In Aleppo, death comes from above and there's no knowing where it will fall

Toby Muse reports on the horrors caused by the constant shelling he experienced in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

After a two-hour drive, the car came in to Aleppo. Grabbing my bags and getting out of the car, a mortar exploded some two blocks away.

And then another. Every inner voice screamed to get in the car and race back to the safety of the border.

What caused me a moment's terror has been daily life for Aleppo's millions of inhabitants over the last six weeks.

Aleppo can be overwhelming. It's unlike combat I've ever covered before; much of it isn't even combat. Day and night, it's non-stop bombing and shelling of a city of millions by the Syrian government using airplanes, helicopters and heavy artillery. In an instant, death comes from above and there's no telling where it will fall.

Government MiG jet fighters perform elaborate military maneuvers against civilian neighborhoods, diving down to drop bombs across the city.

It's in the emergency wards where one sees the daily mutilation of the city. Heavy shelling rocked the neighborhood around the hospital all afternoon, causing deep rumblings that upend the stomach. Without fail, five minutes after a shelling a car would screech to the hospital's front doors and one or two injured civilians would be carried in.

One man who looked to be about 55 was brought in half unconscious, his head lolling back. The left leg below the knee had been blown off in the shelling.

With the hospital already attending to dozens of other patients, the only space left was on the floor by the door, just feet from the pavement. Doctors in blood stained white coats quickly stubbed out their cigarettes and did what they can.

The doctors applied the tourniquet as a bright red puddle spread out underneath him.

Tens were killed yesterday here in Aleppo and tens more will die today.

When Syrians learn I'm English, they ask why England or America or the world doesn't do anything to stop the maiming, end the killing. But there's also a resignation that the world will not help.

One commander told me: "The world knows what it should do. We are not interested in begging for help."

Daily sights are the bread lines, where dozens queue for the staple that accompanies every meal in Syria. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple cases where heavy artillery has fired on these lines, dismembering women and children.

I've rarely been so self-conscious of the limits of my job trying to describe Aleppo. Obviously, I'm only reporting one half of this story; I can't speak to soldiers fighting those rebels or civilians who support President Assad (journalists working in Aleppo take it for granted that if they're caught by the army they'll be indefinitely detained or killed).

As I prepared to leave Aleppo I was frustrated that I can't convey the sheer scale of what is happening to this city. No report prepared me for what I would see in Aleppo and I know I'm equally incapable of explaining to the outside world.

As I left Aleppo, it wasn't the sight of the dead girl that remained with me, it wasn't the group of Syrian fighters who stood in the middle of a main avenue thrusting their Kalashnikovs in to the air defying the MiG jet screaming overhead. It wasn't the brigade commander sitting in the flickering light focused on the chessboard as heavy artillery landed all around outside his command center.

It was a suitcase. One of my final nights, I slept on the frontline.

All civilians had fled the neighborhood, leaving the rebels and the army to fight over the deserted homes and blasted out buildings.

Even Aleppo's ubiquitous stray cats had fled the government's constant mortar attacks.

Four fighters, two brothers and two cousins, had taken over an apartment. The spacious home had obviously once belonged to a well-off family. In the living room, the fighters would relax at night watching clips from around Syria showing combat with the army or the latest civilian bloodshed on a huge flat screen TV.

With the customary hospitality, they put me in what they said was the safest room, what was once the children's room.

Two small beds lay side by side, each made up with matching sheets showing a smiling sun.

A stuffed elephant sat on the shelves.

On one bed was an open suitcase. It was almost fully packed, with t-shirts and shorts adorned with drawings of animals and Minnie Mouse.

I can see a young girl, maybe ten years old selecting her favourite clothes, neatly folding them in to the suitcase.

I can imagine her and her family frantically fleeing their home as survival becomes countable in seconds. Not even time to grab that bag she had taken her time to thoughtfully pack.

I imagine this girl now with her family, a few more faces among the 200,000 Syrians living in misery in the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan.

Or perhaps she never took that bag because one day, her and family were killed in shelling.

Toby Muse is a journalist and documentary film-maker who has just returned from Aleppo, Syria.

A Syrian girl runs for cover from an air raid in Aleppo. Photograph: Getty Images

Toby Muse is a journalist and documentary film-maker who has just returned from Aleppo, Syria.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage