Summer 2013. In the Aleppo countryside, the Al-Aqsa Brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fires down below at the Hezbollah militiamen who have penetrated the villages of Nubbul and Zahara.
Of all the commanders, Yaser Sokar, chief of the Al-Aqsa Brigade and an unprejudiced, soft-spoken man, is the only one who dared to shake our hands, wiping his own afterwards as a joke. The villages of Nubbul and Al-Zahra have been penetrated by Hezbollah; can Hezbollah penetrate Aleppo, we ask him. “No, never.” He gives us the OK to go to Jabbal Shewehna, a front line at the bottom of a hill a few kilometres from Hraytan. Al Aqsa Brigade fighters stand on one side of the hill, and the regime’ troops stand on the other. “If we take this hill top, we take all of Aleppo,” says one Al-Aqsa fighter. The fighters complain about the enemy’s superiority given its use of the Shilka, a tank with a sniper capable of shooting 2400 bullets per minute.
The men with guns have received a few Concourse missiles, but still lament the weapon of the poor, and foolishly keep dreaming on their victory over evil. They particularly badly need RPG-type of rocket that can better track and follow enemy targets, primarily the Russian made T-72 tank.
The FSA base, a huge barrack behind of a two-kilometre long wall used for sniping, is manned by about 400 men, or so the regime thinks, says a young fighter, laughing.
The jewel in the brigade’s otherwise monotone weaponry is a “Dushka” machine gun, pilfered from the regime and fitted with a 14.5 mm cartridge that can release 300 bullets per minute.
This is a story in perfect early Libyan-revolution style, with a difference: these principled rogue bandits on the margin have a way of life influenced by the Sunnah, interlaced and tinged with a European something: unlike the Misrata rebels, they don’t wear flip flops, but proper shoes, and are organically conscious: they know how to make the best olive oil out of their beautiful Greenland.
Commander Yaser Socar’s dinner invitation had an hidden agenda; it was a cry for help. The comfortably furnished rooms of his house exuded culture and open mindedness, and moderate wealth. Too unpretentious to present us with an exclusively Syrian meal, he added a European-type of course to the dinner to make us feel more comfortable. Then he exclaimed, painfully:
“We are the real Muslims of Syria. Do we look like terrorists to you? They killed our children, they burned our houses. Did they call them terrorists? We are the ones they called terrorists! The true terrorists were released by the regime in 2011 from Saidnaya prison, under pressure from the international community in the first few months of the uprising, as part of an amnesty.
Our battalion, the Al Aqsa Brigade, didn’t get all the media attention that Al-Tawheed did, and therefore didn’t get the needed military supplies from Qatar that they did. We didn’t even get enough bullets from the military council of the FSA, let alone foreign powers.
He said he would take us the following day to Nubbul and Al-Zahra, two Shia villages on the outskirts of Aleppo, with a combined population of about 5000, where Hezbollah reigns and even the women carry guns. Here, the Al-Aqsa men enjoy a formidable vantage point: the terrace of yet another elegant private mansion turned into an FSA headquarters. We were actually facing Nubbul and Al-Zahra from about three kilometres away. The rebel’s elevated position above the villages definitely gave them the upper hand. Suddenly, the men ducked in a row behind the terrace wall to exchange fire.One of Al-Aqsa figheters shouted “Allahu Akbar,” jumping with his Kalashnikov lifted in the air. It then became still. He had just killed a man. When asked why
Hezbollah couldn’t afford to retaliate the injury, they said that daylight doesn’t allow them to clash comfortably enough. On the terrace floor, lay a dozen or so Kalashnikov bullet casings.
Zakaria Jrab, leader of the Katiba Shams Alhak (The Sun of Righteousness), is a member of the military commitee of the Council of the Governorate of Aleppo. I ask him:
“Mr. Jrab, what are the ideological differences between Ahrar Al-Sham and the FSA? The way Ahrar members dress, in black from head to toe and wearing black kohl around their eyes, is not exactly reassuring”.
“There is no difference between the two: we are brothers, we coordinate with each other on the front line. However, Ahrar Al-Sham is more educated and more rigorous in the observance of the Sharia then is the FSA, where some elements may be lazy or just not care. We can definitely say they are Islamists, but we work together because they are not radical.”
