I WENT TO SYRIA TO LEARN HOW TO BE A JOURNALIST
(AND FAILED MISERABLY AT IT WHILE ALMOST DYING A BUNCH OF TIMES)
Sunil Patel had never been published before he decided to go to Syria in August 2012 to become a war correspondent. Before his trip, the 25-year-old worked as a community-support officer for the London Police, lived with his mom and dad, and occasionally volunteered in Palestinian and Kurdish refugee camps. On one of his activist trips, Sunil befriended an ever so slightly more experienced freelance journalist from Canada who promised to take him into parts of Syria that were almost impossible for a foreigner to get to through legal routes. It was a foolish idea for sure, and he almost died several times during his trip, but we still think his story was worth the risk. And no, VICE did not send him there. He did this of his own accord, and we found out about it after the fact.
Imet Carlos in an internet café in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan (and, obviously, “Carlos” is not his real name). I overheard him talking about something involving Palestine and Syria over a Skype call, and when he had finished we struck up a conversation.
Carlos told me that he’d already been to Syria, shooting as a freelance photographer, and that he was going back soon. I told him how I’d been thinking about going there to write about the conflict, but that I didn’t have any experience as a journalist. “You know what?” he said. “I’ll take you to Syria.” He didn’t seem to mind that I was a novice.
That night, Carlos crashed at my hostel. He didn’t have his own place to stay or money for a room, so he slept on the floor. It was a bit dodgy sneaking him in, but worth it, because we spent the whole night talking about Syria.
I got the impression that Carlos wanted someone to travel with. I already had a ticket home to London, but we came up with an arrangement: I would fly back, and when Carlos was ready to return to Syria he would call me and we’d meet up in Turkey. From there, Carlos explained, we could cross the border. “I’ve got contacts,” he said. I was a little nervous, but this sounded like a good plan to me. We’d never have war reporters like Robert Fisk or Seymour Hersh if they’d stayed at home with their moms instead of going into the shit.
Back in London, my parents were not too keen on my plans to travel to a country in the middle of a civil war. They thought I was going to get killed. My sister was really mad. I told them that I’d always wanted to be a war correspondent, and that if I ever was going to have a chance to become a real journalist, this was it. If people want news, somebody’s got to go cover it. But they didn’t care. They were upset.
The very next day, Carlos called. “Listen, man,” he said. “I’m going in. You coming or not?”
My mind was already made up. I told Carlos I’d meet him there and booked the next flight to Turkey.
My plane landed in Istanbul, and then I took the bus to Hatay, where Carlos was staying with friends. The Syrian border is about 25 miles to the southeast. We wanted to get there as soon as possible, but neither of us spoke more than a few words of Turkish or Arabic. Luckily, we met a Turkish family who helped us get there. They took us into their home, gave us tea, and we ended up talking to them using Google Translate, typing words into their computer. We explained that we were trying to get to Syria. Somehow they understood and helped us call one of Carlos’s contacts, who was supposed to meet us near the border to help us cross. We just had to get there.
At this point, Carlos promptly informed me that he was a veteran hitchhiker and had bummed rides all over Eastern Europe, so we decided to hitchhike to the Syrian border. We probably made a funny pair—I’m Indian, so I wasn’t as suspect, but Carlos is a white guy with black hair and a camera slung around his neck. I don’t know whether this made truck drivers more or less likely to pick us up, but we thumbed it all the way down the narrow two-lane road outside Hatay. It took us about seven rides with truck drivers and more than three hours to make it the 25 miles across the border. Carlos’s contact, a guy named Muhammad, drove us the last few miles, into a town called Reyhanli near the Syrian border.
One of the busiest border crossings between Turkey and Syria, Reyhanli is about 35 miles from Aleppo, where the war was really heating up. As we roamed around and tried to get oriented, loads of refugees were streaming into Turkey—to escape the war, I assumed.
We walked across the border. No one stopped us or asked us any questions. We just walked right in. On the other side, more refugees milled around, waiting to cross into Turkey in cars and on foot. We didn’t have an interpreter because we couldn’t afford one. Carlos didn’t have any more contacts, and at this point we were just hoping we’d see some rebels hanging around whom we could talk to and who would show us what war was like.
Just then, some men in military uniforms came up to us. “Journalist!” they shouted in Arabic. “Journalist!”
“Yeah, we’re journalists,” I said, in English. I think they understood me. “We want to get some coverage. Can you take us with you to the war?”