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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder