Dodging death in East Aleppo as a journalist

A trapped American citizen journalist describes what it’s like reporting from besieged East Aleppo.

Syria besieged areas of Aleppo
'We’re sometimes the first responders at the scene of a strike, arriving even before the White Helmets' [Reuters]

East Aleppo, Syria – I came to Aleppo three months ago to report on the state of the city after rebel fighters from Jaysh al-Fath [Army of Conquest] had broken the siege by Assad’s forces. While sitting with the OGN crew, which included myself, Abdus Samad, a journalist from Germany, and Muhammad Ghazi, a journalist from Gaza, we discussed a possible three-man trip to the city to cover how life had changed for the residents who had been besieged. We packed our clothes and equipment for a three-day stay. The rebels had just broken the siege, so what could go wrong?

We drove to the outskirts of Aleppo and stopped at a spot where trucks that provide water to private homes fill up their tanks. There was a dry field beside the water station and we decided to use the mud from the field to completely cover our car. The rebels may have broken the siege but the skies were still owned by the government forces, and aircraft seemed to fire on any vehicles trying to get in or out of the city. We hoped that covering our car would stop the sun reflecting off it and thereby reduce the likelihood of our being spotted from above. We left just enough of the front window uncovered for me to see the road ahead as I drove.

As we entered the city via the destroyed section of al-Ramousa, in a celebratory mood at having made it, an air strike landed nearby.

I noticed that the only other cars were either full of those who were trying to escape but had been forced back by air strikes or empty and riddled with shrapnel. Government planes and drones were firing on anyone who tried to leave or enter. It may no longer have been an on-the-ground siege, but the people were still trapped. Within two weeks, the government forces would be back on the ground, blocking every route into or out of the city.

That was three months ago and we – and 300,000 residents – remain trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

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There are two things that separate me from the rest of the people here. I am the only American citizen and the only black guy in town. That makes me a pretty visible target and I have to be particularly cautious in case any of the people behind the numerous death threats I receive on Facebook decide to make good on their promises.

Six weeks into my time in Aleppo

At around 5am the call to prayer from the city’s mosques mingles with the sound of mortar, Kalashnikov and plane-mounted cannon fire. It’s a typical start to a day in Aleppo. By 7am, the noise has started to diminish. By 8.30am, people begin to venture out on to the streets.

I am in the tiny apartment I share with Muhammad and Abdus Samad. Crammed inside it are a couch, three armchairs, two bunk beds, a glass table and a bunch of small ornaments that are scattered all over the room for decoration. When a colleague recommended the apartment, he described it as “super deluxe”.

Over a breakfast of hard bread, rocket leaves and beans I plan my day with my colleagues. Who should I interview and where? Is it safe – or as safe as it can be, considering – to go there?

As I prepare to leave my temporary “super deluxe” dwellings, I first look through the window to check whether there is anybody milling around outside who shouldn’t be there. Are there any boxes or bags in front of my door that could conceal an IED? What about that guy standing over there smoking? Is he looking in my direction?

I’m on edge. It has only been a few days since I was nearly killed in an air strike while interviewing the White Helmets rescue force. It wasn’t the first time I have come that close to death; it was the seventh.

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I head straight for the car. The morning sun casts an eerie glow over the city’s quiet streets. Aleppo’s buildings have been pulverised by missiles. In some of their remains, you can see a clock hanging on the wall, clothes in an open closet, toys in the rubble. It’s hard to imagine that each apartment once had a living, breathing family  inside it.

My driver is Ahmad. He’s a skinny guy from a small village. He and I get along well, although he speaks a dialect that takes me a few seconds to understand whenever he talks. He has other important work that keeps him busy but he likes to help us out. Unfortunately, my car ran on gasoline – one of the first casualties of the siege as there isn’t a drop of it to be had in the city – but Ahmad’s runs on diesel.

My gasoline ran out weeks ago, and my trusty car was subsequently hit by an air strike. Now to get to a story we either grab a ride from someone, run to the site (if we know the direction), or hitchhike. It’s not the most security-conscious way to travel, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances.

I arrive at my first interview of the day; it is with a Free Syrian Army group operating in Aleppo. Even in besieged Aleppo a good cup of tea is still the standard. Food, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly sparse. Sometimes the bread is good; sometimes it has foreign objects baked into it. I have a cracked tooth as a result of some rock-like substance buried deep inside a piece of innocent-looking bread.

I’m supposed to go to the dentist tomorrow to get it fixed but that seems unlikely as the balcony of the building where the dentist’s office is located is gone – and I suspect the clinic is out of action, too. I guess I’ll have to keep chewing only on the left side of my mouth until I can work out a way to get dental care.

I haven’t tasted juice for months. There aren’t any eggs or chicken either. For breakfast it’s oil and zaatar or maybe tomato paste on bread with some tea.

In the room where I’m waiting for my interview are men aged between 20 and 40. They are each wearing a battle vest full of Kalashnikov magazines. They seem friendly. And I’m a pretty jovial person myself. It comes from the time I spent working as a stand-up comedian years ago. I’m bilingual but my English jokes don’t always translate so well into Arabic. For the most part, my Syrian hosts don’t seem to mind.

As I pick up my cup of tea, one of the fighters says: “I heard we can get $20,000 for kidnapping an American!” Everyone starts to laugh, myself included. “That rate is only for white Americans,” I joke, in part to conceal my own discomfort. “The black ones aren’t on the list.” More laughter erupts. I take a sip of tea. 