“Does the FSA has more affinity with Ahrar Al-Sham than with Al- Golani?” Ahrar Al-Sham is easier to deal with, more open minded and doesn’t have an agenda. Mr. Golani wants to take over the country after the revolution.” “Why can’t you get good antiaircraft from the United States, like Turkey did? “Because the United States has a precondition: they want to give Idlib and Aleppo to their ally, Turkey.” ” What about Qatar? Why they don’t help you more?”
“Because they don’t have the OK by the United States. Recently a shipment of RPG made in Austria, from the UAE to Syria, was stopped by the United States. The regime has Shilkas with snipers capable of shooting 2400 bullets per minute. We have 45 mm “Dushka” machine guns at 300 bullets per minute”
And a sleek, albeit quite lonely, M16. From the United States; and MRE, meals ready to eat. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33997408
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Noplace 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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, here as Omar Sheikh Ammar, showing in the comments as, what else is new, “a Jew on the whorish media’s payroll”. 5th comment 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, sits on her bedside table. In NPR Fresh Air 1 May 2013 https://www.npr.org/player/embed/179855633/180037134 J C Chivers, New York Times correspondent, described indeed the most effective Aleppo brigade as an Al Nusra affiliate. Whether this is the case or not, here Al-Tawhid is considered moderate and mainstream even by the moderate opposition: “ The FSA and Al Tawid are actually the same thing”, Anas Alhaj, with the Council of the Governatorate of Aleppo, will proudly explain later to us in Aleppo. Aya never got us a fixer, but 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 light curcuma, he built it and then abandoned it to save his life. Touching the warm stone, then chopping the air above, he repeated “granite, granite!”, obviously for “granite for nothing”. 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 that 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 taking too many pictures – we gave him 200 Syrian pounds to stay for three more days at his friends’, after that, we had to cross 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, a social housing for refugees; in the morning the manager would serve us his mobile along with breakfast: 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 cop was not a good idea, the officer did not care about the man who smacked of snooping on us, and that the hotel was so vehemently off limits for us. He 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 attesting his ID, claiming to be a fixer, didn’t engage with us down the street, even after saying hello. 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 their room for the 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.
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 again 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 say 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 came to Italy 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 flavour: 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 boy under the rubble nearby had been reciting them, interrupted. I tell him that our people must have rubbed off on each other during the centuries, as my Syrian friend on FB calls me “more Syrian than Syrians”
Every morning, Anas comes to pick me up to drive 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 dominion 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 not much else: 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 our membership. 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 not to worry, that foreign journalists are often suspected to be 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.
The old district of Bab Al Hadid, the Iron gate, surrounds the ancient citadel. In the neighborhood, every battalion has its own front line, except for larger brigades who fight in more then one.
A woman with more then one stray wisps of hair poking out from under her veil, and ash blond at that, walking down the cobbled streets of Bab Al Adid, waving to a stranger, didn’t fail to impress commander Sheik Kattan, who pulled over his pick up to engage in conversation. He is in charge of the artillery of the Ahrar Syria brigade ( the Free people of Syria) one of the largest in the city, about 5000 men, and he is willing to show us the brigade’s makeshift arsenal at their command center. On the way, he lifts up the cover of an intriguing tunnel, looking from the asphalt like the regular cover of a city conduit, but used instead by the rebels to penetrate into enemy’s neighborhoods.
Where exactly the tunnel would end up, he refused to say.
At the operations center, he produced for us the performance of fire by lighting what he called magic cotton, which is regular medical cotton which underwent a chemical treatment with potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate and acid. “What kind of acid?” “Acid, just acid.” As a result, the cotton becomes highly inflammable and it’s used, as he demonstrated, to fill up plastic cartridges to be inserted in equally home made guns.
“Where did you import the process from? Afghanistan?” “No, we were discouraged because nobody wanted to help us, so we searched the internet”. Mr Kattan then proceeded to show us a home made rpg shell which costed `him 5 dollars to make, as opposed to the ones found on the dried up lebanese market for 800,000 dollars.
The 140 mm artillery and the shell which he dropped in it were also makeshift weapons, and so were the 3 kg missile and its launcher.
The jewel of the ammo is an ingeniously thought out dynamite launcher gun they nicknamed bombaction: the empty casing of a doshka bullet is filled with dynamite powder, then dropped into the tip of the gun. A cartridge filled with magic cotton is then placed inside the gun, which gets ignited at the triggering, thus propelling the dynamite launch.
Asked if the defeat of Qussair represented the loss of a supply route and troops to the Idlib province, Mr Kattan replied that the road is still in use, and they withdrew temporarily just to save civilians lives. “In Aleppo, we pushed the shabiha back to their neighborhoods and the citadel is 90% taken”. Then we asked Mr Kattan to take us to the real thing. His men took us to unsuspected front lines, on the top floors of old burnt out buildings concealed by regular looking facades, up on the familiar tour of the rubble:
In Aleppo’s Bab Al-Hadid neighborhood, or Iron Gate, between buildings held by the Free Syrian Army and the regime, shouts, then fire, were exchanged. The men of the Ahrar Syria Brigade (Free Syria) were the stokers; with temerity, they yelled “Shabiha! Shabiha!”, through rubbly holes, from around the corner of buildings, atop ramshackle rooftops, into surrounding enemy blocks. Annoyed that the mice hadn’t come out of their holes yet, they continued to shout insults: preferring to wait for darker hours, the Shabiha didn’t accept the invitation. So we would wait too, standing with our back against a putrid wall, feeling unsheltered as we looked out the wall-less side of the kitchen, now become an unglazed panorama over the rubbles of the Iron Gate.
Our friends, pointing at the snipers’ shots on the wall behind our shoulders, advised us to move over to a surprisingly safer spot: right in the open. We preferred to move. While moving building to building or even from a kitchen to a bedroom, missing or broken wall occasionally exposed us to the Shabiha’s view. We were thus advised to run. And so we did along the sniper alleys of the Iron Gate, back to the future from the siege of an old European war, two borders up, promised to be the last mass grave, the last stolen country.
Back to Bustan Al Qasr. Toni, the chief of the AMC, proceeded to recount the real story, or history, of ISIS: “More and more Iraqi fighters were coming in, joining Al Nusra, sent in by Abu Baker Al Baghdadi to cause trouble, starting to interfere with people’s lives and kidnapping journalists. Baghdadi himself announced the merging of the State of Iraq with Syrian Al Nusra (the Sham); that made the Iraqi elements feel entitled to steal our weapons and money. Al Nusra’s high profile men lost control, and hid, waiting for orders from their chief Al Golani, who declared he did not want to merge with Abu Baker and ISIS, however he did pledge allegiance to Al Zawahiri as a leader and a person, but not to Al Qaeda as an org. Al Zawahiri then cancelled the merger (we forgot to ask if he did encouraged it in the first place) and ordered Bahgdadi back to Iraq, and Golani to stay put, thus encouraging fighters to defect back from ISIS to Al Nusra. Baghdadi violated Zawahiri’s order and stayed in Syria”. Sounding like he meant that “Al Nusra was not so bad after all” or just naturally rooting for the national element in the wrong coalition, Toni quoted Moaz Al Katib, a former president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Forces, to be “not happy that Al Nusra was counted in the list of international terrorist groups”.
Back to our rooms, we celebrated a long awaited trickle of water, tapping into the resource at a prodigious rate to fill a dozen bottles, and taking showers as if there was no tomorrow. Then by the light of the beam of the open mac book we went downstairs, mischievous kids popping out of dark corners, one of them pulling a serious kitchen knife out of the dark, all he had found to play with.
In the heyday of the Aleppo revolution, supper is extravagant even for spoiled western European standards: about twenty kids would take a break from laptopping the revolution, stand around a chairless table, stick their bumpy bread into tahini butter, made from freshly ground sesame, picking up roasted chicken with the folded circles, complaining that the cook wasn’t up to snuff, and wondering if I had a younger sister.
The first jihado nicknames however are starting to circulate on fb and the bad looking dudes in black with guns at the AMC gate, would gesture unfriendly to us “picture verboten”: the media center is soon to become an oxymoron for journalists, along with the fact that the regime, probably according to a “pattern of life behavior” has started to pick on us with what sounded like grad-thuds on our roof around 5 o’clock am.
But times were changing, as experienced by this writer, caught one morning inadvertently veilless at breakfast: veilless at breakfast is anathema enough in any Muslim country, even in tolerant not yet beard peaked Aleppo: Sami, our fixer, revealed that rumors had been circulating in the building about an undetermined number of wisps permanently poking out from under my veil: the Administrator, look from jihadi central casting, disclosed a long buttoned up feeling, unbuttoned: he drew endless loops with his index finger around his face, meaning “the veil”, then he flashed his swinging open palms up at me, clearly conveying the international “that’s it” injunction. We were escorted to the available ramshackle car, Sami in the front seat, if needed. We drove up north 20 miles from Azaz, where we were courteously dumped at a bus stop, not in an unfriendly manner, bus fare to Kilis courtesy of the house. Sami ordered to write as soon as we had crossed the border, and I obliged to his 10 years older then real birthday fb profile; he confirmed to my next fixer, that he “protected me as a woman in a warzone” and said not to worry, that many journalists in Syria are not welcome, even those who not so covertly root for the revolution.
