A strong man crying. He didn’t look like an activist – but there are few paid jobs available in opposition-held parts of Syria.
I’d asked the same question I’ve been repeating throughout the assignment inside this province, bound for the hell of Aleppo city itself.
We were sitting in the fog of a shisha bar.
“What can we do?” he asked. I couldn’t answer. Gone are the messages you hear addressed to the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League and the European Union.
So many Syrian civilians have given up and they’re like automatons playing out a painful routine of survival.
I attempted to comfort this man who I cannot name. My trust in him was based on instinct but, most relevant of all, it was because of rigorous vetting.
He had undoubtedly run similar checks on me. That’s what passes as life in Syria right now on both sides of the conflict. Suspicion and fear.
What is the most terrifying aspect of life in Aleppo, our destination? The roar of jets diving down to dump their payloads? Random shelling? The whistle by the ear of a sniper bullet? The creepy feeling on every street when you’re watched and sometimes followed?
They compete with each other depending on the time of day, and the weather, to burden the Syrian people with excruciating stress.
The commander of a small group of fighters in Aleppo shared his thoughts with me after three days of the same mutual but discreet checking out process.
“You can’t stay anywhere in this city for long without big risk,” he told me. “Stay close to me, do what I say. I will keep you all safe.”
So many journalists in this ‘war within’ have heard similar sentiment only to find out later in the chaos of battle that to trust such assurances was naïve.
But it wasn’t the intermittent volleys of shells and mortars and the air strikes to which he was referring. It was the Assad militia, the Shabiha lying dormant but spadmodically active. And those in need of money working as street level informers for the intelligence services.
Was my team similarly naïve in trusting this man? I did. And so did Aljazeera’s senior camera operator Tom Nicholson. Within a few hours of this discussion we were warily walking in the pouring rain within a cat’s whisker of the frontline.
Incoming single shots from one of hundreds of Assad army snipers who occupy the dominant and ancient ground of the citadel.
Both sides undoubtedly regard UNESCO and ancient history as irrelevant in the battle for Aleppo, a conflict that’s been in stand-off, stagnant mode, since mid-August.
I had engaged in a partly out-of-breath talk to Tom on camera after a half walk, half run, totally confusing and disconcerting trek, through holes smashed through the walls of awe-inspiring beautiful buildings.
Walking through ancient history to a present day stand-off.
With return fire incoming, the commander, who had avoided the path followed by tourist guides over centuries, gave us our orders: “You shouldn’t move beyond here,” and then promptly stepped forward, barking into his radio handset, and ordering his men across the road to take cover. And preserve ammunition.
I thought that aside from being soaking wet in the pouring rain and fairly bothered by being pinned down not for the first time in television news, the battle for Aleppo might be futile.
I may be proved right in time. History suggests the Citadel is impenetrable, the Assad forces tactics’ may well be to wait this out.
But then there are reported gains in the southwest for rebel forces using more strategic tactics by trying to cut off supply lines to their enemy.
My thoughts on warfare are tucked away after an extraction on a rabbit warren scurry back to a 700-year-old mosque damaged in the fighting and the shelter point for the rebel fighters.
I wonder, aside from the nauseating loss of life suffered by so many, how much regime and rebel sides care for the historical fabric of ancient civilisation that’s being defaced.
And then I return to my mainline thought process on what is going on in Syria.
Not the ideologies of ‘brigades’ some of which send a shiver through my spine. That’s for another blog. It’s the implosion of suffering for the civilians hidden away in their often temporary homes.
Again it takes time and trust to witness what is going on. And surprisingly, it’s the rebel commander who helps our team get a snapshot of what is going on.
We spend two days on visits short, and long, to a three-generation extended family housed in a basic two-room apartment.
An elderly lady riddled with arthritis attempts to welcome us. She had to leave the old happy home in which she once lived. It was close to the front line and in the range of Assad army snipers.
The four daughters, their husbands, and, it’s hard to comprehend, 22 young children are imprisoned in this desperate environment.
None of the adults have any prospect of finding paid work. The children are confined and have no toys, and no prospect of going to schools, because they’re all closed.
Since the rebel gains back in August, jobs are all but impossible to find. This family is destitute – not a dime in their hands. The rent hasn’t been paid for four months.
Sabiha, a widow who’s 65 and who aside from her arthritis needs minor abdominal surgery, is on the brink of a breakdown.
“I have one blanket and one pillow. What can I do for my family, my poor grandchildren?” she says.
I ask her who does she support – Assad or the opposition forces?
She responds: “I don’t know, I don’t care. I need something so that we can live. I have nothing … you can search this apartment and you won’t find anything. Poverty is killing us.”
We walk with two of her grandsons, eight and nine years old to a bakery. They take their turns at collecting the daily bread, cutting their queueing time because an uncle who has a rare four hour a day job in the nearby bakery helps them.
We meet one of their brothers who also does the bread run. He is 12 and when the uncle isn’t working can spend up to seven hours getting the bread.
Sabiha cannot leave Aleppo. And her son, daughters and grandchildren can’t afford to take the often costly trail of refugees out of the country. In any case, they don’t want to leave the dominant family matriarch.
They are among tens of thousands in the same situation.
It seems for them a lifetime ago that they inwardly felt angry about the iron fist of Assad rule.
But now their expressions, everything they intimate, screech out the same sentiment as the weeping man in a shisha bar: What can we do?
There is no-one to help them. And when I search around trying to find some strand of hope, I hear a slightly different message on the suspicious streets of this once bustling, commercial hub city.
It goes like this: “We want our lives back.”
When will that happen?
You’d have to be brave, or psychic, to hazard a guess.