August 8th, 2012
07:10 PM ET

Two days in Aleppo: Snipers, temporary graveyards and stairwell beds

Editor's note: CNN's Ben Wedeman and crew are some of the few international reporters in Syria, whose government has been restricting access of foreign journalists and refusing many of them entry. Wedeman spent two days this week in Aleppo, a city of more than 2 million people where rebels and government forces are fighting.

Below is an edited account of what Wedeman saw in Aleppo, including his harrowing trip into the city past snipers, street vendors selling their wares as bombs fall, and a lack of enthusiasm for the rebels' battle among many civilians.

The crack of sniper fire welcomed us into a rebel-held part of Aleppo.

Traveling through a back road on Monday, with six people crammed into a small car, we drove through government-controlled territory, bypassing a checkpoint and rolling right past the military intelligence headquarters. Vendors sold tea and coffee by the side of the road, with traffic fairly normal.

Traffic was noticeably less as we approached a rebel-held area, one neighborhood over from the Salaheddine neighborhood where fierce fighting has raged. As the car passed an intersection near a Free Syrian flag, three or four shots rang out, apparently at the vehicle.

No one was hurt, and once the vehicle passed the intersection, rebel fighters nearby shouted for the driver to stop.

“There's a sniper right there. What are you doing?” they said. The sniper apparently was part of the government's forces.

The nervous and suspicious rebels wanted to see our IDs, asked where we were from, who we were going to see, who sent us. So the crew spent time trying to explain why it was there and who it wanted to interview.

While we were talking, a yellow taxi with its back window shot out screeched to a stop in front of the soldiers. A bloodied man was slumped in the front passenger seat – shot by a sniper, other occupants said – and the soldiers urged on the driver, who was headed to a field hospital.

A few civilians figured they'd take their chances on foot. Even though the rebel fighters shouted at them to stay, they ran through the intersection, drawing sniper gunfire. We saw no one get shot.

Watch: Rebels prepare for assault

We eventually drove to Salaheddine, one of the main rebel-government battlefields, where a rebel commander said fighters were preparing to lay down improvised explosive devices in anticipation of an advance by government tanks.

A commander said these IEDs are being put together under the supervision of Syrians who learned how to make them while fighting Americans in Iraq.

It was a neighborhood virtually deserted outside of rebel forces. A couple of blocks from the front line, a few handfuls of people were retrieving possessions on Monday; otherwise, several thousand residents had fled.

More: Who controls Salaheddine?

Deeper inside rebel-held territory, such as the Sikkari neighborhood, many more residents have stayed, though not because conditions are pleasant. Government bombs fall on targets across rebel-held parts of the city, and electricity in these areas is intermittent. Despite this, many people stay – sometimes because they have no easy way out, and in many cases because they don't have the means to leave, even if they have a path out.

Cut off from the city morgue, Sikkari residents turned a public park into a temporary graveyard. Abu Hamoud, a fighter, said that one grave contained three bodies that no one could identify because they were so severely mutilated.

"We're confused," Nahla, an 11-year-old Aleppo resident, said. "We feel they want to attack us. We left this area before, then came back. Now we want to leave again, but we can't."

In Sikkari, a few shops and street vendors were at work this week, giving inhabitants some sense of normality. But at night, many people sleep in stairwells, deeming them the safest place to rest amid the bombing.

More: Sectarian divides a slow suicide for Syria?

About 50% to 60% of Sikkari's pre-battle population is still there. For those who stay, prices are up – a kilogram of tomatoes costs four times what it did a month ago – and work is hard to come by.

Although many residents in this predominantly Sunni city are no fans of the Alawite-dominated regime, enthusiasm for the battle seems muted.

In Libya's 2011 uprising, there was a giddy sort of excitement about driving out the government and fighting then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. But a lot of people don't get excited when they see Free Syrian Army fighters as they did in Libya when they saw the rebels there.

More: What options are left?

One man, a jeweler, told CNN's crew that he was disturbed at the fundamentalist, Islamist nature of some of the rebel fighters.

There's a certain hesitation or caution among many of the people about the whole turn of events. There's no love lost for the regime, but there's not the enthusiasm you'd expect for the new sheriff in town.