One of the front lines of Aleppo is at Kafr Hamrah, between 2 buildings, not even one kilometer from one another, in the countryside in the northwestern suburbs of Aleppo.
One of these buildings is under the Free Syrian Army, the other the government. The katiba (battalion) defending the FSA’s building is The revolutionaries of Manbij, one of the most respected and effective katibas in Aleppo. Within the FSA, this katiba operates under the banner of Al-Tawhid. Every katiba has a Mullah, also a combatant, to teach the fighters not to steal from and not to hurt the people in captured territories. This katiba also has a doctor, a pharmacist, a teacher of primary school, and a mechanic. The head quarters are in a magnificent Scarface-style of villa, complete with dried out swimming pool, that the revolutionaries have taken over from whom was wealthy enough to escape the remains of murder. We meet the anti dictatorship children crusaders at breakfast; in not yet beard peaked Aleppo, some boys have grown enough hair to look, at best, rogue bandits on the margin: the mujahid children are not going to carry out jihad, just practicing the business of home made insurgence.
Anas Alhaj, our fixer, with the Relief Committee of the Council of the Aleppo Governorate, said it’s a good thing that Hezbollah, the party of satan, and Iran , came to fight on Bashar’s side and show their true colors to the Sunni of Free Syria, who now know who they really are. In fact, before the revolution, the Sunni of Syria used to love Hezbollah, because they also were Israel’s enemy . ” Even Iran was not an enemy”. In his fervor, Anas disregarded that Hezbollah did remain Israel’s enemy, even if, in the topsy turvy politics of the Middle East, having a common enemy doesn’t necessarily make an alliance. In the previously luxurious headquarters, Commander Abu Farouk, one of the most respected leaders of the FSA in Aleppo, candidly declared a nom de guerre: who would give his real name to a journalist in Kafr Hamrah, anyway?
The “front line” is about a five-kilometer drive from the villa. We climbed to the top of the building. A rebel showed us the blood, on the stairs, of the last body that was dragged out, about a week ago, they say. On the top, two awfully young boys kept on guard, seated by the open wall, neck paralyzed to tthe back of the chairs, looking into a broken mirror reflecting the enemy’s position.We asked Abu if he could tell, from the shouts from the other building, who was on the other side. ” Mostly Farsi, from the Basij, (the militia established in 1979 by
Ayatollah Kohmeini) and thepasdaran (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard)”, he replied. Lebanese accents, Iraqi and Yemeni Shia. Turkish spoken by Turkish Alawites, and some Russian, probably spoken by Kazakistani, whose country is eighty per cent shia.
“When we shout Allahu Akbar, we hear scared voices from the other side shouting “Oh Hussien, oh Fatima”. (Hussien was the son of Ali Bin Abu Talep, the cousin and son- in- law of the prophet Mohammah. Fatima was the daughter of Mohammad)”. They can hear the Rafidah, (the shia), by ingeniously tweaking the wavelengths of their sort of old fashioned walkie-talkies.
“These gadgets are part of the “non lethal aid” just supplied by the US”, together with MRE (meals ready to eat), http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33997408 he added ironically with a grin, a subtle smile, The “Friends of Free Syria” did not open the gates yet to flood Free Syria with the MIM – 104 Patriot anticraft! Commander Abu Faruk is kind enough to take us back after a few camera shots, besides those aiming at us from the oppositebuilding. However, before we left, we had one last question for him: – Wasn’t it wicked of Al Zawahri (head of Al Qaeda) to urge the merging of the State of Iraq and the Sham with the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, Al Nusra? Trying to deter arm shipments to the moderates by further contaminating the opposition resulted in augmented hesitation by the west to support the revolution all together. In fact, Al-Zawahiri himself had to retract the invitation following the wackiness committed by the network of death. Commander Abu Faruk, a military man and not a politician, didn’t have an opinion on this: he’s a Muslim revolutionary from the FSA, and doesn’t give a damn about the IS.
