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.