Welcome to Syria: Working in a warzone

A young al-Nusra Front fighter from Syria. (AFP)

A young al-Nusra Front fighter from Syria. (AFP)

My camera is still bloody, my conscience muddy. We flirted with the fringes of the warzone in Syria. And that's as close as I ever want to get.

I've had a romance with danger for a long, long time.
Parachuting into rebel territory. Going live as shells rain down in the distance. Thick, grey smoke rising from the horizon. You see that sort of thing in the movies and it's seductive. In reality, it's deadly.

When we first arrived, we'd take cover every time an explosion went off. Then we stopped – you'll never be smart enough to beat a projectile. First the sound of metal tearing through the air, then the thud below your feet, all before the deafening blast crashing into your ears. "Good morning," it roars. "Welcome to Syria." You have to make peace with the fact that you could die at any time. That's the theory, anyway.

….

I'm back home now, but these days it's the suburbs that scare me. A car hoots and in a nanosecond my eyes have scanned the room. My camera, where the hell is my camera? Then I realise: I'm in the land of Jack Russells and electric fences. In Syria, hooting meant one thing –  another desperate race to get a body to hospital.

The videos I took have not really registered. I replay them over and over again as I try to put my documentary together, frame by frame. The missiles crashing into nearby mountains, the sickening smell of disinfectant mixed with recent death, and of course, the last gasps of an 11-year-old accidentally shot by his father. They're all there – living in the recesses of my brain. I want to talk to them, hash things out. Share a cup of coffee. And yet somehow I can't bring myself to do it. My mind seems afraid.

I was in the middle of a live crossing to Johannesburg when that 11-year-old boy died. It didn't even hit me till the red camera light stopped flashing and I saw his father's forehead flat against the hospital floor. "Allahu Akbar." God is great, he mouths.

Back home, someone is beating a rug on the balcony next door. Bah. Bah Bah. I realise I'm becoming a war correspondent cliché; everyday sounds remind me of battle.

***

Darkoush Hospital was in a lush valley. Locals believed we were safe, trusting in US patriot missiles flying across from Turkey's border. The mountains also provided protection, they said. And Allah; he would help too. Cameraperson Joe Komane and I spent large parts of our day on the rooftop. The rebels warned that it was risky, but it was also the only place with decent reception. Each day, we'd venture up the stairs hoping the locals were right and that God would help.

During daylight we looked to the mountains for signs of movement. This is where the mind starts playing games, where tree branches look like sniper scopes and rocks suddenly turn into tanks. At night, we monitored the sky. You start to comfort yourself with Cardies schlock – this is the same sky my friends and family are under; we're apart, and yet somehow together. But this is not the same sky. Our stars are not aligned – I'm watching missiles, they're watching Gossip Girl.  

When I get home, I relish the opportunity to take up space. To live in my living room. Inhabit it. Own it. Control it. Then a baby howls upstairs, and suddenly I'm back in Syria.  

Faheem is oozing bodily fluids from a shrapnel wound to his shoulder. A speck of blood hits my camera lens. Grizzly, but all I can do is smile when I see him laughing at his friends. Three of them have their sleeves rolled up as they expose their veins. They all know his blood type and they're getting ready to do their bit. Blood brothers.

As the days went by, the explosions got louder and more frequent. We thought the frontline was miles away, but war is unpredictable. Eventually shrapnel was spraying just a few hundred metres away from us.

Shrapnel, the byproduct of explosives meeting metals, is a horrid conception. Picture rocks, made of forged metals, jagged and sharp, hurtling through the air at the speed of a bullet. Utterly indiscriminate. No wonder the hospital wards are filled with civilians.

I search for hope in my videos. Clips that show humanity in the madness, excuses to smile. The kindness of strangers – people who took us into their humble homes. Young lovers meeting at sunset, whispering sweet nothings on the banks of the river. The new spring yields blood red poppy flowers sprinkled amongst olive trees. During wartime, even nature seems in a hurry.

More than anything, the videos reveal a terrible excitement, then fear, in my own eyes. It wasn't long before the euphoria and adrenaline turned into something else. Something elemental. A taste in the mouth. A turn of the gut. An instinct that told me I was playing with death.

Tip-toeing past mines or knowing how to avoid the baddies will only get you so far. You have to maintain your sanity in a place where you'll see the best and worst of mankind. Nothing can prepare you for that, not even the story itself. It might be noble, courageous and full of truth. But I fear that truth comes at a cost. The fact is, we arrived in a sleepy farm town. We left a warzone. Just last week, mortars hit Darkoush, killing 12 people. I can't help but think we thrust them into the spotlight and into the firing line.

And yet, I know I'd go back in a heartbeat. In the newsroom all I hear is "Gupta this" and "Gupta that". I ask who died? The thing is, I can come back to the comforts of Jo'burg. The people who took us into their homes, fed us, protected us – they don't have that luxury. They stay on the frontline.

Working in a War Zone will be broadcast on eNCA (DStv 403) on Friday, May 31, at 12.30pm and Saturday, June 1, at 9.30am.

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