Meet the Ladies of the Free Syrian Army – They Have Guns, Dead Families, and Nothing to Lose
An all-female FSA brigade gathers inside Auntie Mahmoud’s house in Atmeh, Syria. Photos by Andreas Stahl.
Just a few hundred meters from the Turkey-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.
Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijabs and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime, their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks, and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.
Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she stroked her rifle as she recounted how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but one another, sad stories, and some guns.
Safa, who has been involved with the revolution against Assad from the beginning, walks through the streets of Atmeh.
The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hard-line Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the best-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organizations), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them to carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.
Bahrain’s PR Campaign Is Doomed to Fail
Hey, do you happen to be the proprietor of a family-run dictatorship in the Middle East? Tired of seeing stories about your country that are all, “Bahrain Princess Accused of Torture” and “Teenager Killed in Bahrain Anniversary Protests” and “The US Sold a Bunch of Weapons to Bahrain During Its Brutal Crackdown” and even “King of Bahrain Beats Up Arab Pop Star on a Yacht”? That sure is some bad “optics,” as they say in the business, and you probably can’t repair your reputation solely through articles titled “Bahrain a Land of tolerance…” in government-run media outlets, especially when that ellipsis might be an indication that even the “journalists” on your payroll can barely believe the shit they’re writing.
One way to solve your image problem would to welcome reform and stop committing gross human rights violations—ha, ha, just kidding! Clearly that’s not on the table, so you need to spend millions on PR and invite journalists to your brand new Formula 1 race track to see how lovely it is. According to Bahrain Watch, that’s what the country’s regime has been doing: It’s spent at least $32 million on image management since the start of the Arab Spring. I’m familiar with this because one of these companies threatened to sue the Guardianfor libel after I wrote an article with Nabeel Rajab which accused the Bahraini security forces of torturing employees at the F1 track. The PR firm did not question that torture had taken place, just that it had not happened on the premises of the F1 track. The libel threat was eventually withdrawn after a footnote was added to the article, but the point was made: We have money and we will bully and threaten you if you criticize us.
Anarchists in the West get pretty touchy about the usage of the phrase “black bloc.” While the mainstream media has co-opted the term to christen a new movement of furious, state-destroying bank smashers, the anarchists gripe that all it really refers to is the tactic of wearing all black to help preserve your anonymity at a protest or riot.
In Egypt, however, they seem less concerned with the terminology. Modeling themselves on the anti-establishment ideals of their Western counterparts, the Egyptian Black Bloc share the same tactics and uniform, but have adopted the name with its capital letters intact: Black Bloc as anti-Islamist movement, rather than lowercase anti-CCTV strategy.
Young Egyptians claiming affiliation with the group have been turning up to protests in the hundreds to skirmish with progovernment forces. They have no qualms about using violence and have claimed responsibility for the recent firebomb attack on the Muslim Brotherhood’s HQ and the temporary closure of Alexandria’s tramway.
Understandably, this has terrified the Muslim Brotherhood. President Morsi has vowed to crack down on the Black Bloc. Attorney General Talaat Ibrahim has cited them as a terrorist organization, ordering the police and army to arrest anyone suspected of being a member.
Islamist groups such as Jama’a al-Islamiya haven’t taken their emergence too well either, releasing bafflingly vague statements like “the Black Bloc must die.” A countermovement of Islamists calling themselves the White Bloc has also been initiated, but despite all this, the group is growing quickly in numbers, its ranks swollen with plenty of young people who talk about their own deaths in collateral terms.
I managed to get an interview with one of the guys running Egypt’s Black Bloc. He wasn’t exactly chatty, but I guess he’s got more important business to attend to.
VICE: What does the Egyptian Black Bloc represent, ideologically?
Anonymous: The Egyptian Black Bloc holds several different views and doesn’t adhere to one specific ideology. There’s obviously a resemblance in appearance with the European black blocs, though, and we share some of their basic ideas.
Do you guys have any kind of relationship with Anonymous?
There isn’t one, no.
Does the group have any desire for future involvement in Egyptian politics?
We are indeed already involved in Egyptian political life because we are the youth of the revolution.
How did the group form?
It was formed after one of the attacks that took place against people holding a sit-in at the El-Ettihadia Palace, in which activists were targeted.
How has the general public reacted to the group?
