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The frontlines of Aleppo

Azhar Vadi | Cii News | 02 November 2012

ALEPPO – Syria

The Syrian army continued to shell and pound the northern Syrian town of Aleppo on Friday. Despite the Free Syria Army controlling about 60% of the country’s industrial hub, the forces of President Bashar Al Assad are using their airpower and artillery superiority to try and beat back the revolutionaries. And it is a powerful and deadly beating that has provided this correspondent with three close shaves of death. A reality Syrian citizens have to live with everyday.

As you enter the city driving past a Syrian military training centre, one can be deceived into thinking that the situation is safe as people continue about the normal business in a country that is anything but. Donkey carts carrying splendid fruit compete along the bumpy road with crazy drivers and swerving trucks transporting anything from people to weapons from place to place.

The car I’m in stops at a huge road arch at the entry to the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City, a few kilometers from the circular city. A minibus has been ripped apart by fire from a fighter jet earlier in the morning. Laying immobile near the base of the arch, fresh oil can still be seen running from the destroyed engine. At the pillar of the arch, Free Syria fighters can be seen milling around. I whip out my camera and begin shooting away. Nothing could have prepared me for the next 30 seconds.

Vehicle ripped apart by fighter jet –

“Ruh, ruh, ruh. Move, move move.” The fighter shouts at us. Noticing our confusion and lasklustre response to his now obvious panic he shouts again, “Tayyarah, tayyarah,” frantically pointing up to the sky as he himself runs for cover behind the huge arch. A fighter jet can be seen still some distance away.

I continue shooting with my camera as we jump into the car and the driver thumps his Hyundai into first gear. The plane is sweeping across our left and I begin to feel pleasure at being able to actually get a picture of a fighter jet in action. The people back home are going to get a kick out of this one.

The Syrian Airforce plane –

But then as we speed away everything changes in a split moment as the plane suddenly starts rounding us and begins closing in. I don’t know what weaponry it’s carrying, will it attack or will it fly by. Has it seen us?

2 seconds later and the plane begins sharply dropping altitude and closing in on us even faster. We all suddenly realise we could be the possible target. This is a cat chasing a crippled mouse.

The fighter jet closes in from behind –

There is still about 20m to drive before our small golden Hyundai with a sticker of the Syrian resistance on its bonnet can make a sharp left and cut off the swooping plane travelling in a straight line. We are not going to make it. The passenger next to me starts reading his Shahadah (testimony of faith) and I follow suite quickly snapping one more shot as a burst of heavy gunfire rings out from the plane.

I’m almost conviced that we will be hit at any second as the driver swerves left, dropping into second gear and raping the little Hyundai engine for all its worth. Through the back window I see a plume of dust erupt less than 100m away to the right of the turn off. ‘They have hit a car,” the passenger next wo me calls out.We didn’t stay around to investigate further . The fighter jet was taking another wide turn to right.

Unknown whether a vehicle was hit or not –

I was scared. I have not been so scared before in my life. The pumping adrenalin pushed my flight instincts to new levels for the rest of the one hour tour of the city.

Running away from death in the sky we found ourselves staring death in the face on the ground. The Hyundai came to halt in a side street where two blocks separated us from Syrian snipers and light artillery.

It wasn’t even 20 seconds and two photos of the smashed buildings later, when a devilish whistling sound travelling faster than anybody could move ended with a huge explosion hitting a building behind us. I was on the frontline in this part of town. Just yesterday a fighter from here was shot in the chest by a sniper. The bullet hit his armoured vest. His time was not up as yet.

Saved by his vest –

I had reached my limit. I wasn’t brave enough to go further. After lots of proud posing by Free Syria fighters hoping that their pictures would get published in ‘Aafreeka’, we pulled out heading back on the road that was being stalked by the fighter jet.

About two kilometres down and we stop again. A huge residential complex was recently struck by a missile.

“Take some pictures here,” says the driver. “Show the world that Bashar Al Assad is killing his own people and blowing up their homes.”

Click, click my camera goes. A videographer motions me to the front to describe in English what I’m seeing. As I speak about the damage extent of the building, the shell that could have hit it, the fear the war is causing and the death that follows it, that devilish whistling sound streaks up from behind us once again.

Destroyed residential buildings –

You don’t see anything. You just hear it. It’s like a wheeze. And this time it was even closer. The videographer ducks, hoping that being 10cm lower may save him if the shell lands close to us. A split second later a huge explosion occurs again, this time missing us by about 200m.

Tank shells land indiscriminatley –

Another sprint to the Hyundai and jump into the car. As we close the door, a local runs to us. “Don’t use this road. Use the longer one. Tanks are headed this way.” None of us in the car argued with him. Three times lucky and the little Hyundai wouldn’t stand a chance against a convoy of tanks. We make a u-turn and leave through a longer yet safer route. Every 5 seconds one of us scans the skies. The plane hasn’t left the area.

That was my one hour in Aleppo. The people, residents of the city, men, women, children, some with guns, others with nothing go about their everyday lives and have been living this experience for the last year. It’s almost normal to be afraid all the time. Just like you may be shocked reading this entry, they will most probably be shocked at the feeling of safety when it returns oneday.

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