Francesca Borri, an Italian freelance journalist, started covering Syria in May 2012. She spent almost two and half years reporting from Aleppo, living among Syrian civilians for much of the time, and she embedded with the Islamic State in 2013.
“It’s starving, Aleppo … it’s so exhausted that missiles strike, and people continue to live amid the rubble,” she wrote in a haunting reflection from her time on the ground.
In Aleppo, an eight-year-old girl told her, “The only anti-aircraft system here is rain. The only shelter is luck.”
Francesca spoke to Syria Deeply about writing from Aleppo as one of the final few foreign journalists left in the city.
Syria Deeply: You’ve made several trips to Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011. How has it changed with each visit?
Borri: People ask me to explain, in a few words, the situation in Syria. There are four sides to the Syrian war. There is Bashar al-Assad and the regime, the Islamic State and radical Islamist groups, the rebel groups and the most important side, the Syrians who are paying for the price for this war.
On one hand, it changed because the war changed – it started off as a revolution for freedom and dignity, then it became armed resistance, and then it became a war. We were on the ground, so we could see the first foreign fighters coming, and we saw how they and Syrians got radicalized.
As far as my experience goes, everyone supports a different side, but you are always told that people are choosing between less than ideal options. People say they don’t like the regime, but they don’t want the caliphate or the anarchy of the rebel groups. It’s not black or white.
In this way, nothing has changed in Syria – there is a plurality of actors and interests.
Syria Deeply: What’s it like reporting under the constant threat of barrel bombs and airstrikes?
Borri: My worst time in Aleppo was in April and May, during barrel bombs. I’ve never seen anything like the barrel bombings in Aleppo. It’s a crime against humanity on an unprecedented scale.
Civilians and combatants – there is no such distinction in Syria. Civilians are targets for both sides in Syria today. It’s surreal, the front line is safer because airstrikes aren’t on the front line. Barrel bombs are only used on civilian neighborhoods. When you are embedded with fighters, you have shelter and food, so in some way you are safer.
[In April and May] more or less 80,000 civilians in rebel-held Aleppo didn’t know where the front line was, where the fighting was, so they had no idea where to flee. It was completely crazy.
Syria Deeply: How has the landscape of Aleppo changed? To what extent can you see the destruction of its cultural heritage and social fabric?
Borri: Aleppo doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been razed to the ground. For kilometers, you walk on rubble. There is no point in talking about the cultural heritage. We are talking about something that doesn’t physically exist anymore. You walk and walk and there is nothing in Aleppo.
Consider that when we speak of Syria, we speak of a country where there are 3 million registered refugees and many more unregistered refugees, half of the population is displaced, and, depending on who you quote, a death toll of more or less 300,000.
When I plan my work, I consider Syria divided into four areas: the south, central Syria, the north and the east. Syria as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore, but Syrians do exist – they are who we need to focus on.
Syria Deeply: There is a very striking paragraph from your recent article where a young activist tells you: “We didn’t just lose the revolution … we lost Syria.” What did he mean by that?
Borri: Abu Maryam, a leader of the Friday demonstrations, is the symbol of Syrians and what Syria has become. He was an activist persecuted by the regime, attacked and beaten by rebel groups, and in the end was kidnapped and executed by the Islamic State.
When Syrians learned of his death, they held a Friday demonstration in Aleppo under barrel bombs. Aleppo was the most hellish place on earth but they came to the streets in memory of him. Every Friday, until this day, there are demonstrations in Syria. The only difference now is that they aren’t just demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad, they are also demonstrating against rebel groups and the Islamic State. Syrians are still there. When you speak with Syrians, they feel completely lost … they feel their country is lost.
Syria Deeply: What is your most striking memory from your recent trip to Aleppo, the moment you’ll never forget?
Borri: During my first days in Aleppo in October 2012, the first weeks of the battle, I was with a group of freelance journalists. We were under heavy mortar fire and at one point we had to rush to seek shelter. We found a building that was packed with women, children and families, and there was no space for me to enter. There wasn’t even a square meter. An old man came out and told me that I had to come in – he said my life was more important than his because I, as a journalist, could tell the world what was happening in Syria. I remember this old man disappearing into dust and smoke … this image will be with me till my last day as a journalist.
Syria Deeply: How has the emergence of ISIS changed how you do your job?
Borri: The Islamic State isn’t something new. As a journalist who was on the ground, I have seen their evolution. The men that now carry the Islamic State flag carried a different flag months ago. As a journalist, many things changed with them on the ground, but the point is, they are not a monolithic organization – there is a difference between local Syrian fighters and foreign fighters for the Islamic State. There is a huge difference between the members who deal with civil activities like governance, humanitarian aid, reconstruction and fighters for the Islamic State.
A year ago I was embedded with Syrian members of the Islamic State who were providing humanitarian aid to the population, so the image I got of them was completely different than what we see in YouTube videos.
In May, and many people were dying as a result of bombings, the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat al-Hazm found six buses and fixed them up and started a shuttle service between Aleppo and the countryside close to the Turkish border, to evacuate people.
I later had to flee Aleppo because of death threats coming from Western foreigners from the Islamic State. It is not black and white. The reality on the ground is far more complex.
Syria Deeply: Syria is now the most dangerous place in the world for reporters. What has your experience been in Aleppo?
Borri: In May, I thought I wouldn’t come out of Aleppo alive, but I remember the last time in Aleppo as the most beautiful ever because of the people, the humanity.
The key in a place like Syria is time, having the opportunity to spend months in one place, so that people can meet and speak with you several times, on the front lines and off, over months.
When I was at the border between Syria and Turkey, I decided to wear niqab to protect myself. As a young woman alone on the border, the Islamic State or anyone patrolling the border immediately notices you. It is obvious that I was not an Arab woman despite the fact that I was wearing a niqab . A couple of women on the border noticed that the Islamic State was observing me and immediately surrounded me so that the Islamic State thought I was a friend. This happened all the time on the border and inside Syria – Syrians protected me. Syrian women were a crucial part in my protection as journalist.
When the war reaches the fragmentation that you now see in Syria, there is no point in looking for armed protection by embedding with armed groups. The only protection you can have is “social protection” with Syrians.
To build social protection, you need to build relationships, and for this you need time, and this is exactly what journalists don’t have. There have been cuts in foreign correspondents, forcing journalists to jump from place to place, which endangers them. If you only spend one week in Syria, you are in danger because you don’t have the experience to know what to avoid. It’s not necessarily just what’s changed on the ground with the introduction of ISIS; it’s a reflection of what’s changed in the media industry.
Photo courtesy of Stanley Green