Watching Ian Pannell and Darren Conway’s BBC report from Aleppo earlier this week I was once again stunned by the risks that journalists will take to report the news. Amazing.
Pannell and Conway, “embedded” with a group of Free Syrian Army fighters as they try to rescue some fellow fighters pinned down by Syrian government forces’ fire, are effectively being shot at along with a group of Syrian men they barely know.
It’s chaotic and frightening in way that (for example) actual war films rarely are. Unlike your typical film, here the sense is very much that it’s all happening “without a script”. To me what’s really alarming is its open-endedness. The anything-could-happen-this-very-second quality. Someone could be shot (from a hidden weapon probably hundreds of metres away) at any given moment.
Pannell and Conway are right in the middle of this but of course they’re also just a couple of BBC employees doing their day jobs (admittedly an unusual one, not everyone is a foreign correspondent or a TV cameraman). But they’re literally in the middle of blazing armed conflict. Gunfire is echoing all around. Pannell is only lightly protected (just a bullet-resistant vest) and at any moment he could be killed (Conway, behind the camera is just an anonymous presence as he runs along, but presumably is little better protected). Their vulnerability is brought home by a moment in the report where an FSA man tells Pannell he’s exposed to Syrian government sniper fire as he stands at the opening of an alley-way. He hurriedly scuttles forwards, but it doesn’t look much safer in the next spot either.
I know I should be used to this sort of thing (Amnesty has awards for journalists who take these kinds of risks to deliver the news) but somehow I’m not. Surely “work” should never be this dangerous?
But then of course this is voluntary. No-one has forced these two reporters to go to Syria. Compare this to the plight of Aleppo’s two-and-a-half million inhabitants. Trapped between FSA fighters firing their weapons extremely randomly (to judge by Pannell & Conway’s report) and Syrian government forces using helicopter gunships, fighter aircraft and tanks in residential areas, they’re being exposed to deadly fire with no recourse to a third party and with no safe place in reach. It’s a living nightmare.
The UNHCR is reporting that thousands of people in Aleppo are sheltering from the fighting in mosques and schools, while some 200,000 people have fled the city since the weekend alone. Again, it’s a nightmare situation. Braving the journey out of the city could expose you to risk; staying where you are exposes you to risk (plus, who would want to leave their home behind in these circumstances?).
There’s a link between the recklessness of the combatants’ behaviour now and the recklessness of the Syrian security forces’ behaviour as they’ve sought to suppress Aleppo’s months of protests. As a new Amnesty report shows (reported by the Guardian here), the Syrian army and their shabiha partners have fired on largely peaceful protests in Aleppo virtually every time they’ve taken place. Here’s a typical example:
‘Abd al-Ghani Ka’ake, an 18-year-old high school student, was shot in the back of the neck while filming security forces firing on a demonstration by Aleppo’s Salah al-Din roundabout on 4 May. An eyewitness told Amnesty: “It was about 12.45 and we had just got to the roundabout from the nearby mosque after Friday prayers. Members of the Hafedh al-Nizam [anti-riot] forces shot indiscriminately and many demonstrators ran away. ‘Abd al-Ghani kept filming; he was in the middle of the road, opposite the school and was wearing a bright blue sweatshirt which made him stand out. He was filming the security forces and was shot in the neck from a height, probably by a sniper. As we were trying to rescue him we kept being shot at and once we managed to put him in the car, the car too was shot at as we drove away. He died shortly after, just as we got him to a medical facility.”
Those taking part in protests have been shot at, those filming the protests have been shot at, those trying to rescue wounded protesters have been shot at. Now almost everyone in Aleppo is being shot at, as - after months and months of violent suppression of dissent - protest has curdled into armed combat and violence has pushed aside the big public demonstrations. The seeds of Aleppo’s present agony were sown by the months of brutality of the Syrian security forces as they sought to crush the city’s growing opposition to President Assad’s rule. Now everyone’s in the firing line.
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