A Syrian rebel observes regime positions in the Saif al-Dawla district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 5, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Dimitar Dilkoff

By Anuj Chopra

I am on my knees, hands behind my head, on a border-crossing between Turkey and Syria. A Turkish border guard stoops over me menacingly, the nozzle of his Kalashnikov pressing against my upper thigh as he barks something in an unfamiliar language.

What does he want? My passport? I hastily fish it out of my bag. My press card? I flash it. My head? No, hopefully not.

All kinds of frantic hand gestures are attempted to keep the Arabic-speaking guard’s finger off the trigger but his hectoring tone persists as he starts rummaging through my bag. Finally, my fixer who understands Arabic rushes to my rescue. There is some confusion as I seek to enter Syria on a two-week assignment with a horde of Syrian refugees who routinely make perilous journeys home to check on their house and possessions. I am allowed to go.

This tense encounter in April triggered a panic attack. Not because someone had just threatened to shoot me. Something more mundane dawned on me: I desperately needed a translator. The next time someone points a gun at me, the least I’ll know is why.

Finding one is no easy task in Syria -- an Arabic-speaking country in the midst of a messy civil war now dragging into its third year. The conflict has spawned a cottage industry of fixers hired by foreign journalists -- barbers, shopkeepers, even renegade government soldiers who might easily get you a face-to-face interview with a dreaded rebel commander in his lair but will most likely struggle with translation due to limited English.

Syrian refugees carry their belongings at Cilvegozu border gate to go back to Syria after car bombings at Reyhanli in Hatay, on May 14, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Bulent Kilic

During my first couple of days in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, I craved for a human equivalent of Google translate. I was frustrated at being unable to communicate with civilian families in a packed neighbourhood that had been pounded by a government jet, as they sifted through piles of rubble where their houses once stood.

On one of those evenings, I stumbled into a near-empty Internet café run by an affable 23-year-old Syrian, who I will call Karim. He was more than happy to welcome a new customer to an otherwise tepid business during wartime, but just a few minutes after I arrived he began bickering in a cheeky way that I had brought him nothing but bad luck.

"You are here for 10 minutes and the Internet crawls to a stop, the electricity goes off, water stops running in the tap. You stay for five more minutes and a shell might land on this place!" he said, struggling to conceal a smirk. He was ofcourse joking -- 20-hour power outages, crippling water shortages, Internet blackouts are nothing unusual in Syria these days.

A picture taken on April 8, 2013 shows a devastated street in the Saladin district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 8, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Dimitar Dilkoff

Karim's remark, in near flawless English, prompted cackles of laughter around him, punctuated by the familiar rumble of shell explosions in the near distance. I joined the mirth, knowing that I had reached the end of my misery. After a quick background check I asked Karim to be my translator. Over the next few days, Karim came with me close to the frontlines. Wary of snipers lurking in unknown places, me interviewed Syrian rebels as well as civilians trapped in the ugly theatre of war.

In foreign lands where the language is alien, a journalist is only as good as his translator. He is his ears and eyes. Without a good translator it is difficult to fully immerse yourself in an unfamiliar world and peel away the multiple layers of complexities. But Karim was so much more than that. He had a gift –- a gift to spark an outpouring of candour from the most stiff and taciturn interviewees.

Syrians try to remove large pieces of concrete with a tractor to free those trapped under rubble following an air strike by government forces on April 7, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Victor Breiner

It was through Karim’s eyes that I saw the real struggles, the misery, the hopelessness prevailing in Aleppo. Karim was my window into an aching world that was once the centre of gravity for Syria’s cultural elite, a city of artists and musicians. Today Aleppo is gritty, ugly and risky at every turn, a city mired in a murderous stalemate. The dull thud and boom of artillery exchanges -- all day and all night -- has become painfully familiar, making war the new normal as the fighting -- the longest and the bloodiest of the Arab uprisings –- drags into its third year.

The war is making people immune to heartbreak. They have stopped seeing. Sample this scene: A government jet swerves around Aleppo one morning and fires a scud missile on a residential tower. The building collapses within seconds, scores of people die under the rubble, there is pandemonium and screams. But life on the adjacent street continues as if nothing happened. Drivers continue driving, hawkers continue hawking, a woman continues pushing her cradle in slow motion.

Or this scene in a crowded local hospital: the war injured scream and convulse with pain as a bearded security guard sits next to the doctor, calmly cleaning his weapon.

But amid the gloom, Karim’s charming humour was a hugely welcome relief. At one point, I shared my exasperation that my reporting was lacking a female perspective on the war. I suggested getting some interviews, which is always tricky as a male journalist in conservative Syria. “We’ll get beaten up by their brothers and husbands,” Karim joked, arching his eyebrow. Eventually we pulled it off and no one got beaten up.

Kurdish woman fighter Engizek, who leads dozens of Kurdish combatants, talks on April 14, 2013, in the majority-Kurdish Sheikh Maqsud district of Aleppo.
AFP PHOTO / Dimitar Dilkoff

Karim said his English was “only 80 percent good” –- and it was a delight to see him trawl through suggestions on his mobile phone’s dictionary app every time he found himself short of words.

Karim noticed my discomfort at gulping down cups of over-sweetened tea offered by hospitable Syrians we stopped to interview. “The more sugar they add to your tea, the more they like you,” he laughed. When I was with Karim I was offered the sweetest cups of tea. But Karim’s infectious humour veiled a profound sadness. One day, I probed him about the screen saver I had noticed on his computer -- a picture of a young man, around his age, flashing a toothy smile – and realised I had touched a raw nerve. It was his dearest friend, Ayman, a Free Syrian Army soldier who had recently been killed in a fierce gun battle with regime troops.

Karim showed me another file on his computer -- a photograph of Ayman’s bloodied corpse. A regime sniper had shot Ayman in the head.

Smoke billows from the site where Syrian rebels were fighting with government forces for control of Al-Kendi hospital in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Dimitar Dilkoff

Karim had met Ayman, a student of English Literature who had joined the Syrian revolution, just a week before he died. He confided in Karim that he was tired of the war and longed to return home and get married. But he intuitively knew his end was coming. I accompanied Karim when he went to offer condolences to Ayman’s elder brother, a nurse at a city hospital. They kissed each other on the cheeks, hugged and grieved their loss.

As we walked out of the building Karim told me that most of his friends had fled Aleppo since the war began. “Why didn’t you leave?” I asked him. He couldn’t, he said with a quiet air of resignation. He couldn’t handle the shame if someone in a foreign land asked why he abandoned his country in the middle of a crisis.

The day I left Aleppo, I wanted to tell Karim that I wish our paths cross again, that I would love to come back for his wedding someday, that I would love to sit and laugh with him again. But as the war drags on, no one makes such promises anymore. Tomorrow is promised to no one in Syria.

A Syrian woman begs for money on the pavement in the Saladin district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 8, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Dimitar Dilkoff