Unlike our drive in, we never encountered any government forces on our drive out of Aleppo. Making the long night-time drive through the city, we were in a vegetable truck – a man washed it out before we got in. It was a very bumpy, hot and dusty ride, and we were all in our flack jackets and helmets – just in case.

Syria: Full coverage

Impact Your World: Information on Syria's humanitarian crisis, and aid for refugees

soundoff (204 Responses)
  1. Diggity Dave

    For some reason, my internal voice read this article in an Australian accent.

    August 9, 2012 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
  2. Bob

    Kudo's to Wedeman. This is the first bit of actual journalism regarding the Syrian conflict I have seen. Very distinct from that of some of the other 'journalists' who seem to be nothing but cheer leaders for the rebels and do no deeper investigation at all. He identifies several critical facts: (1) The rebels are not popular amongst civilians, even within their own sectrarian group ( Sunni ). (2) Elements of the rebels are Syrian Jihadis who fought against the US in Iraq. (3) They are fundamentalist islamist – at least as seen by locals, who would know. Aside from anything else, the rebels tactic of infiltrating and occupying civilian areas, thus intentionally making them and the civilians targets, is of course a direct indicator to the locals that these guys have little real concern for civilian collateral damage – and thus that perhaps the rebels are just making them pawns in the whole thing. Finally, I find it interesting that I always see the caveat that journalists etc are restricted by the Syrians, yet they seem to get in and out with remarakable ease. By contrast I cannot remember a single journalist reporting from inside Fallujah during our reduction of that city, this despite the fact that journalists apparently had free access as we did not restrict them ( or I never noted any such caveat in any reportage ). Incidently, the number of civilians killed in that action alone was estimated to be ~6000.

    August 9, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • AMM

      The Free Syrian Army camps into civilian districts because they have no other choice. In Syrian cities, everywhere is a civilian district. I don't know if you've been to the country, but I have, and houses are everywhere, on top of stores, across the street from ruins, by universities. If the rebels were to get out of cities, they would have to settle for farms, which would do nobody any good. Why? Because the Free Syrian Army was established to protect civilians from the Syrian Army. Remember when the Syrian Army marched its tanks into Homs and Hama? That was when the FSA was established, to protect civilians from the Syrian army. They set up checkpoints to better assure safety for civilians. Now they consist of the military opposition of Assad. Fighting in farms would also do nobody any good because of the landscape. Remember that the FSA fights in guerrilla style, as they are only lightly armed against jets, helicopters, tanks, and mortar shells. They could of course always surrender to stop Assad's murder, but that would plunge the country into extreme oppression (just how Hama 1982 did)

      August 10, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. BG

    Really? A dollar bet says the snipers are rebels or just independent thugs.

    August 9, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  4. Doncville

    So....where is our prez on this? We can help in Lybia but we don't help in Syria?

    August 9, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  5. This is Weak

    In Muslim religions, hell is like heaven (so killing is justified), however, if you are extremely good you will end up in heaven, which is like hell for muslims.

    August 9, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  6. Kalju

    Now that the Syrian government has the West sponsored armed thugs and terrorists on the run, the worst mistake that Assad can do is to let them escape Syria with their lives.

    These vermin have brought nothing but, death, destruction and chaos to Syria, and they must all be hunted down and exterminated.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • mteksolution

      Dont worry. The Prophecy is exactly this:

      Islam will fight and kill off each other to extinction.
      Jews will follow suit.

      Then there will be peace.

      August 9, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • dhondi

      yes, let islam take its course.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
    • treasure123

      To kalju, The only terrorist group over there is the syrian regime. BTW it used military force for the last 17 months of the revolution and so far it failed to finish the revolution and will not be able to. The support from Iran will not last for long. The syrian regime used a support from a foreign country like iran to survive. How can you consider this regime legitimate!

      August 9, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mike H.

