November 28, 2012. Kilis, Turkey
I check into a fleabag hotel in Kilis, near the Syria-Turkey border, after saying goodbye to my friend Jean, a 22-year old French journalist. He was to enter Syria without me because of his tight schedule, and my inability to withdraw funds from Turkey’s ATMs. “We will be back for you tomorrow morning. Be ready,” Sami, our fixer, says to me.
At the hotel, I am unable to communicate with the concierge because he speaks no English; even the word “room” escapes him. By some miracle I run into Glen, a journalist from New Zealand, and another Syrian fixer (who has requested to stay anonymous), smoking outside. “You need to go to Aleppo? No problem,” my new friends reassure me. We agree on a price of $150, and after frantic calls to my bank to wire money, a car is arranged to take me in the morning.
November 29, 2012. Kilis, Turkey/Aleppo, Syria
Glenn and I take a taxi to the crossing between Turkey and Syria and are asked to walk on foot to the Syrian side. I am greeted by poorly spelled signs welcoming me to “Free Syria”, and by Abdu, Sami’s driver. After a long wait at the FSA office, and getting my “Free Syria” visa stamp, I decide to continue my journey with Abdu to Aleppo. He is friendly and frequently stops the bus to let me take pictures of destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers along the road, and to accommodate my weak bladder.
We see smoke rising from airstrikes and hear shelling as we approach Aleppo. We are forced to make a detour through a Kurdish area that seems very supportive of the FSA. We arrive at the safehouse but no one is home. We are stuck standing on the street, which is surprisingly alive with people shopping for the scarce provisions that are still for sale.
At long last, my contact arrives and lets me in. The safehouse is abuzz with men armed with cameras, laptops and AK-47s, cycling in from the front line, which is about one km away. Aref, my guide, takes me out to photograph a school that was struck by the Syrian air force that very morning. Back at the safehouse, I am in the process of uploading, when I hear that there has been a near total shutdown of the internet in the country. People around me warn me to shut down my computer, for fear that our uplink will be traced and our location will be bombed.
When the bombing picks up around us, I am shocked by how loud the blasts are. I need to distract myself—I turn to one of our bodyguards to tell him he looks exactly like Fred Savage. “Who is Fred Savage?” he asks me. I ask one of the staff if it is once again safe to log on; he gives me the go-ahead and I google a picture of Fred Savage, which elicits wild laughter from the journalists and fighters in the room. They’re in agreement—the resemblance is uncanny.
Most of the safehouse occupants have gone to bed, leaving pistols, cameras, laptops, AK-47s cigarette packs, flak jackets and helmets strewn about the apartment, and I stay awake, writing. I count at least 13 hits very close to our location and several more in the far distance. The shelling continues as I go to sleep and I am trapped in a fearless daze: I have no grip on the situation.
November 30, 2012. Aleppo, Syria
It has been about twelve hours since the nationwide blackout. The internet goes in and out because our precious and rare satellite uplink is pieced together with mangled wires. There have been at least two airstrikes in our immediate area over the past week, and we suspect our uplink may mark us as a target by the regime. But the activists decide to soldier on. At least for now, they are one of the few voices in Syria capable of reaching the outside world.
I am able to Skype and Mahdis, my boss’s agent, contacts me to say that BBC needs a voice on that ground. She connects me with a BBC sound engineer for a preliminary interview. I am stressed because the shelling makes it hard to concentrate and the internet keeps dying.
BBC calls to tell me they want me on the air at ten my time. I choke down endless cigarettes waiting for the clock to hit ten and hoping that the connection will stay up. I am four minutes away from airtime when the internet cuts and the generator creaks to a halt. I curse my luck and feel selfish for bitching about my career while people are being blown to pieces. Yet I continue bitching.
I offer “Frenchie”(a guard) 100 bucks to go out and get me some benzene. He half jokingly threatens to put a bullet in my head but goes out to find gas anyways. We load the generator at 11 and I am able to get online, only to find out that I have to wait till 1 am for the next news cycle. I wait alone with Jean, whom I reconnected with at the safehouse, as shells explode in the distance.
I use a colleague’s laptop to re-connect with BBC, but the generator breaks 40 minutes before my second chance. We fiddle desperately to get it working, as I run around chain smoking. Yet again, I curse my luck. Yet again, we find that the generator has run dry.
Time is ticking, so I beg for an alternative. Our Syrian colleagues are lying around a gas stove to combat the bitter cold, which shocks me when compared to the springtime weather of the daytime. Ghassan, one of my colleagues, responds: “Okay, I have a solution but it is a little dangerous—prepare yourself”. We go out into the empty and bomb-ravaged streets, a wasteland unlike anything I have ever seen, as shells pop in the distance.
Ghassan drives fast to the point of recklessness. We drive past a few FSA technicals (pick-up trucks with heavy machine-guns on the back) still patrolling the streets at 12:40, in a total blackness incomprehensible to a New Yorker, the blackness of a country shut down by tyranny. I look at the stunning starscape above us and think that this is how the night sky is meant to look. In a tiny way, through all the misfortune, we are privileged. I wonder what a satellite picture of Syria would look like at this moment.
We walk up the stairs of an apartment building that is lit by a generator, and are greeted by a friendly bearded gentleman who escorts me into the nicest apartment I have during my time in Syria. He hooks me up to a satellite uplink and assures me he has the most reliable internet possible. In that moment of calm, we realize we are losing our minds from hunger, lack of sleep, and a desperate desire for the smokes we left at the safehouse. The BBC pings me and I am too tired to worry about my composure or disheveled appearance.
I listen to the lead-in and hear the commentator, “For the situation on the ground, we have Patrick Hilsman, live in Aleppo.” When the interview ends, I chat with the BBC reporter. We chat about how dreary London’s weather is this time of year, and about how bad I smell from days of not showering. “You can probably smell me thorough the internet” I say, and we disconnect.
December 1, 2012. Aleppo, Syria
I am finishing this the night after appearing on BBC. The blackout has been lifted, leaving us to speculate that it was an attempt to reduce internet traffic in order to sweep for FSA satellite links, and possibly cover up some strategic moves by the regime. My arm aches from an accidental slip at the Almira front earlier today.
At this very moment, there is a round of shelling much closer and infinitely more intense than anything I have ever experienced. A BBC appearance from inside Syria is very good for my career as a new journalist, but mostly I am glad I was able to speak to someone outside and penetrate the blackout.
Syria is a nation that survives, despite being cut off from humanity, despite being beaten over and over again by the cruelty of over 30 years of dynastic oppression. It is a nation that will be heard above the clatter and through the silence.
We are freezing, and exhausted from the terror of living under bombs and shells snipers and rockets. Yet, here we are. Yet, Aleppo lives.