In the beginning, the public was afraid of us. But after we protected and defended them our intentions became clearer and people who liked us started appearing. It’s gotten to the point where people have started defending us.
Who Is Causing the Blackouts in Yemen?
As the Arab Spring hit Yemen in 2011, urban Yemenis called for an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s three-decade reign in power. They also saw the end of their reliable access to electricity. The situation bottomed out in late summer, as 23 hour long power cuts during Ramadan left fatigued Yemenis struggling to negotiate dimly lit iftar meals at night. Improvements sharply sped up when Saleh’s successor, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took office.
Nevertheless, this week finds Sanaa thrown back into the darkness.
In 2011, there was a widespread rumor that the power outages weren’t accidental. Conspiracy theorists were vindicated last May when, following Saleh’s flight to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, Sanaa saw its first full day of power in weeks. The blackouts returned, of course, and soon were worse than ever. In those literal and metaphorical dark days, it wasn’t hard to imagine the embattled leader was the one behind the power cuts; the minarets of Saleh’s monumental Mosque, lit by a self-contained generator system, seemed to loom over the city, as if he was giving us all the finger. Months after Saleh left power, the Minister of Electricity was still blaming him for acts of sabotage. For their part, Saleh’s political allies have often made similar accusations against their opponents. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if both sides were guilty.
Saadi Gaddafi is “a fun guy” and not a war criminal, says his bodyguard.
Egypt’s Revolution Is Far from Finished
Aiman high-fives and shakes my hand as he tells me how he was shot in the side in Tahrir Square during last year’s January revolution. We’re standing on the corner of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, a block back from Tahrir Square, where protesters are milling around a small bonfire of refuse and pitching the occasional molotov cocktail up into the scorched exterior of a school building that’s been under occupation for the past 24 hours by state security forces. Soldiers lob chairs, concrete blocks, and even a Venetian blind down onto the gathering below. A field hospital has sprung up on the corner and demonstrators—mostly young men—in trademark eye-patches and Guy Fawkes masks mill about, variously ticking with adrenaline, indignation, and impotent rage.
The somewhat nebulous demonstration, now in its third day, has been staged on Mohamed Mahmoud Street to mark the anniversary of the eponymous battles that took place here last November, when more than 40 people were killed and scores seriously injured. In one of the bloodiest incidents since the fall of Mubarak, riot police and state security unleashed tear-gas and “eye-snipers” on crowds protesting the impunity of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for killings during the January revolution.
Commentators have been quick to once more diagnose Egypt with revolution after Cairo’s display of all the relevant symptoms: record-scale protests, chants of “leave, leave” and a presidential palace under siege by demonstrators. Banners in Tahrir Square proclaimed “Checkmate to the king,” while jubilant tweets declared “Happy second revolution” as hundreds of thousands turned out to protest current president Mohamed Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—broadly expanding his own powers and proposing a new constitutionthat opponents claim would help to impose Islamist law on the country.
Morsi’s amendment came after international acclaim at his successful brokering of a ceasefire in Gaza several days before. But within hours of his announcement, the president was denounced as autocratic, dictatorial and “pharaonic.” Deeming it the “Revolution Protection Law,” Morsi has defended his new powers as a safeguard for Egypt’s nascent democracy against the influence of former regime elements and insisted that they are “temporary but necessary to complete the democratic transition.”
The president has since scrambled to calm the rising tide of dissent by rushing through a draft constitution to be put to popular referendum on December 15. In a tenuous grab at credibility, he also scrapped his new powers, instead awarding the military the power to arrest civilians. However, with at least six deaths and hundreds of casualties in protests so far, these hasty efforts are unlikely to appease protesters or those in the government and judicial system who oppose Morsi’s plans.
Things Are Still Going Terrible in Bahrain
It’s been 21 months since the small desert island nation of Bahrain began its Arab Spring-inspired uprising. Since declaring its independence in 1971, Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy has had one prime minister, Khalidah ibn Sulman Al Khalifah, who is also the uncle of the current king and the brother of the last one. Unlike states which have been transformed by protests and revolution like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the Bahrain government—which is controlled by a Sunni minority and often accused of oppressing Shiites—hasn’t come close to toppling. Demonstrations in Bahrain petered out quickly last year after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations lent the regime some troops to use in a violent crackdown against dissidents. The turmoil in other Middle Eastern countries has taken international media attention away from the human rights violations in Bahrain, but that doesn’t make the situation there any less appalling.
