For two weeks over the summer, we went to Aleppo and embedded with the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebels fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad on one front and Islamic State militants on another.
"Whether they like it or not, we will enforce Sharia in this land."
In the final part of The Islamic State, we journey from Raqqa, Syria to the border with Iraq where fighters are bulldozing the boundary.
Syria Is Obama’s Rwanda
Twenty-seven-year-old Qusai Zakarya woke up at about 4:30 AM on August 21, 2013. He rolled out his prayer rug inside his family’s two-bedroom apartment in the small town of Moadamiya, Syria, and started his morning prayers.
Alarms coming from nearby Damascus interrupted his daily ritual. After two years of revolution, Qusai had gotten used to the near constant shelling and bombings, but something was different this summer morning. The alarms were the kind “you usually hear in movies about World War II when there is a big air raid,” he told me.
“Within seconds, I started hearing rockets flying into the ground,” Qusai recounted. They hit the rebel-held town about 500 feet away from him.
“Before I realized what was going on, I lost my ability to breathe. I felt like my chest was set on fire. My eyes were burning like hell, and I wasn’t even able to scream to alert my friends,” he said. “So I started beating my chest over and over until I managed to get my first breath.”
As Qusai recovered inside his home, he heard people screaming on the streets. A neighbor pounded on his door and asked for help. Her two kids were suffocating and vomiting “weird white stuff,” Qusai said.
They rushed onto the street to seek help and found a “terrifying” scene. Men, women, children, elderly people were “running and falling on the ground, suffocating, without seeing a single drop of blood or knowing what was really going on,” Qusai told me.
Qusai spotted a 13-year-old boy left all alone, suffocating and vomiting. Qusai ran to him and gave him CPR. “He had big wide blue eyes and was almost staring into another dimension. He was suffocating, and he seemed to me very innocent to die this way or any other way,” Qusai said.
Saving South Sudan – Full Length
Late last year, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup d’état amid accusations of rampant corruption within the government. Infighting immediately broke out within the presidential guard, sparking what has now become a brutal tribal and civil war that has pitted Machar’s ethnic Nuer loyalists against the majority Dinka, who have sided with Kiir. Machar narrowly escaped assassination, fleeing to the deep bush as Kiir’s troops razed his home and killed his bodyguards. And now the world’s newest sovereign nation is in imminent danger of becoming a failed state.
In February, journalists and filmmakers Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia set out on a grueling mission to locate Machar in his secret hideout in Akobo and get his side of the story. Accompanying was Machot Lat Thiep, a former child soldier and Lost Boy who had advised on South Sudan’s constitution and now works as a manager of a Costco in Seattle. Machot acted as a guide of sorts, arranging Pelton and Freccia’s rendezvous with Machar through a series of endless satellite-phone calls to old contacts and rebel platoons, who would eventually guide the group to the deposed vice president.
After spending a couple days with Machar, he granted Pelton and Freccia unprecedented access to the front lines of a battle in Malakal, where for the first time in history the pair documented the heretofore mythical White Army as they looted, murdered, and pillaged their way to some twisted interpretation of “victory.”
How South Sudan Got Lost
Sudan was once home to a great civilization that was the most advanced in all of Africa—but centuries of colonialism and conflict, and a post-independence period ravaged by coups, dictatorships, and incompetent rule, mired Sudan in a series of never-ending wars. This timeline details how by 2013, the oil-rich, fertile nation was falling apart.
We devoted an entire issue of the magazine to Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia’s sprawling 35,000-plus word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. It’s a companion piece of sorts; watch the documentary and read the issue or vice versa. But you won’t get a full scope of the situation without doing both.
An Exploration of the Horrors of the Country’s Ongoing Civil War