photo licences @donabozzi
I would like to thank all the humans whose stood for the humanity with our case, i will never forget you if we passed to the other life
— Monther Etaky (@montheretaky) December 12, 2016
Our contact in a Turkish city which cannot be named for his protection is Ammar Cheikh Ammar, a German/ Syrian army deserter become media darling, interviewed by the New York Times Soldier Says Syrian Atrocities Forced Him to Defect and by German television DW, presented by them as Omar Sheikh Ammar, and showing in the comments as, what else is new, “a Jew on the whorish media’s payroll”. He’s our liaison with Aya in Gaziantep, where the fashionable spaghetti straps of Istanbul and Antakya give way to non-sexual dark veils. She is with Nsaeem Syria FM, (a pro Revolution radio station), meaning “Gentle wind” and claims to be a part time fixer, having helped into Syria la crème de la crème of international journalism.
In her room, a blood type silver tag with the words Al-Tawhid, and Free Syrian Army, oddly engraved together, lay on her bedside table. In NPR Fresh Air, May 1st, 2013, https://www.npr.org/player/embed/179855633/180037134, New York Times correspondent J.C. Chivers described indeed the most effective Aleppo brigade as an Al Nusra affiliate. Whether this is the case or not, in Aleppo Al-Tawhid is considered mainstream even by the moderate opposition itself: “The FSA and Al Tawid are actually the same thing, in that Al-Tawhid operates under the umbrella od the FSA”, Anas Alhaj, with the Council of the Governatorate of Aleppo, will proudly explain later to us in Aleppo.
Aya never procured us a fixer, although she went on a shopping spree with the money we gave her so she could find us one.
Bab Al Salam
The Kilis crossing is actually at Bab Al-Salam, which is almost a proper border, in that one is not required to show a passport. We easily got a lift to Azaz, safe zone mainly because it’s “no Bashar”, having been liberated by the FSA in 2012 from the regime, taken by ISIS in Oct 2013, and reliberated by the FSA in Jan 2014. Our host is Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee at Kilis’container who occasionally goes back to Azaz to check his house: in the face of the warnings against the Shabiha, (Shia militias), the mukhabarat (secret government police), and ISIS, we took a cab to Azaz, no men with guns with us: that’s what ordinary people do in Bab Al Salam: the taxi drivers wait after the second Turkish Gomruk – the custom – clean shirts ironed just across the border, faces also shaved in Kilis. Ibrahim’s granite house is the color of warm curcuma, he built it and then abandoned it to save his life. Touching the warm stone, then jabbing at the air above with his hand, he reiterated “granite, granite!”, obviously for “money down the drain!”. He started the generator to give some power to our computers, then said he would take us to Aleppo.
In starving Aleppo, a fixer’s fee averages at a reasonable 75,00 dollars a day; the days of Misrata 2011, when the journalists were put up at the Gozelteek hotel, courtesy of the local media center, and the rebels in flip flops would pick up the freelancers hitchhiking to the Dafniya front line, seem like a fable. At the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, the rebels carry back from the regime area the body of a fighter, on a stretcher, into FSA controlled Bustan Al Qasr. The stretcher bearers pop up from around the separation barricade, a bullet ridden bright red bus. The man in the front has his hands taken, his arms stretched backwards, at once trying to dodge my camera by bending his shoulders, and carry the body in the back, thus making him so unbalanced, that he had to bring himself back up, his cry unwillingly straight up to the lens. I wished I could have told him I hated to do that.
After a day’s visit to Aleppo, Ibrahim had to go back to his house/container at Bab Al Salam, and since we turned out to be “mushkela” (trouble makers), for overtripping the shutter, we negotiated a fee to stay for three more days at his friends’: thereafter, we had to cross the border again in order not to abuse.
Kilis: we are still the only journalists even on the safe side of the border; on the semi touristic main, Ahmed Abu Faraj, – not his real name, you bet!- the unipole of power for the provocateurs this side of the border, and a decoy fixer himself in Kilis, waved at us but oddly stopped short of walking over, sending instead his promenade companion over to us, a naive looking US student who furtively inquired about our plans in Syria in order to get help “for his humanitarian project”.
Hotel Paris, basically a social housing for refugees; in the morning the manager would serve us his mobile along with chai: a voice in broken English, in the business of naming, spooking us, and framing us as personae non gratae to the opposition, would challenge us: “you can’t go to Syria, you are on the black list!”. They would probably claim we were in bed with the same red Shiite we ourselves were fighting, albeit by way of a different type of machines, and a different kind of firepower. Getting uncomfortable, we tried to move to the three stars Mertur, where the manager flashed his palms at us meaning “no vacancy”, albeit exuding sophistry, then moved on to check in the Syrian behind us. The man removed his sun glasses, he looked like Ahmed Abu Faraj. Determined to unmask the snooper, we called the Turkish police, forgetful of their records with foreign journalists, let alone Turkish journalists. Trying to drum up support from the Turkish cops was not a good idea, the officers didn’t care that the man smacked of snooping on us, and that the hotel was so vehemently off limits for us. They wouldn’t care about the fact that the man who had just checked in, had messaged us from his news media FB page, his profile picture matching his ID, and that he had approached us claiming to be a fixer. They didn’t care that he didn’t engage with us down the street, and he was faintly aloof while smiling. Useless to look for help for feeling followed, we stayed unfazed, and messaged some FB “people we may know” in Aleppo, in order to get some badly needed ammo. They turned out to be, as per FB timeline, true members of the Council of the Governorate of Aleppo, among them Anas Alhaj, who singularly rescued us from Turkey into Syria. We paid for the rooms for our last night, which had become unbearably hot. The small window above the door in our own room was stuck, and we had to poke it open with a broom handle, thereby breaking it, and promptly paying the manager for the glass we owned: the same man, later on, reported to our agency that we had damaged the hotel, but we already knew there was no place to hide for us in Kilis.