Libya from Cairo: the empty donkey cart stopped at Saloum. In the waste land to the border, we took several lifts from private cars and quite a few among them, even if welcoming, did not shy away from recommending tips.
That wouldn’t happen in Libya: if you are a foreigner, don’t try to pay for buns at the bread line in Misrata, and don’t try to wait for your turn either. When the oven doors open, you are invited to take a cloth and help yourself to the hot buns, then at the cash, a flashed open palm, slightly pushed forward, indicates that even if you are a regular with two baguettes you are free to go.
Benghazi Freedom Square had been rehearsing for months, the celebration of the impending mad dog’s fall, 4 months before a bullet blew his head: 40 km west of Misrata, the rebels were pushing the frontline further west every day, “container by container”, boasted Tribute fm 92.4, the English-speaking radio operated by Libyan expats returned from London in order not to miss the inevitable.
On the promenade along the sea, amongst the loads of wearable memorabilia with the Libyan star and moon, the colors of the European creditors of the revolution were for sale as bracelets, or waving tall on flags, together with those of the overseas allies of the free world. Whoever engaged in conversation prized their favorite western sponsor: “Sarkozy, Italia, myamya!” (Libyan for excellent, they never heard it in Syria). Some kids were passing USB keys to the journalists, containing images of babys burned by white phosphorous in Misrata. The facade of the Courthouse was completely covered by a mosaic of faces. The man requested who they were lowered his head and shut his eyes: “They are the “shahids”, the martyrs of the regime from 1969 until the battle of the Katiba, the government garrison conquered by the rebels in February 2011.”
The women in black from Freedom Square, then aging, where holding framed portraits, bearing the likenesses of their own children, between their twenties and thirties, victims of the Abu Salim massacre, back in 1996, when 1200 regime opponents were machined-gunned in barely 137 minutes.
Back to the hotel, the manager himself was watching burned bodies from the Misrata shelling, and so did we, some were babies, just for a few minutes. Then he recommended to get black veils to go around, which we did at the souk, for 5 dinars, from a merchant who took 20 and forgot to give us back the change. At the ensuing riot, the Libyan men at the souk deliberated that the merchant was “No Libyan people”, claiming that national moral code which came up up again subsequently for, perhaps amongst other reasons, the sake of the Libyan reputation abroad. Misrata committee, Benghazi port. We were ordered to enter the ladies’ waiting room for the ship to Misrata, which was also a prayer area. The ferry fare was 70 dinar for Libyans and 150 for foreigners (one way), a surprising double standard because “everybody must pay according to their means”. The night passage of about 450 km west was secure, the staff guaranteed, because “NATO approved”; the boat, full. The passengers were so closely packed together, that a man’s toe, who was lucky enough to have found a chair, was dangling on the open mouth of a snoring man, lying on the floor. Most of them were Misrata’s residents, bringing back rare goods, like cheese, coffee, cigarettes. The free alternative, a fishermen’s boat, which was also carrying a few shababs, the men at war, was expected to have a duration of 50 hours.
The magic word to reach the front line sounded like a code name: Dafniya, literally Land of Farmers, End of Misrata, seemed to stand for the frontline as well. Just mentioning to the rebels when they stopped their pickups, would provide us a lift 40 miles west to a shipping container, overflowing with sand, as a makeshift rampart to block the road. Further up, more containers were marking subsequent gains of ground. With civilian cars it didn’t work, we were sent back to the checkpoint. The advance “container by container” from Tribute radio was finally realized: a fresh container, marking the farthest position of the front line, was added each time a jump ahead was produced, thus leaving the preceding ones behind, a line up of staggered blocks where the pickups would zig-zag right through, a quite familiar maze for them. Overflowing with sand to deter the impact of bullets, the containers were an ingenious concept born out of necessity, like the UB-16 Soviet rocket launchers, effectively recycled from old choppers and mounted on pick ups.
A distant heir, for astuteness, of the Stalingrad soldiers who would send dogs with dynamite into the nazi lines, (the rebels have actually been known for sending out reconnaissance dogs with flashlights in the outskirts of Tripoli), this army of its own shared with its precursors the strategy of provisioning: 75% of the ammo, affirmed a rebel, had been looted from the enemy forces. The statement seemed reliable, if we consider the often bare footed state these troops were in: the only Nato-vehicles in sight on this side of the front were local black cars with a huge white N painted on the hood, not a joke, as one might think, but a measure of protection from possible friendly fire from above, they said.
Misrata was besieged on two principal front lines: on the west side, Dafnyia, 40 km from Mysratah, was facing Zlitan. On the eastern outskirts, Karareem confronted Tawergha, where the population of color was traditionally loyalist: also a civil war of black vs white, the conflict uprooted people from east to west and vice versa, out of allegiances or coercion.
Gozeelteek, a ghostly hotel with a bombed-out wing, had been deserted even by journalists: in order to encourage them, the media centre and radio Misrata were courteously putting up the brave ones left, breakfast included. There we had, at 5 am in mid june, our first unconscious grad missile experience, likening the sound of a 35 pounds dumbbells being dropped a couple of floors up.
At Gozeelteek, as an unconventional security measure, you couldn’t even lock yourself up in your room, because there was no key. Next door right, Portia Walker of the Washington Post and Ruth Sherlock of The Telegraph had blocked their door with furniture for good, at least they were two in the room! they used the balcony we shared to come in, the first time with a vigorous jump, which scared the daylight out of this writer’s soul, with the scream of who’s ready to offer her throat to the knife wielding cutter.
Next door left, the beautiful face of Chris Stephen of The Guardian, never to be seen again on the screen, protectively blurred in his You tube interviews, probably from the name he has to carry.
Kahlil, a guest of the hotel originally from Zlitan, had come back from London “to help his brothers” by fighting his former city from the Dafnyia front. Those who had been deported by Gadhafi from Misrata to Zlitan, during the Misrata Spring, were forced to bomb their city of origin. Kahlil recounted, at breakfast, that when a grad missile was launched into town, massacres of large proportions were avoided thanks to them, the deported rebels, who didn’t screw the self-destructor on the grad at the moment of launching. The devices, which normally would provoke the grad explosion and were rigorously kept apart from the rocket for security, were surreptitiously hidden in the sand by the “traitors”.
On the other hand, the “desaparecidos” from Misrata were men of the opposition taken away from their family in the same period, but not for fighting. We met them when talking to the people: in one day only, two fathers claimed back their sons, and a son claimed back his father: they all wanted to have the kidnappings reported on Al Jazeera.
On the 16th of June, the pick-up driver had taken us to the path passed the last container, most probably the Dafnyia dirt beltway, protected by berms of shoveled up earth, along which we could ride looking for best shot, but beyond which we dared not go. Our fixer was the commander of the katiba Al Sumud, “the non surrenders”, same as Saddam Hussein’s resilient, UN banned missiles. He explained that Katibas often included men sharing the same occupation in civilian life.
Here the shababs sipped and shared their tea with us, in a moment of rest, where the language barrier was overcome by all of us, by repeating the mantra “Gadhafi out” ad nauseam, accompanied by the hand gesture of slitting one’s own throat. We stayed until 6 pm, when the mortar bombs started to fall. The commander turned his face up and lifted his arms up and out, as if contemplating a benevolent rain, identifying them as “hown, hown!!” (Arabic for mortar). These bombs were usually responsible for the typical black halo around the breaches in the walls of Tripoli street, Misrata’s main avenue whose videos got blanket media coverage.
In order to see the howns, since we had to live with them, we went where Gadhafi forces left them: on Tripoli street there was a weapon’s fair displaying exploded mortar bombs, the tail fitted with a full around crown, and not much else, the tip and body mostly blasted out. The grad, a 3 meter long missile with a range of up to 40 km, was the main showpiece of that blasted arsenal, made of artifacts of the springtime slaughtering.
27 th June. The access to Dafniya was more and more often denied. A freelancer at the hotel suggested to jump in an ambulance. We requested a lift to the Al Hikma hospital, situated at the beginning of the road to Dafniya, which served quite well as an indicator of the situation at the front: empty emergency area, Dafnyia “myamya”. The strategy was almost perfect, the driver not allowing us into Dafniya, and dropping us off at the field hospital, at approximately 4 km from the front line. “This is where the wounded soldiers are first taken”, said a doctor, said a doctor, so they won’t die before they are taken back to Misrata. A man was dousing the ambulance floor with a water hose, turning the saturated red to clear.
At the gate of the driveway to the hospital, at approximately 5 pm, multiple grads hit the ground, like craters erupting in near unison. Too close for comfort. One turns around, and around, and there are no craters, and one is afraid to step into the next crater, or to stay and become the next crater. The drivers coming from Dafnyia, who usually slowed down to say hello with the V sign for victory, were zooming by like bullets flying into the city, and so did a car coming from the hospital, leaving us standing there.
Back at the hospital, the staff confirmed that three grads had actually hit the tomato field, which provided the main ingredient for the daily-baked pizza for the army, then ordered positively not to disclose to the media where they hit.
The 2nd of July. An empty tent at the Al Hikma hospital, Dafniya myamya, we took off. The freedom fighter first took us for a tour along the beach to see the Chinese development binge: the construction of the huge condo buildings, about 5 km long, was on hold for the duration of the revolution, he explained, and scheduled to resume, hopefully, quite soon. Then he stopped on the way to Dafniya to practice his machine gun.
Standing up in the back of the pick up, he fired away from behind a flat metal shield all the way up to his neck, making the kalashnikovs on the back seat next to us rattle and shake and nearly drop and hit the floor. At Dafnyia, a mujah, taking advantage of the endless stalemate, was sleeping right on top of the dunes of the last container (albeit the last for the last 6 weeks), holding on to his AK 47 in his sleep. Another one was preparing to launch a rpg, which they usually describe as rgb, like the acronym of primary colors, red, blue and green.
Dozens of pick-ups, coming from the city were carrying rajima rockets launchers, lodging 12 missiles of 8 km range., to the southern flank of the front. The poor relative of the grad, which can reach as far 40 km, but of the same 122 mm caliber, the rajima is also shorter, and represented the most ubiquitous weapon in the rebels’ sui generis ammunitions’ insalata.
The 8 of july, return to safe haven Benghazi. On Al Jazera, a reporter in Dafnyia showed what just yesterday had been the furthest position for 6 weeks:
the abandoned container where the shabab slept, the dunes on the container covered by a barrage of bullets. “Not to worry” reassured the reporter, they are doubling down exactly 6 km further: after 6 weeks of impasse, a new container had been placed just 160 km west from the snake’s head in Tripoli.
On the road to Ajdabia, at the last check point before the city, some kids in uniform, by then part of a regular army of the revolution, posed proud for the camera with a brand new battery of their own brand new “hown”, made -they said- in South Korea, and a line up of their own grads, just out of the box from Russia, some still in the package marked “explosive”, guarded by a sleepy soldier lying on a mattress.
The 23 of August: it’s hard to sit pretty across the sea when Tripoli is being taken; Rome, Cairo, Xandria, back to the deep west: at the border, the chief inspector was a member of the Abdullah Al Zanussi family, a prominent Tobruk family who was part of the Tobruk PTC (Provincial Transitional Council). He recognized us from our previous entry visa and we congratulated him for the job well done. Next day, three young men stopped their Toyota pick up rolling down the window: “Benghazi?” We jumped in, after 15 km, they turned right towards the fourth Italian shore. At the beach, the man next to the driver pulled out a knife and handcuffs, so we threw the mac books, the cameras and the Euros at them, in exchange for an open car door, a deal they seemed quite happy with. A handful of Euros, which were meant to fantastically multiply by two, once exchanged into dinar at the black market behind the hotel Dojal!
The gang took off with the goods, our shoes still in the back of the car, along with, inshallah, the wacko with the handcuffs calling out “jeans!” from the front seat. The people of Tobruk (who oddly enough, mentioned more often that “Rommel passed by here” rather than Montgomery) picked us up barefooted, and the Abdullah al Zanussi family put us up at the 5 stars family’s hotel, Al-Masira, apparently “march” in arabic, named, it was rumored, by Mussolini.
In the hall, it was Al Jazeera all the time, and that meant Libya all the time. The leader of the rebels in Tripoli, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the Americans were concerned- was supposed to have ties with Al Qaida, and had exhorted the rebels not to hand in their weapons. Also,the emir of Qatar, who financed the revolution, is some kind of a wahabist, leader of an oppressive regime.
Jamel, a Dafniya rebel, however, did wave his index finger at us, declaring: “No bin Laden!” He admitted that his all-time hero was Fracesco Totti, the king of Italian soccer.
During out on the town time we were escorted at all time by Farraj, – his real name – a cop, just in case the wackos would show up again. In downtown Tobruck there is a tiny tiny church, all boarded up. In spite of all the sour feelings, Tobruck residents didn’t take it down, because, he said, the Libyans didnt mind the Italians after all.
LIBYA IS FREE: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi ‘pretended to be a camel herder’ when captured Captor says dictator’s… http://t.co/9qFUaOxB