It's the planes that scare me. You can hear them, you some times spot them, and you have no idea where their terror will fall. That waiting game, that I first experienced in the desert of Libya almost a year and a half ago.
On August 10, I arrived in Aleppo to the same Free Syrian Army base that I had been at the day before. In the courtyard, a huge hole had appeared over night. Four bombs had fallen at around 5am, one of which lay unexploded right outside an apartment block. Men stood around it with their feet on it. A few metres away, one of the residents looks up at a gaping whole in the side of the building; a family's sanctuary torn apart by fire and metal.
On other occasions, we have jumped out of our car and taken cover against buildings, seeing these MiGs circling overhead. They dive, flashes appear and then a few seconds later, the sound of their impact. Smoke rises from the city. Neighbourhoods are terrorised.
It's not just planes that do this damage. My notepad is filled with tally marks next to times and the names of districts. "Shelling, 14h30" it reads. I. II. III. IIII. And a line stuck through them marking five. That afternoon, in Saleheddine, the tallies would go up to eight. Yet still, three men emerged from the smoke and the rubble, their faces covered in fine grey dust, a smile breaking through as they brandishing their rifles above their heads.
The FSA has little they can do against The Threat From The Sky. In Hanano, I have seen men stand in courtyards fire their AK-47s into the air against helicopters. Their bullets would not come close. In those residential areas, densely packed by monotonous apartment blocks, short cracks would ring out and then be followed by deeper "booms" of a heavier gun. *Maybe they have anti-aircraft weapons now*, I thought for a few seconds. And then I realised, this was the deeper echo of the small arms fire. There would be no retort.
Even the hospital is not immune. Twisted bed frames lay in what was once a ward; a large hole opens out to the street below.
Perhaps the most terrifying experience has been driving out of Aleppo, into the relative safety of the northern countryside. Along that long, straight, flat road, we saw a plane circling on a position, diving several times and unleashing its ammunition. It then arced in a much larger loop, and we assumed it was empty and returning to base. A minute or so later, it appeared ahead of us, coming head-on above the road. Our small yellow car was indistinguishable from any other taxi, and so I assumed—I hoped—that its target was something behind us. Perhaps there was a pick-up truck of rebels further down the road.
And then it dived. Through the windscreen I saw a flash from each wing. The rounds narrowly missed, hitting the roadside just a few metres away as we sped past.
For the rest of that journey, our eyes were fixed to the skies, waiting to be finished off. Thankfully, the follow-up never came.