    Good job Ben... I followed your reports when you were in Cairo last year – and the year before – covering the revolt against Mubarak, and now here you are risking your life in Syria. Stay safe out there and know that I – and many others I am sure – appreciate your work.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  8. Baraa

    Why the US and EU are fighting Al-Qaeda in their countries and supporting it in Syria? why are they dealing with the extremists in US and EU as a danger while they are considering them as friend in Syria? Why US and EU are providing the extremists and terrorists with weapons and finance in Syria?
    This is the hypocrisy of the west.. They waged a war in Afghanistan and Iraq and killed millions of people under the cover of fighting terrorism.. Today the whole world can see that these wars were just big fat lies.. US and EU are those who created terrorism and who are still financing it in order to use it for controlling the world…
    Bashar Al-Assad is a great leader and he will slap the west in the face and teach me the lesson not to stick their noses in other nations' business.
    Go and mind your own affairs and dead economy then start talking about Syria and Bashar Al-Assad..
    Israel will drag its allies to hell and the US and EU are stupid enough to get dragged..

    August 9, 2012 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
    • rick

      although it truly is of no great import to me, or, i daresay, anyone outside of Syria and Iran, as to who wins this cvil war, I have no doubt that the war followed a timeline beginning with a peaceful protest and ending in a civil war after the peaceful protesters were answered with violence. Where does Israel, the EU, the US, the UK, UN general assembly, Danish cartoonists, or French children come into the picture? Oh, i forgot for a moment, the muslim/palestinian mantra: "woe is me, woe is me, everyone but us is responsible for our misery".

      August 9, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • treasure123

      Those who you are talking about are not extremist to begin with. They are syrian people who want freedom. The syrian regime used military force for the first eight months against civilians. What do you expect them to do? They need to defend themselves. Ghadafi used Al-Qaida to gain support from the west, but he failed and a new democracy is born in Libya. You are using the same argument and lie that that ghadafi used. The same as saleh of yemen. How can you be OK with a brutal dictator like assad?

      August 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jeff

    Just the other day on the Travel Channel was Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern in Syria and he was all smiles with the locals in Aleppo. Don't know if it was intentional to show that episode in this current situation, but it was awkward to watch.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  10. Sivick

    Apparently the syrian government thinks it can win this civil war by spouting propaganda comments on internet comment boards. If that's their winning stratagem they are screwed.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  11. Brian

    "A commander said these IEDs are being put together under the supervision of Syrians who learned how to make them while fighting Americans in Iraq."

    Prime reason why we should never help these rebels...

    August 9, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  12. Danny

    Yikes

    August 9, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  13. anon

    How is it that we in the United States have become a population where every opinion we have or education we learn is directly related to that of another individual? Americans are known to be propagandized into ignorance. And if you don't think so, you are part of the problem.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  14. SB1790

    People reading and following the dumbed-down, revised, PowerPoint version of this war do realize that the vast majority of Syria's population WANTS to government forces to take out any rebels. The rebels, for the most part, are religious extremists. And, sadly Israel and the United States is using this as an opportunity to create yet more chaos in this region.

    Its very interesting to note that Russia has sailed in some navy power into the region, but it remains to be seen if that is for government support or to protect Russian interests.

    Is the news media really buying into this 'bad Assad, good rebel' bull? It's been proven that images in major pro-western papers have doctored photographs in Photoshop because there ARE NO REAL photographs that blatantly suggest government sponsored killings. These are online. You have the paper published by a country that really has no vested interest the outcome and the photos are of he destruction. You look at the same photo in a paper grabbing the image from say, AP wire and it's got elements put into the background to make the false story convincing.

    With such access to information from actual on the ground witnesses who all conflict the government crackdown stories, what is the US and Israel thinking? The best bet for the US is to cut ties with the Israelis and leave them to the vultures. We are only friends with them because we are useful to them. Aside from that they have no other use for us. Cut the string, end these involvements, make the world a better place.

    Skeptical? Just listen to Ron Paul's speech on the Senate floor. Google and compare Western press/images with other sources from places very far removed from the region like Norway or Belgium. The war is a great false flag example.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Pepinium

      SB, your rant only started making sense when you mentioned Ron Paul. It must be hard work to live in your own reality. No doubt picking and choosing the evidence you want to accept is a big part of that. Very amusing.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  15. robertd188

    I don't mean to be too critical of my country, but we could be doing alot more to help improve relations with China and Russia. This would significantly help the Syrian crisis be resolved peacefully. Unfortunately, for example, we continue to arm Taiwan every year and anger China. And we are very critical of Russia's electoral process and oppose their influence in countries that are very close to their borders.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
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