'Where is the foreign journalist?': Reporting from the front lines of Syria's civil war

Story highlights

  • Once open border is now closed and incredibly dangerous
  • Journalists risk being kidnapped by Islamist militants
  • Kurt Pelda: Airstrikes, including cluster bombs, now normal for many Syrians

Editor's note: Kurt Pelda is a freelance journalist who has spent the past 30 years reporting from war zones around the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Follow him on Twitter @KurtPelda. The views expressed in this article are his own.

(CNN)Getting into Syria is not easy. Journalists used to be able to show their passport to the Turkish customs official at the Syrian border and cross officially, with little trouble. Not anymore.

The two Turkish border posts in the region of Aleppo have been closed to human traffic -- in both directions -- for more six months. Only goods are allowed to cross nowadays, to supply civilians, rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and Kurdish militias as well as the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and ISIS.
    So what are the options for journalists who still want to take the risk of getting into rebel-controlled parts of Syria? Human traffickers.
    They don't only bring refugees on their way to Europe out of Syria and into Turkey, the first step on their journey through Greece and the Balkans to Germany; they also help Syrians who want to visit their relatives back in their home country as well as people like me.
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    Getting in

    The border is well controlled by the Turkish army; there are fences, trenches, armored personnel carriers on patrol, watch towers, tank positions and even minefields.
    The traffickers wait under a cluster of pistachio trees, just a few hundred meters from the border.
    Their colleagues on the Syrian side watch the Turkish border guards through binoculars. Once they are sure that the soldiers are busy elsewhere, we get the go-ahead to sneak through the grove, heading for a fence with holes in it. Behind it is a dirt track and a deep trench. We help each other to cross the ditch and run across an open field, hoping that the soldiers at our back will not see us.
    On the other side of the field is an olive grove packed with tents full of refugees. It is an informal camp; those living here are not receiving any visible help from the U.N. or Western aid agencies. Their tents were donated by Saudi Arabia.
    To reach the front line, south of Aleppo, we travel through areas controlled by rebel groups fighting ISIS, the Nusra Front and the Assad regime, in a pick-up truck with tinted windows, hoping that those manning the Nusra Front checkpoints will not detect the presence of a Western journalist on board.
    Rebels in the area suspect that the Nusra Front is holding three Spanish journalists who were kidnapped here in June. They speak of criminal networks among the various rebel groups who are, they say, looking for Westerners to sell as hostages to ISIS or the Nusra Front.
    The area is packed with refugees; driving along the highway to Aleppo, we pass trucks and pick-ups full of civilians, mattresses, furniture and cooking pots, heading north, towards the Turkish border region.
    According to the U.N., more than 120,000 Syrians have been displaced in recent weeks in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama. These are the areas where the regime has started its offensives against the rebels and the Nusra Front, supported by Russian air raids.
    In Hreitan, a little to the north of Aleppo, the White Helmets, a civilian defense force, showed us what they said were the remnants of Russian cluster bombs.
    The Syrian Air Force is known to have used some kinds of cluster bombs before, but the White Helmets say other types have only started to appear since the beginning of the Russian air offensive at the end of September.
    [CNN could not independently verify their claims; Russia has previously denied using cluster munitions in Syria.]
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    Air strikes now a normality

    Despite the air raids, traffic on the roads in and outside of Aleppo is normal. People here are used to sporadic attacks from the air.
    The Russian air raids are much more effective than the Syrian ones, but their choice of targets still appears a bit random: two bombs here, four bombs there, sometimes on rebel-held positions, sometimes on villages without any visible presence of fighters.
    On the battlefield south of Aleppo, two cluster bombs were dropped by a modern Sukhoi-34 fighter jet.
    One of them hit the small town of Khan Touman without exploding; it embeds itself in the tarmac in the middle of the main road. The tail with its wings is gone, allowing us to peep inside: there were still about a dozen bomblets nestled in the casing.
    Cluster bombs as well as unguided, so-called "dumb bombs" are indiscriminate weapons, they create considerable "collateral damage," meaning they tend to kill civilians as much as fighters.
    Judging from the many duds I saw in the area, the weapon of choice besides cluster bombs appears to be the OFAB-250-270 bomb, a device I saw in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s when the Soviet air force bombed the hell out of hundreds of villages.
    Most of the towns and villages south of Aleppo are empty. The inhabitants have fled, leaving just a few civilians, mostly old men, behind.
    Russian Sukhoi-25 bombers fly high above us, dropping their bombs around the town of al-Hader (which has been taken in the meantime by government forces) and then fly further west to bomb targets in more densely-populated areas near the Aleppo-Damascus highway.
    More fearsome than the air raids is the continuous artillery barrage that the regime and its foreign mercenaries -- mainly from Iraq and Iran -- uses against the rebel forces in al-Hader.
    We count up to 18 impacts per minute as artillery, tanks and multiple rocket launchers fire almost without a break. The shells hit the town here and there, with no apparent plan, despite the reconnaissance drones that are constantly flying over the town.
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    'Where is the foreign journalist?'

    Amid the bombardment, my friend and translator Anwar and two fighters take a car to get us some food and water. They have to drive back to the Aleppo-Damascus highway, a few kilometers away, but do not get far.
    Rebels from the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham wait for them in the nearby village of al-Eis, force them out of the car and put a gun to their heads.
    "Where is the foreign journalist?" they shout. "We want the journalist."
    Anwar tells them that I am in al-Hader, and that he can bring them to the house where I am staying. But they know that there are too many fighters around me who will protect me. So they intend to exchange their three hostages for me, the foreign journalist.
    Back in al-Hader, the group I am with is left wondering what has happened to the three missing men. Has their car been hit by an artillery shell? A search party is sent out, but finds no sign of the car and no bodies.
    But we suspect something is fishy -- at a nearby Ahrar al-Sham checkpoint earlier, the commander had been very suspicious of the car I was traveling in.
    We decide to leave al-Hader immediately and send back a bigger force tomorrow to look for our missing friends.
    Pick-ups from other rebel units join us and we cross al-Eis in a big convoy that the kidnappers do not dare to attack.
    Back in the town of Azaz, my friends want to send me back over the border immediately, but the traffickers tell us that the border is too tightly controlled and we will have to wait until the situation becomes less tense.
    Some 36 hours or so later, they give us the OK to cross, getting me and about 30 refugees over the border at night. As I sneaked through the darkness alongside men, women and children on their way to a better future in Europe, I still hadn't heard from Anwar and the other two missing men.
    But once the kidnappers realize that their target has made it out, to safety, they tell Anwar: "Next time you have a journalist with you, you will call this number.
    "We won't harm the man, it's just about money," they tell him. "We can even kidnap somebody on the other side of the border, in Turkey. Just inform us, and you will receive $50,000.
    "But if we find out that you betray us and don't work with us, we will come and kill you. We know where you live, and we will even find you in Turkey if you decide to flee."
    Then they give the three hostages everything back, except for the money they were carrying.
    "Get into your car and don't look back," they said. "If you look back we'll come after you and kill you."