Inside Syria ©dona bozzi

Antakya  offers no media center issuing press passes to journalists and selling tickets for the war, we basically rely on the Syrian activists, asking them where are the thousands  of refugees that Turkey hosts, and the names of villages and camps start bubbling up.  The Turkish authorities rigorously deny access to these camps, then adding insult to injury, they advise us to write  an email to the government officer in charge ”as a pure formality” since our request will be “approved by tomorrow”.

We proceed therefore surreptitiously, through a hole in the barbed wire fence of a refugee camp.  Within minutes, heads pop out of the tents, childrens’ faces fill the camera’s view and the elder unlock their grief.  Fahere Zerzore,  86 year old  from Idlib with the attitude of a leader in her eyes,  produces  metaphorical gestures with her arms: she lifts them in front of her belly, closing a circle with her fingertips as if to indicate a pregnant woman.

Then she lifts up her arm, and vigorously drops a virtually armed fist to rip her body.
Caught in the act of the infringement, we are driven into the office by the guards, where the interpreter  in charge of deleting the camera files  stubbornly keeps turning the playback wheel clockwise, so we made him happy by telling him that he had formatted the whole card, thus deleting all of the images.  He hands it back to me, remarkably requesting  what I would do with the deleted files, whereby I took the oath not to divulge them to the media, deep in my earth reserving the photojournalist’s privilege to freelancing.

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A FSA incarnation finally bubbles up, in the figure of  commander Abu Ammar, his nome de guerre, all he agrees to give. We meet him in a store, calling out for a translator who would get us a pillow,  we could have used to sleep on the backseat of the smugglers’ car, which would have trafficked us into the Syrian night.  The store’s clerk would stubbornly respond to our metaphorical gestures by showing us the hotel, when Abu engaged in conversation.  Abu is a Syrian expat to Atlanta, Georgia,  back to origins to help his brothers in arms with the bottom up revolution.  Idlib, a throwback to  Misrata 2011, where Libyan expats to London would come back to help their cousins, by throwing  rpg from the Dafnyia frontline into Ghaddafi held Zlitan.

He procured us a lift  to Bereniaz, the last Turkish village before a smugglers’ crossing.  We spent the night at at the house of Abu  Fahed, a connection of Abu Ammar’s.  Before going to bed, his wife dissolves friendly coagulant bacteria into the milk vat, from which she will strain out our breakfast cheese.
Then she showed us the bathroom,  with a flashlight, anywhere out in the orderly aligned olive groove. We spent the night on the porch of Fahed’s farm, under a useless mosquito repellent clothing hovering over our mattress, awoken now and then by sleepless Fahed working the phone “across the border”, as our illegal crossing  was approaching.

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At the break of down, Abu Saleh and Muhammed, the interpreter, came from the other side to pick us up, and take us back to Syria,  holding our hands throughout  a span of  two miles of muddy no man’s land.  In the meantime, a few Syrian motorcycles riding in  the opposite way, carried a few people across the border while the Turkish border guards turned more than one blind eye from their watchtowers.
Syria, the Idlib province, (meaning Greenland), Atmeh and the olives grooves are on the other side of a barbed wire fence, which had already been cut and passed through by previous human traffic.
Abu Saleh is also a liaison of Abu Ammar, who is pulling the strings for us from Antakya throughout our trip; as far as dress code, he was ruthless: a black coat, long enough to stumble on it, on top of a heat absorbing second skin were given to me by the lady of the house, not a hair wisp was allowed to poke from my hijab.

He took us to visit the FSA operation complex: the beardless young men look at worse like disgruntled students,  and don’t seem willing to blow themselves up, rather, at best, being able  to carry out pin pricks.   Holding on to their kalashnikov, sitting on the couch, they seem to need a gut check, just to know they will be ready to step up to the plate.

After only 2 days, Mujahid,  third connection of Abu Ommar since we crossed the border, comes to pick us up and takes us to Meadia, veering alternately  to right and left, for four hours, on a span of 300 miles of sickening zigzags, deep into the Idlib province; After Binnish, we gave up remembering the names. Our security, a small pistol on the dashboard, and a “no bashar here”, reiterated now and then by Mujahid.

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©dona bozzi

In Meadia, he’s the owner of  an empty house and a wife, and he seems to make a living out of shuttling journalists from Meadia to Homs, and back. The bare floors get covered later in the day with multiple sofa cushions, enough to sleep a mischievous gang of 5 kids, busy during the day with burning tyres, trying to get smoke into regime pilots’s eyes.  Our neighborhood is composed of a wallless apartment opposite our house. We can see the occupants  right inside, a group of young wackos watching horror movies 24/7, empty beer bottles scattered around. When Zhena cries over her physical wounds from bombing, we step out to call for help,  and Zuher, uncomfortable messenger from across the muddy street, relays back that the assembly deliberated that is none of our business, and we better stay out of it.
From Meadia we drove to  Kfrezeta: Mujahid’s friends recounted stories of houses burned with white phosphorous, used by the regime to  ethnically cleanse the Sunni’s houses and their content.   They show us pictures of charred human flesh, diaphanous pinpoint pupils popping out like marbles; like in a previous revolution, the spared from death are eager to show their victims to the visitors, and demand  their dead to go viral for the world to see, hoping helas in vain, that bashar will get his just deserts.

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Our host decided that we would be better off in Khan Sheikhoun,  a bigger city with, at least in a previous era, a higher standard of living than Kfrzeta.  On the dirt road, we pull over the pick up on the scene of an execution. Our friends requested pictures, luckily we were spared the conundrum,  the camera batteries being uncharged  due to power rationing on the previous night.  Zuher, the interpreter, explained that they generally identify the SAA check points via the executions’ spot, however that wouldn’t apply here, given that the body resulted to have been moved.
His aqua colored face, his sooted body, the bullet hole on his temple, didn’t put a writing on the wall for us to make a u turn and go back home.  For some reasons death didn’t seem possible for us at that particular moment, as if we could have been able to remain unflappable and prove to suddenly popping up bashar’s forces that we were tourists, war tourists, or any other kind of idiots extraneous to the opposition.

Captain Foud Qotiny, 35 years, and Anas Hassao, 40, of the FSA in Khan Sheikhoun, had the coat of arms with the two stars on the Syrian shield, plus one, reassuring  us of their identity politics within the opposition. They guaranteed our security throughout the day, by shifts, from the inspections of the shelled areas to the souk, where the smell of zatar remained, which we called to their disappointment “Syrian oregano”, from the familiar smell.

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From the way Captain Foud was treating us, it looked as if Khan Sheikhoun had been bypassed by journalists: seeking spiritual compensation through my vision, he took us to the destroyed buildings,  the houses of the amputated and the wounded, the dead. “The perceived need, the obligation to tell was increasingly urgent” (Glenn Greenwald in No place to hide); still, I couldn’t tell him that I didn’t have the firepower to do the media shock and owe.
While hopping from one trembling stone to another on the top floor of a gutted house, suddenly Hany Souci, Anas’s brother, student of political science in Damascus,  whispered:  “speed, speed!”, as if he was trying to push us out of the field of view of a telescopic pupil.  Later that day, the FSA rebels showed us a 14,5 mm bullet coming from a BMT tank,  which had killed a man, exactly in the area where we had carried out the inspection.

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At twilight, they took us to the Shouhada Khan Sheikhoun cemetery, the monument to the martyrs of 15 05 2012, when 50 city residents were killed in one day by a regime air strike.  Three  children, unaccompanied, knew exactly what to do: they croached down, laid flowers on the bare earth covering their friends, then stood up and turned their palms upwards, in prayer, until the awkward eye contact through my lens.

Disturbed by our encroachment on their privacy, they left. It was probably a worse abuse  than  photographing  the man killed via execution, which, in the end, we did not do.  Feeling like vultures circling on a funeral, we left after them.

From  Zhena and her daughter we learned to put the soap away and how to eat from hunger: one night  Zhena cooked what we called sweet noodles, basically pasta and sugar; with a stern face, she asked us  if we liked it, as if the sweetener was the most natural ingredient for the meal; sharing their poverty, it was sort of being fed cake by the regime when starving.

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From the ladies of the house we also learned to get accustomed  to the explosions, they would come after dark from the 82 mm of the T – 72 tanks, and to the snipers’ shots, loud pops, sounding as if they were coming from around the street corner, sometimes from behind the door, in which case we would stare at each other, in silence.  When all that would cease, they nonchalantly would go back to their computer screen,  endlessly staring at the notification: “server not found”.

Friday, traditionally demonstration day in rebel held cities: our friends warn us that  the shabiha snipers may be shooting  down wholesale at demonstrators from the rooftops:  eyes wide open and looking up, they hardly adapt to the background illumination,  thus we march with wobbly legs and skipping beats  to the town square; the older protesters have no banner, just their arms raised, their clenched fists and their cry.
The children held  a large banner with the hawk of free Syria, asking “where are the people of the world?” signed by “the people of Khan Sheikhoun”.

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Another banner read ” Arab nations, we will not forgive you!”

Back at home, Hany  for the second time in two days, suddenly wispered to us: ”speed, speed!”:  we were ordered to pack up and leave.  The order came after a message from Abu Ammar, now calling the shots from Istanbul. Foud explained that Bashar’s  army was about to surround the city, he had to get us out immediately.  We jumped in the car, Foud at the wheel,  Hany in the front. In the back, on each side of us, a man with a gun.
The non lethal assistance promised by the US to the opposition a few months  ago must have been in the mail, because captain Foud Qotiny, three stars and the hawk of Qureish on his shoulder, ludicrously didn’t have a satellite phone to check  the road to Meadia, and had to pull over to ask the farmers about the shabiha’s positions.
In two hour, we were  back to start at Mujahid’s house in Madaya. He had apologized to Zhena, about leaving her alone, and would still dodge katyusha rockets by zigzaging his pick up back and forth from Meadia to Atmeh on the Turkish Syrian border.

Back in Antakya,  at the Orontes Hotel the manager, as he saw us safe, put his right hand on his heart. On the laptop screen, behind a billowing gunmetal cloud of smoke in Khan Shiekhoun, Hany Souci holds his aunt Alya tight to give her courage, and try to stop her blood pressure from going up, her blood pumping hard through her veins  when the barrels sting.  Finally, a journalist shows up: David, from New York, is wondering if Austin Tice of the Washington Post is still alive. Austin, an ex marine, is know by many who haven’t actually met him because he’s rumored to have helped the rebels to take out  a shabiha sniper with a kalashnikow, then screaming “hallah uakbar!”. Then he remarks that the story circulating  about the CIA is actually true.  Feeling  dumb, we ask what else the CIA had done that we didn’t know about.

Only an hour later, Tom Ashbrook’s  on 22/06/2012 On Point mentioned that the CIA was actually “steering guns to the opposition in Turkey”. Most Cia “guns” turned out to be, rather,  propaganda: all out war against Assad the dictator by the US robocop, plus MRE, meals ready to eat, repurposed from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Later on, on fb ABU Ammar messaged that Mujahid wasn’t shuttling journalists from the border into Idlib anymore.

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