Last November, the Bahraini government admitted to “instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees.” A few days after that admission, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry—which was led by human rights expert M. Cherif Bassiouni and commissioned by King Hamad to investigate the violence—released 26 reform recommendations that the king promised to implement.
One year later and only three of those recommendations have been carried out, according to a report from the Project on Middle East Democracy. Just last month, Bahrain completely banned protesting, and a few weeks ago 31 people connected to the opposition had their citizenships revoked. To find out more about this mostly ignored crisis, I spoke with Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the cofounder of the organization who was sentenced to life in prison by a military court in June 2011.
VICE: Hi Maryam. How do you think human rights have changed one year after the BICI report?
Maryam al-Khawaja: It’s gotten worse. There have been five cases of people getting arrested for tweeting. Someone was imprisoned for two months for defaming the king on Twitter. There are constant attacks against people who speak out and criticize the government.
Haven’t there been some cases where the police were put on trial for using excessive force against protestors?
The very few cases that have been brought to court were all lower rank police officers. There were several cases where police officers were acquitted or found innocent in cases where they were charged in extrajudicial killings. There was only one case where an officer was found guilty—he shot someone at point-blank range and only received seven years in prison. He hasn’t been arrested or served the time despite being sentenced. If you look at the higher-level officials who should have been held accountable, most of them have held their positions or even been promoted.
THE MAN WHO WAS THERE -
ROBERT KING HAS BEEN COVERING THE FSA SO LONG THEY NAMED HIM “HAJI MEMPHIS”
(Above) September 30, 2012: Fighters with the jihadist Tawhid brigade in the midst of a battle with Syrian Army troops inside Aleppo’s hotly contested al-Arkoub neighborhood.
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. Robert is a man with a heart of gold, a preternatural gut, and balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond). For more than two decades he has documented the most volatile places in the world at their most violent times, including Iraq, Albania, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and many others. We won’t get into all he’s done and where he’s been here because the following 20 pages of reportage he sent us speak for themselves.
August 28, 2012: A man holds up his Koran in front of an FSA flag at a protest after Friday prayers in Aleppo.
Ibecame interested in the conflict in Syria for the same reason I’ve always wanted to cover anything—it seemed to be underreported. There weren’t very many news organizations willing to commit resources needed to inform their readers about the situation on a continuous basis, so I took it upon myself to do so.
I genuinely believed in the Syrian people’s call for more than just demonstrations, especially once it was made apparent that Assad’s regime was using helicopters, jets, detainment, and torture to squash the rebellion. During a stint in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005, I was kidnapped by a brigade of Sunni fighters. I managed to escape, but I was wary of going back to the region—especially to a country where a violent battle had erupted between rebel forces and government troops. Still, I knew I had to go, and before I left my home in Memphis I established connections with relief and aid groups working inside Syria.
My initial contacts directed me toward other people who, once I was inside, would hopefully point me in the direction of activists who could smuggle me in via a city near the Syrian border. When I felt confident that I had ensured my safe passage as much as I could, I began to move into Syria very cautiously.
For about $1,000 round trip, I was able to take a back door into the country and was guaranteed—as much as a smuggler can guarantee—safe passage for ten days inside the governorate of Idlib. They took me to a town called Binnish, where they told me they could find me a place to stay for about $100 a night.
The first round wasn’t a very easy go. At that point, late March through April, there were still very few publications willing to assign long excursions into Syria. I also quickly discovered that the activists I was embedded with were in the habit of staying up and drinking Pepsi till the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping in until 3 PM.
The reality was that Binnish was pretty dead. There wasn’t much fighting or anything else going on, and it was difficult to get my guides to take me to the places I wanted to go. Looking back, hiring these people was probably not the wisest investment. Around Easter weekend, toward the end of my three-week trip, a horrific massacre broke out about ten miles away in Taftanaz. Dozens of people were slaughtered. And I was one of the only Western journalists there.
After the onslaught, there were fears that the fighting would spread to Binnish. The Free Syrian Army rebels who had tried to contain the attack in Taftanaz left about two hours after they arrived because they had run out of ammunition. It quickly became apparent that they were incapable of protecting or enforcing anything.