In the morning, Anas and his FSA pick up easily got check point cred at the crossing, where it basically works by rolling down the window, saying who you are and who you know, and getting waved off, no particular vetting needed, let alone getting checked against a conjectural black list.
In the Aleppo countryside, we are Anas’s guests. He put us up on the whole top floor of his uncle’s typical northern Syrian affluent class mansion, the warm colored granite of the terrace exudes wealth, sadly I am not allowed to step out on it, not even with the veil.
I am given a second skin to wear under my ankle long black dress, long enough to stumble on it, thus learning to live with the heat of Syria under my layers, out of respect for the Sunni of Syria.
I said to Anas that I had no clue, before coming down here, of what the Sunni of Syria would be like, other that they were among the People of the East, who crossed the sea under the Roman empire to make a glorious melting pot of our Nation: they have a way of life influenced by the Sunnah, interlaced and tinged with a European flare: under Bab Al Adeed’s rubbles, amongst human detritus, a reporter recounted to have lifted a trembling stone to find Shakespeare’s scattered verses, wondering if the dead boy under the rubble nearby had been reciting them, interrupted. I told him that our people must have rubbed off on each other during the centuries, as my Syrian friends on FB call me “more Syrian than Syrians”, although they never met me.
Every morning, Anas would come to pick me up and drive me to different katiba, brigades of fighters under the same umbrella of the FSA, to visit who’s wearing the boots who are doing the work on the ground.
In a shack, in in the village of Tal Shaier, 15 km from Aleppo, we met Mr Kalid Alhaj, the chief of the katiba The Martyrs of Gaza, under the umbrella od the FSA. Behind a long white beard and a jihadi central casting look, his nom de guerre Lion’s heart, he’s the most tolerant man one would ever expect to meet in the pantheon of the jihadi. He demanded that we didn’t respect the ramadan and offered us “eariq alssus”, a drink with a taste of liquorice.
He then introduced us to his two wives, and his katiba, the “CIA backed rebels'”, in the full vest of gun clips, and that was it for their war armamentarium: their arsenal , the same AK47 and rpg, as in 2012, early Libyan revolution style. A beardless young rebel, formerly a disgruntled student, performed for us the throw of a hand grenade with a slingshot, sarcastically describing the device as the latest non lethal assistance being pumped from the US, along with MRE, meals ready to eat: Arming Syrian rebels: Where the US went wrong
”Mr Alhaj, do you believe in the conspiracy theory, widely spread among the opposition, that the US, having realized that they can’t decapitate Assad from power, a triangulator in the region who hasn’t bothered Israel for over 40 years, has agreed with Russia to let Syria destroy itself like the proverbial slowly boiling frog? Isn’t that a little far fetched, considering that it has been confirmed for over a year now, that the CIA is shipping arms to the opposition from Jordan?” “ Bashar Al Assad has sold Syria to Russia, but the real charade is from the US, because of their agreement with Russia: when the FSA has the upper hand, they reduce the help to the rebels, when the regime is gaining ground, they increase the support to the opposition”
“A few radical groups of the Aleppo opposition seem to feel obliged to justify atrocities by radical takfiri such as the shooting of the boy with the coffee cart who “would refuse to offer free coffee even to the Prophet”, and the killing of Mr Kamami, a commander of the FSA, at a check point of the State of Iraq and Sham, by affirming that he was a spy of the regime”.
“ The noble verses says that those who swear at God should be whipped on the back, not killed, and that all innocent lives are sacred and equal in Islam. There is no difference between the rich and the poor, the man and the woman, the free and the slave. All are equal in the eyes of Allah Almighty; Allah Almighty did order all Muslims to offer and make peace with the enemy whenever it’s possible”.
Back home, an email from our Registry, advised: “We are busy updating a few systems and processes including memberships. We have recently had some complaints about your conduct in the field. Having revised the details, we feel that you are not meeting the Code of Conduct you had signed up to when you joined the FFR, the reason being damaging a hotel room, and attempting to have a colleague arrested. As such, we think it best that we disable your membership for the time being”. After the “time being” we recontacted the Register for reapplication, whereby they advised that it was not a suspension, but a removal. Sami, our real fixer at the AMC, confirmed later on not to worry, that indeed foreign journalists in Syria are often suspected to be sleuths. Actually, in Syria, they just call us spies
I can tweet now but I might not do it forever. please save my daughter’s life and others. this is a call from a father.
— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016