GAZIANTEP — "The nightmares only started when I left Aleppo," says 30-year-old Mahmoud, a Syrian activist and journalist now living as a refugee in Turkey.
"Before — even after my best friend was killed next to me when we were filming a battle against the regime — I felt sad but I never had nightmares," he said, speaking in late September in a southern Turkish border town. Mahmoud lost a finger that day in 2013, and his friend’s skull was shattered.
Over years of reporting in Syria, Mahmoud faced much danger and personal loss. But it wasn’t until six months ago, with the Turkish border closed, smuggling growing more expensive and his hometown entirely besieged, that he finally decided to leave Syria.
It hasn’t brought him much peace. "Now, if a friend checks a telephone in the same room at night and a small light appears, I wake up terrified," Mahmoud says. "For a few minutes I’m convinced it’s the civil defense coming to dig my family and me out of the rubble, and I panic."
Mahmoud’s seven brothers and his parents are still in Aleppo. Three of his brothers also work in the media, some for Western media outlets, and others as activists for armed opposition groups.
His older brother, who goes by the name Abdalrahman Ismail, is still working as a photojournalist inside besieged areas of Aleppo.
Now separated by the Turkish border, the story of the two brothers illustrates the divergent yet equally harrowing toll that the Syrian war has exacted on families, colleagues and friends.
The brother who left
Mahmoud was the first member of his family to get involved in anti-regime activities in 2011. He moved out of the family home in a regime-held area of Aleppo when it became too dangerous for his family for him to be there.
Later, after several of his brothers were arrested, his family moved to opposition-held parts of the city, near the front line.
They later went to Jarablus, near the Turkish border, where Mahmoud thought the family would be safer. They stayed in an abandoned school just outside of the town for almost a year.
After ISIS took over Jarablus, the family had to move back to opposition-held parts of Aleppo’s Old City. A barrel bomb hit 66 feet (20 meters) from their home in 2015, blowing out the windows and doors, but none of the family were hurt.
Mahmoud started out as a media activist for an armed group in Aleppo and later began to occasionally sell photos to Agence France-Presse and other Western media outlets. He set up his own local media outlet, Focus Aleppo, with friends in 2014.
He stayed in Aleppo after his friend’s death, and even during a brief period of ISIS control over his area of Aleppo.
He crossed into Turkey surreptitiously to attend several media workshops, but he always returned to Syria. He received support from an Islamic charity to get much-needed surgery for his injuries in Istanbul in mid-2014. He says he never considered leaving for Europe or anywhere else.
But eventually, six months ago, he decided to leave. "What I was afraid would happen, has," he says of the situation in Aleppo, parts of which have been under siege since July 17, when the regime cut the only route left out of the city’s eastern, rebel-held areas.
Before he left, life in Aleppo had seemed strangely normal, despite the bombing, fighting and other problems, Mahmoud says. But now that he has spent time in Turkey, it no longer does. "And I can’t get used to it again," he says.
Mahmoud gets most of his news from the city and his family through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. He continues to see Syrians from Aleppo almost every day in the border town, where he is renting a place to stay.
The brother who stayed
His older brother Abdalrahman is still in Aleppo working as a photojournalist, and his photos are regularly published by Reuters.
It is a struggle to keep reporting from inside the besieged city, and fuel shortages make it difficult for him to get to locations when attacks happen. "I have a car, but what little fuel there is left in the city is too expensive,’’ he said via a WhatsApp call from inside the city.
When he needs to charge his phone and laptop, Abdalrahman often goes to the homes of other media activists who prepared for the siege by installing solar or wind-powered energy devices.
Abdalrahman is also low on energy himself. There have not been any fruit or vegetables in the besieged areas for some time, he says.
There is also no milk for infants in the city, he says. Abdalraham’s seven-month-old son has just started to eat rice porridge and a few other solids, but he is worried that his son now needs his vaccinations, and there aren’t any available.
His son was born while the city had a brief period of cease-fire, and when it ended he wanted to move the family to a safer area, but he couldn’t find one. "They’re bombing everywhere. There is nowhere in the opposition areas that is safe," Abdalrahman says.
"Plus, I love Aleppo — I don’t want to leave it," he continues. "I have seen so many people who die every day, everywhere — even in underground bunkers, they are killed. So what is the point [of leaving]? All I can do is hope and believe that God will protect my family."
Abdalrahman lost two of his best friends within two days last month. They had spent all their time together, often sleeping in the same media office, and after their deaths, he couldn’t work for 15 days.
But media organizations kept messaging him for more photos, saying that his country needed him to tell the world what was happening in the city, which spurred him to get back to work. "They helped me to go on," Abdalrahman says. "For this, I am grateful."