Editor’s note: On August 8, 2016 CNN’s Senior International Correspondent Clarissa Ward spoke at a UN Security Council meeting on the situation in the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo. The following are her full remarks.
I first visited Aleppo in the summer of 2012 and I remember the drive towards the city, the closer you got to it the less power there was, and we drove along in a tense silence with this eerie darkness all around us.
But as you got closer you started to hear sounds, the sounds of shelling. At first a dull thud, then louder and louder.
Eventually we reached a place in the area surrounding Aleppo called Hraytan and by now the shelling was no longer a dull thud, it was artillery landing just a few hundred meters away from us.
We grabbed our gear and dove into the basement of the house where we were staying, where we were the guests of several Syrian families.
The men sat in one room, chain-smoking and bickering amongst each other. It almost felt like it was a way for them to distract themselves from the prospect of death, which seemed to hover all around us.
I went and sat with the women. Some of them prayed, some wept, one woman clutched a cushion and rocked back and forth. Most of them sat like me in suspended silence, just waiting, it is hard to describe the agony of that waiting.
At around 2am the shelling finally stopped and we crawled into bed, exhausted and then, just a few hours later at 5am, the planes started buzzing overhead. It is really difficult to describe the pit that forms in your stomach when you hear those planes because you know something terrible is about to happen, but you have no idea where it’s going to happen.
You are paralyzed.
I looked around the room at the rest of my colleagues and my driver – a Syrian man from Tal Rifaat – Ayman, looked at me and we made eye contact and he kind of just shrugged: “Allahu A’lam” (only God knows).
And we both understood in that moment that we were absolutely powerless to protect ourselves.
Moments later the room shook as the plane dropped a barrel bomb, and you heard the doctors talking about barrel bombs nearby.
The target in fact appeared to be a hospital, fortunately it had missed its target and hit a family home instead.
Later that day we drove into the city center and I was blown away by the scale of the destruction.
You heard Dr Attar use the words “apocalyptic wasteland”– those are the words I wrote down and it sounds like hyperbole, but it is not.
And this was 2012.
The shelling was relentless, there were snipers everywhere and I just remember the feeling of exhaustion from being so petrified all the time.
And Ayman, in an effort to make me smile bought me an ice cream but in that moment, the only thing I could think of was – and again I find myself using the same language that we’ve heard from the doctors – this is actually hell.
This is what hell feels like and there is no way it can get any worse than this.
But it did.
It got a lot worse. Much worse.
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I went back to Aleppo again, at the end of February this year, so just a few months ago, and the Russian intervention had begun in September of the year before.
The full force of their air power was being felt throughout the city and you’ve just heard from Dr Attar and Dr Sahloul, the medical facilities have been a favorite target and in fact my dear friend, Ayman, the Syrian driver, who I told you about, himself was killed by an air strike, while visiting a friend in hospital, an injured friend, in the city of Azaz.
He is just one of many, many friends, colleagues, Syrians, who I have known, who have been killed.
I have been covering conflict for 12 years. I have never experienced anything like Syria.
The eastern rebel-held part of Aleppo, when I was there just a few months ago, was not yet completely cut off. There was one road going in and out and it’s called the Castello Road– you heard Ambassador Power refer to it.
But it was still an incredibly difficult road to navigate and when you’re driving along it, you have to drive at absolute top speed because it’s flanked by enemy positions on either side and the only thing you can see – they built these little berms of earth to try to protect and it feels like such a feeble, futile gesture – these little berms of earth to protect cars going along from the full force of the artillery and the air power that’s coming its way.
And you can see these cars, all along the road, that have just been blown up and left, abandoned.
Once I got into the city, it was just breathtaking.
READ: How did the war in Syria happen?
The “apocalyptic landscape” had become a “moonscape”. There was nothing but dust, rubble, gray.
Entire city blocks raised to the ground. You just saw the pictures. Buildings, apartment buildings with no walls, still sort of hanging suspended there.
But no walls, uninhabitable. It didn’t seem like life could exist there. And yet it did.
Again, as you saw in those photos, a fruit market, huddled in the shadow of a burned out building.
People lining up for water, which is now a precious resource in Aleppo.
I sat in the apartment of an elder woman called Souad who lost three of her sons in this war, she’s blind and elderly and suffers from various health problems. Needless to say she was not able to get the medicine that she required for quite some time and the neighborhood that she lives in has really been bombed into the stone age.
What I noticed, because I talked to quite a few women there, is all of them have this slightly distant look in their eyes. They are all traumatized.
And I asked Souad, I asked: “Why don’t you leave Aleppo?”
And she answered me very simply: “Why should I leave Aleppo?
“This is my home.”
And that is hard for us to understand, I think.
It makes it very difficult for us to understand the mentality of many of the people who are still living in Eastern Aleppo.
But let me explain something, the ones who have decided to stay, year in and year out, who have braved the relentless bombardment, day in and day out, most of them don’t plan on leaving.
They made a decision a long time ago that they would rather die in dignity in their homes, than leave.
READ: Aleppo explained in numbers
And they’ve watched what happened in other places in Syria and they know how this movie ends.
Bomb them, starve them out until they finally leave.
We’ve seen it again and again in Homs, in Moadamiya, in Madaya, they know what happens to the people who leave their homes.
Most of them never see their homes again. Many of them are loaded onto buses and never see the light of day again.
So when you talk of offers of amnesty from the Syrian army or humanitarian corridors established by the Russians, for most Aleppo residents, it’s simply not an option.
Because the thing that has been killed in Syria that is much more difficult to rebuild than a bombed out building, is trust.
There is no trust.
No trust in the Assad regime.
No trust in ceasefires or the cessation of hostilities or humanitarian corridors.
No trust in the Russians, and no trust in you by the way, in us in the international community, who have been wringing their hands on the side lines while hospitals and bakeries and schools have been bombed, while phosphorus and cluster bombs have killed countless civilians.
The only ones who have emerged as heroes on the ground – alongside brave doctors like Dr Attar and Dr Sahloul, alongside the White Helmets – are the Islamist factions, even to those who hate fundamentalism.
Even to those who see that the rebels themselves are carrying out atrocities.
And not because the people there are all terrorists but because the Islamists are the ones who have stepped in to fill the void.
And that should not come as a surprise to anyone in this room because all of us could see it happening as far back as 2012.
So, in closing, I would just say this: It’s a crucial time for people of the world to address the plight of civilians in Aleppo and I mean civilians on both sides of this conflict because what we have seen over the last four years, quite clearly as you heard from Ambassador Power is that neither side is able to win a decisive victory.
Even now it looks as if the rebels may have broken the siege. Tomorrow the siege may once again be enforced and even if the siege continues, let me tell you, this is not going to end in a week.
READ: Last doctors in Aleppo write letter to Obama
It could take years and tens of thousands of people could be killed and in that equation, the use of the world “victory” seems almost sick.
As I said before, I have been a war correspondent for more than 10 years, I have been to Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and every terrible conflict that you can think of.
I have never seen anything on the scale of Aleppo.
There are no winners in Aleppo.