I should begin this post by letting the reader know that I have a propensity to go to conflict zones. At 21, in the 1980’s (after serving two years in the U. S. Army), I went to Afghanistan and spent four weeks with the Mujahideen when they were fighting the Soviets. In 2003 I was embedded as a print reporter for the first seven weeks of the Iraq War. In the summer of 2011, I went to Libya for two weeks while they were fighting to overthrow Khadaffi. In the summer of 2013 I went to Syria.
The following story is true and related to the best of my ability.
As you may know, Syria has been the midst of a brutal Civil War since 2011. In the summer of 2013 I decided to go to Syria to see what was happening there for myself. So, I made contact with Fixers via Facebook, flew to Turkey and crossed the border into Syria. (That is another story.) Fixers are local people hired by reporters or aid workers whose job is to make everything possible and keep you safe. They help set up interviews as well as provide accommodations, transportation, and security. They enable a journalist to do their job. If they are good, they know everybody and everybody knows them. They make whatever their employer wants to happen, happen.
[Above: An artist’s (Joshua Frazier) sketch of Aleppo ruins and fighters. I was working with him to do a graphic version of this story. We didn’t finish the project. I hope to collaborate with another illustrator and finish it.]
I spent two weeks in the city of Aleppo. Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria and has been largely destroyed. Now it is taken over by the Assad forces. Then, Aleppo was divided by the fighting. I had two “fixers.” Mahmoud al Basha and Suheib (whose real name was Aref Zidan-many people in Syria use nicknames for the security of themselves and their family). My fixers were best fixers in Aleppo. The Times of London and Amnesty International both used them. They were very good.
[Above: L to R; Anthony Loyd of the Times of London, Yours Truly, Jack Hill, Anthony’s photographer, Mahmoud Al Basha; one of our fixers]
I had gone to the frontline in Aleppo a few days after I had arrived. But wanted to go to the front in the countryside, outside of Aleppo, where much of the heavy fighting had recently taken place. The rebels were trying to surround the regime held part of the city.
[Yours truly with FSA fighters on a rooftop in Aleppo at the front line.]
On July 6th, 2013 a Free Syria Army (FSA) fighter (who was a friend of my fixers) was leaving to go to the front to rejoin his unit. So, Suheib and I decided to go with him.
[Above: The Free Syria Army fighter driving. I took all of the photos except for the ISIS flag shown later.]
Since Assad’s forces controlled part of Aleppo, we would have to drive around the city to get to the area of the frontline I wanted to go to. Although it was only 10 kilometers away as the crow flies, we would have to drive 70 kilometers. It would take three hours.
[Below: Another Frazier sketch. A wide view of Aleppo. The text is from an early draft of the story.]
After more than two hours of driving we stopped and picked up a wounded fighter on the side of the road and took him to a nearby medical clinic. He was wounded in the left side.
[Above: The wounded FSA fighter.]
[Above: A woman treating the FSA fighter at the medical clinic.]
At this point, I became aware that the FSA fighter was somewhat lost. Suheib told me the FSA fighter was asking people at the medical clinic where his unit was. The lines had shifted in the previous days. Apparently the clinic personnel gave the FSA fighter directions because after some tea, we left.
After a short distance we were stopped at an underpass by a dozen armed men. I noticed that an ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) flag was flying above the underpass. The top text reads, “There is no God but God.” The white circle in the center with the words “Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It is the seal the prophet Muhammad used on his letters.
The FSA fighter was driving. I was in the front passenger seat. Suheib was in the back seat. After the car stopped, a large, ugly man carrying an AK-47 leaned into my open passenger window and started talking with the FSA fighter. I expected a few words and then be waved through. This did not happen. The seconds turned into minutes. I could tell the conversation between the FSA fighter and the armed man was not going well. Then the man holding the AK-47 stepped back and another bearded man, better dressed and with a higher level of personal hygiene looked into my window. It was the checkpoint commander (I learned this later). Now Suheib joined the conversation. I gave the commander my passport and cameras. I told him I was a journalist. He looked at my passport and tried to take the lens cap off my camera. He couldn’t.
I don’t exactly know what Suheib and the FSA fighter said to the commander but after a few minutes Suheib told me we needed to get out of the car. The FSA fighter drove through the checkpoint. Apparently ISIS and the FSA shared this part of the front line. Who knew? (At this point in the Syrian Civil War ISIS and the FSA co-operated in fighting the Assad regime. The following year this “peace” broke down and the two forces fought each other. The FSA drove ISIS out of Aleppo.)
The FSA fighter drove off and Suheib and the checkpoint commander walked a short distance away and talked. I was left alone standing next to the big ugly fighter with the AK-47 again among a dozen other armed fighters.
[End Part 1]