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The battle for Aleppo: My 18 days with the Syrian rebels

Between August 1 and August 17 Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic documented some of the fiercest fighting of Syria's 17-month uprising as rebels and government forces battled for control of the northern city of Aleppo. 

His images were published all over the world, featuring extensively on NBCNews.com's PhotoBlog and in The Week in PicturesHere he gives a behind-the-scenes account of the circumstances behind some of his most striking photographs. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian army in the Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo on August 7, 2012. Photographer Goran Tomasevic says: "This rebel had been firing at the Syrian army when he came under attack from sniper fire, he was pulling back into a secure position when the picture was taken. I was next to him, on the ground, and shooting with a 20mm lens. The yellow dot on his head is a reflection from the camera lens."

Goran Tomasevic, Reuters — Of course I wanted to go to Syria. When a big story like this breaks, I believe my job is to go there and produce pictures. I gave up going to cover the Olympics. It was two days before my trip to London and I changed my ticket and went to Syria instead. 

Pictures must show the reality of the war and that's why I wanted to be as close as I could to the fighters on the very front line, to show exactly what they are doing, their emotions, how they run and fire weapons and also how they react to incoming shells. There is a certain amount of risk and you need to take all necessary precautions, but if you want to tell the true story, you have to be there. 


 

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The Free Syrian Army [the rebel group that Tomasevic traveled with] is organized and appeared to know what it was doing. Some members are former Syrian soldiers who defected, but most are young civilians — some 16 or 17 years old.  They are fighting the Syrian Army with small arms and RPGs and with few supplies, but somehow they set up a supply line to get fuel for their vehicles. They are also media friendly. At first they noticed my presence and were a little bit suspicious but after a while they began saying "Goran, come here," though they didn't really speak English. They would tell me what missions they were conducting or show me some positions and ask if I wanted to join them. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter gestures as others carry a fighter shot by Syrian Army soldiers during clashes in the Salaheddine neighborhood of Aleppo on August 4, 2012.

We ended up in the Salaheddine neighborhood of Aleppo, which was definitely the front line, just a few streets away from the government position. On August 4, I witnessed a rebel's death from a very accurate Syrian army sniper who found a hole in between sandbags and fired. The sniper shot him in the chest. I think the bullet went through his heart, killing him instantly. I could see the exit hole on the left side of his shirt. I just ran (fast) across the street and took the pictures in really bad light — strong highlights and dark shadows. This rebel [below] was definitely someone who was close to the fighter who'd been shot. He was in bad shape and crying, so I couldn't really ask him any questions. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter reacts after his friend was shot by Syrian Army soldiers in the Salaheddine neighborhood of Aleppo on August 4, 2012.

A few days later we were just talking on the street when we heard shooting and started running into a building. We heard a large explosion and that is when the rebel [below] was hit by shrapnel. He and others entered the room and I was in a little bit of shock and took some out-of-focus pictures. It was such a small room with not much light that I had to push the camera up to 3000 ISO. I couldn't see much because there was a lot of smoke. It was really difficult technically to take these pictures. Beside the rebel there is a knife on the floor as people had just been eating lunch in the room.   

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter screams in pain after he was injured in his leg by shrapnel from a shell fired from a Syrian Army tank in the Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo on August 7, 2012.

Local rebel commanders told us that if they approached the front line there would be heavy tank fire, machine gun fire, mortar shells and sniper fire, so they didn't want to come close to the Syrian army. They started to make holes in the buildings, inside the walls, inside the gates and the fighters would sneak into the houses. They made holes in the buildings to avoid the streets and to be able to go from one house to another to another. Sometimes, I saw some families coming back to take some goods from their homes but most of the time the houses were empty, abandoned as the families sought refuge elsewhere.  

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter enters a room through a hole in a wall in Aleppo on August 12, 2012.

I like this picture [below] of fighters who took up positions in a family living room. One rebel sat on the chair eating a chocolate bar as the commander looked out the window to scout the area next to another firing from the window. They told me it was a former Syrian army position and they had killed three soldiers in the house (I could see tracks of blood in the corridor) and taken over their position. There was no one else in the house, except the rebels. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his sniper rifle from a house in Aleppo on August 14, 2012.

One woman came back with her husband to take goods from her house. Some of the Free Syrian Army fighters told her that she shouldn't go but she ran across the street to her house alone. She started to cry and wanted to come back so one of the fighters ran back across the street with her. She was crying as she ran across the street that was under open fire. This is one of the many Aleppo streets that you cannot stand on because someone may shoot you.    

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter helps a woman to run across a street during clashes in Aleppo on August 12, 2012.

In this picture [below], you can see the tree being hit with the shrapnel. It was a very dramatic situation with the smoke from the tank shells filling the street behind the fighters. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an RPG after a Syrian Army tank shell hit a building across a street during heavy fighting in Salaheddine on August 11, 2012.

A lot of bodies were lying in the streets. When some of the rebels took over a government position, a few of their fighters were killed by government forces. Five rebels decided to go on a rescue mission to recover the bodies of their comrades. I went with them. We were literally crawling for 150 meters. They used a long stick, on which they attached a hook to drag the bodies a few meters off the street and into very narrow alleyways and then carried the bodies through the streets, passing them to one another through the holes in the buildings. The whole process took about 4-5 hours; it was a really long day. The bodies will be sent back to the families. One of the bodies was of the brother of one of the fighters. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries the body of a fellow fighter during clashes in Aleppo on August 16, 2012.

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries the body of a fellow fighter during clashes in Aleppo on August 16, 2012.

I can't describe the situations of war. On my last day in Aleppo one of the fighters was walking around and looking into the buildings and he found this bird in its cage. He took it out of the apartment. The bird didn't have any water so they put some in his cage. The rebels did some crazy things, like putting this mannequin [below] in the line of sniper fire on the street and then burning some tires where the government forces were firing tank shells. It was kind of surreal and scary at the same time. Because I don't speak Arabic, I didn't understand exactly what they were doing. They would be laughing but then you would see the incoming fire and about 60-70 meters away you'd see a tank shell explode into a building. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters take a break from fighting in the Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo on August 17, 2012.

When I'm covering conflict situations, I try to follow the ground and find cover for myself. I pray a lot so that keeps me safe. I can't give any other advice. Things are changing with the situation in Syria all the time. Full story on Reuters website.

More images from Goran Tomasevic: