud Abdel Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

Feb 12, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Hadeel Al-Shalchi is an Iraqi-Canadian journalist based in Cairo. She has covered the Middle East since 2006 with CBC Radio, Associated Press, and Reuters.

The city of Aleppo was quickly falling out of the hands of antigovernment rebels, and it was my job to get into the city and tell the story. Along with a photographer and a security adviser, we sneaked across the Turkish border and made our way into a city where conditions were quickly deteriorating.

Residents were streaming out of their homes, carrying clothes, books, and pets with them.

As they fled, we moved in to explore the damage done and what had frightened away the people of Aleppo. It was August 2012, and some journalists were still not sure whether to call the bloodshed in Syria a civil war.

Reporting on conflict means getting as close as you can to it. Many reporters get too close and have been hurt or killed telling the tale; about half the journalists killed in 2012—one of the deadliest years since such counts began—were killed in Syria.

To learn how these well-armed civilians were fighting President Bashar al-Assad's fierce and full-blown army, we followed 10 rebels to the frontlines one day.

Early one morning, their leader, Abu Ahmed, led us through narrow, byzantine streets of the ancient city, past the dilapidated and destroyed buildings to get closer to where the Assad army’s tanks stood.

Garbage was piled high in the streets; the air stank, and hundreds of flies buzzed above the dumps. Since these fighters weren't from Aleppo—all were rural dwellers who had uprooted to fight Assad—none of them knew the streets. More than once, we got lost and had to turn back while keeping an eye out for government forces.

Their having no idea where they were going made being among them a little disconcerting. At one point one of them, Ahmed, told us to wait inside a store whose entry had been blown wide open while he took a few men to inspect a street that was rumored to have seen fighting.

Putting on the airs of an organized force, they were nothing but a ragtag team of amateurs, high on hope and willingness to die, low on organization or strategy.

That gave me the chance to talk to the young men who'd left their farming work and had nothing to lose when they chose to pick up a weapon and fight for their homes. They were two handsome cousins, their eyes bright green, who wore their hair slicked back, Elvis style, and their shirtsleeves rolled up to their elbows.

They could have stood in for the actors in a ’50s cigarette commercial. But here they were, handling automatic rifles and waiting to kill someone or be killed.

And then: Boom.

The smoke choked our throats and clogged our nostrils. A ringing in my ears took over my head as my hands clapped over them.

“Oh God, I’m deaf—this is what it’s like to be deaf. Am I deaf now?!” I thought.

A tank shell had hit the residential building right in front of the one we were hiding in, shattering it to smithereens and sending dust and concrete into the storefront, blinding us with brown and gray dust and smoke.

Slowly, the sounds around me shared the ringing in my ears.

“Are you OK? Hadeel, are you fine?” my security adviser said as he shook me.

“Yes, yes, I’m here,” I replied, stunned and happy that I could still remember how to talk. “I think it’s time to leave.”

In that moment the realizations came fast: These rebels had no idea what they were doing. Putting on the airs of an organized force, they were nothing but a ragtag team of amateurs, high on hope and willingness to die, low on organization or strategy.

By now, the photographer on the assignment had run back, sweating and covered in dust. “OK, I’m done,” he shouted, and all three of us found our way back to the car, dodging for cover as we went.

Back in relative safety, the photographer showed us photos he had captured of the head of the troop, Ahmed, shot in the leg, blood streaming from his limb and smearing the ground as the other rebels dragged him away. A sniper had got him.

The fighter plane strafed so close to the ground, I could see the colors on the body of the jet and could almost make out the pilots from where I stood. Around me, villagers screamed, running back and forth like harried cartoons, men and women loading small scooters and pickup cars with belongings, blankets, coolers. Crying women clutched copies of the Koran and their wide-eyed babies.

The shock and confusion was palpable and thick as we clambered out of our van and huddled near a concrete hut’s crumbling wall. With our security adviser holding me tightly and my hands shaking, I tried to quickly call my editors to give them a description of the scene.

I tried to breathe so that I could speak to my editor clearly.

“There is a fighter jet strafing very close to a village we were driving through,” I shouted to someone sitting in an air-conditioned office in Beirut as he typed my words. “I can see the pilots; I can see the flashes of red flames as the bombs fire out of the side of the plane.”

Young rebels careened onto the scene in their banged-up cars, jumped out near the hut we were standing near, and began to shoot at the plane, one with a simple AK-47, another with a pistol. The scene would be comical if it weren't so potentially fatal—if one of those planes returned fire, it would be over for us all.

All I could think was, “So this is how it ends; this is how I am supposed to die. Who’s going to tell my mother?”

The plane eventually gave up on hitting its target—a school in the middle of a residential area where rebels were storing weapons and bomb-making material—and left to refuel, giving us a chance to get in our van and hightail it out of the village.

These were only a couple of the situations I found myself trapped in on my 20-day stint reporting in Aleppo. What made these events even stranger was the relative normalcy of my evenings.

After being unable to sleep for days in the noisy media center the locals put us up in—and being interrupted a few times by random rebels while changing—I pleaded with our local driver to find us anywhere else to stay. As I was the only girl in the group, his family felt comfortable welcoming me into their home.

The next few nights were bliss.

After a long day of climbing broken walls, dodging snipers, and writing until exhausted, I was able to go back to the house, where I could shower in hot water (a luxury at that time, and forever after), eat a hot meal with the women, and play with their kids. It kept me sane being around other females at the end of the night: After counting dead bodies on the streets, and seeing pieces of babies being pulled out of rubble, it was very much welcome.

I haven’t set foot back in Aleppo since that summer, and it has only become more dangerous since I left.

Aid buses continue to get blown up; children get buried in the rubble—it's another country where the Arab Spring went horribly wrong. Those who saw it and survived will always carry a piece of the horror they witnessed—and yet, so few people seem to care about the suffering that has only grown since.

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