Our next stop is a hospital. As we are visiting some patients at one hospital, we are informed that the M10 hospital across town is out of service owing to air strikes. We immediately rush there and, upon arriving, are greeted by a scene of total devastation. Seven air strikes – including a bunker buster, barrel bombs, a chlorine canister and cluster bombs – have pounded the hospital within the span of an hour. There is a deep sadness in the faces of the staff.

As we finish filming at the hospital I realise that our ride hasn’t returned for us. It is close to sundown, the time at which people stop going out because that is when the planes with the 23mm cannons mounted on them come out. They do this because they must fly at a very low altitude in order to fire upon cars and pedestrians but do not want to risk being shot down themselves.

I know we can either wait for Ahmad, hoping that he eventually turns up, or start walking. If he doesn’t come, that will mean spending the night in the bombed-out hospital or taking our chances with the planes. We decide to walk.

Three months into my time in Aleppo

At 8:29pm there is a huge explosion right in front of our office and across the street from one of the hospitals. Myself and Abdus Samad check whether the hospital has been hit.

Covering the war in Syria isn’t nearly as simple as just filming interviews. We often help to dig people out of the rubble and drive the injured to hospital. We’re sometimes the first responders; at the scene of a strike even before the White Helmets arrive.

As we run through our darkened stairwell and are about to turn into the corridor that leads to the street, I tell Abdus Samad to wait. I’ll go first, I explain, as there’s no need for us both to get injured if another rocket lands. At 23, Abdus Samad is half my age; a fact he loves to joke about.

But as I turn the corner, another rocket lands and smashes the balcony of our apartment. Worried about Muhammad Ghazi, who is sleeping in one of the rooms, we race back upstairs. Muhammad is unhurt, but the room we were in just seconds before is destroyed. Steel, concrete and balcony doors rest on top of our computers. We all run to the basement to take cover until the rocket fire stops and we can make it across the street to the hospital. My best guess is that these are truck-mounted Grad rockets.

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Another family that lives in the building also makes it to the basement. One of the women is frantic. We try to calm her down. It only works when I assure her that I will head upstairs to check on what is happening and then report back. But as I make my way up the stairs, another rocket lands. I think it damages my ear-drum.

Now, whenever I raise my voice, it sounds as though my ear is a blown-out speaker. I head back down unable to hear properly and with my ears ringing. I motion that it’s still too dangerous to go out.

When the rocket fire eventually slows, we run across the street to the hospital. Noticing that nobody has left to seek safer ground, we expect the worst. Assad’s forces have been targeting hospitals for the past fortnight, surely they must know to get away? Are they all dead?

As we enter, we find the staff in the underground operations room. They look like ghosts; their eyes wide and their faces covered in dust. There is a patient on the operating table. With the minimal equipment they have, they have continued to operate on him as the rockets have rained down. A doctor is sewing one of his wounds. I later learn that the patient died.

The staff are trying to move already sick, barefooted, dust-covered patients to the basement. Those who can walk, walk. Those who can’t are carried. There is no elevator.

We find ourselves in a room with about 30 other people. I can’t shake the mental image of a barrel bomb bringing the already-damaged upper floors down upon us, either crushing us to death or entombing us alive. I know that no one will come to our rescue as more rockets fall from the sky. With each landing missile, dust and debris falls upon us.

The fires burning outside will serve as a guide to the helicopters and their barrel bombs, I think. “We can’t all bunch up like this,” says Muhammad. “A few more hits and the building may collapse. Some of us need to move to another location.”

There is a discussion. Some say it is too dangerous to go out. Ultimately, my crew and I make the decision to say the testimony of faith (there is no God but Allah) and run out of the back door. As we run, rockets turn the night sky orange.

We once interviewed a man who lived in a partially destroyed building nearby. Its upper floors had been pulverised but he lived in the basement. “This is the safest place to be,” he had told us. “The regime thinks this building is already destroyed.”

We weren’t sure whether or not he was serious. The basement was a mess. There was dust and dirt everywhere, but he’d carved out a small corner where he’d placed a mattress on a thin sheet of plastic. A car battery provided electricity.

We run there. When we arrive, we don’t knock. We simply barge down the stairs. “Abu Taha, Abu Taha,” we shout. There’s no answer. The lights are on so we think he cannot be far. Since we filmed with him, we’ve seen him around and stopped to talk and laugh. We don’t think he’ll mind our intrusion now.

A few minutes later he comes in and greets us. We sit with him, feeling relatively safe from the bombardment that rages upstairs. Approximately 50 rockets have landed in the area.

After an hour, things calm down and we decide to return to our apartment to collect our camera, computers and valuables. The doors and windows have been blown away and anyone could walk in and take them.

We run alongside buildings to avoid being an easy target for the government planes that patrol the skies, firing on anything that moves.

We turn the corner into our street. The cars are still on fire, but so, too, is our apartment. An incendiary bomb has punched through the walls and started a fire that has consumed everything – our computers, camera, clothes and what little food we had. Food is hard to come by here.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I notice that ours is the only apartment in the area that is on fire. Our media office in Idlib was shelled, killing three people this past summer. My car was mangled by a drone strike a few weeks later, and another attack was launched on our vehicle as we were covering a story a few months ago.

While some celebrate my “courageous” presence in Syria, the government and its Russian helpers are not known to be friendly to Western journalists reporting in English. I sometimes have to interview those on the ground who have anti-American sentiments as well. All of this makes Aleppo, and Syria in general, a challenging place to report from.

Source: Al Jazeera