Syria: Snipers of Aleppo
Over the last six months the FSA and the battle for Aleppo has transitioned from a full-on frontline assault into a slow-paced but still deadly sniper war. Photographer and videographer Robert King recently returned to the conflict-ravaged city to meet the snipers of the FSA, interviewing them about the new challenges they face on the ground as they steadfastly peer through their scopes and pick off the enemy, one by one, day by day.
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Syria’s Refugees Are Trapped Between Hells
I first met war photographer Giles Duley a month ago, to talk about his work both before and after he became a triple amputee in Afghanistan. Giles’s most recent trip since we spoke was to Jordan, where he documented the arrival of Syrian refugees after a long journey across the border. Here’s his account of new arrivals to the Zaatari Camp. – Jamie Collins
The nights become so bitterly cold that I’ve taken shelter in a portakabin staffed by UNHCR doctors. We sit, sipping tea, fighting our tiredness, waiting. It’s nearly 1 AM and there’s still no sign of any refugees arriving. Restless, I go outside to join my colleagues, who are sharing a cigarette in the starless night. Suddenly we are silent. In the distance we can hear buses and then out of that cold dark night they start to arrive. The first to appear is a young girl, maybe five years old, dressed in a cream coat walking with a purpose beyond her years, followed by two young mothers clasping their children, wrapped tightly in blankets to protect them from the cold. They make their way into the large military-style reception tent where they will be processed, fed, given medical attention, and finally allocated their own plot within Zaatari Camp.
I watch as more and more arrive—tens, hundreds and, by dawn, nearly 2,000. There’s man wearing a suit, holding his kid’s hand; an elderly couple struggling to carry their meagre possessions; a pregnant woman in tears; a young man carried across the rough ground in his wheelchair. Each face seems haunted and etched with exhaustion, uncertainty, and fear. The scenes are reminiscent of so many earlier wars, faded black and white images of civilians uprooted and forced to flee with only what they carry. But this is not some terrible past, this is happening now and the war grows more violent and brutal each day.
The numbers are almost beyond comprehension. More than 70,000 people killed, over four million displaced, and more than one million refugees registered by the UNHCR. In Jordan alone, there are 340,000 refugees, many in the tented Zaatari. This number is expected to rise to over one million by the end of the year.
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Chatting About Game of Thrones with Syria’s Most Feared Islamic Militants
“Ameriki?” the jihadi asked, pointing at me with a bemused look on his face. I’d just approached him at a house that serves as the local base for Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the most feared Islamic militant group operating in Syria. A month ago, his colleagues took over a street right next to my fixer’s house, blocking it off and hoisting up the black flag that serves as their symbol. They spend their time milling about outside, sometimes riding off in pickup trucks, the beds overflowing with black-clad young men holding RPGs and AK-47s.
Accompanied by a few Free Syrian Army rebels, I was still quite apprehensive about approaching al-Nusra. More experienced journalists had warned me to be wary of them, and the Obama administration had recentlydesignated them as a terrorist group. While the al Qaeda link hadn’t yet been made official, it wasconfirmed a couple of days later. Additionally, I had awoken that morning to the news that the FBI had justarrested Eric Harroun, an American who allegedly fought with al-Nusra in Syria.
Al-Nusra and other Islamic groups showed up in the Syrian border town of Ras Al Ayn in November, and—along with the Free Syrian Army—forced out the remnants of the Assad regime in fierce, block-to-block fighting. Afterward, this coalition fought against Syria’s most powerful Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). The fighting lasted months before a ceasefire was arranged, and the city was essentially divided in two, with the YPG operating on one side and the FSA and al-Nusra on the other. More recently, al-Nusra had even clashed with an FSA brigade in the nearby town of Tal Abyad, but peace was restored shortly after.
At the al-Nusra base in Ras Al Ayn, the jihadi who had asked me if I was American pulled back his fist in an exaggerated motion, then play-acted punching me when I confirmed my citizenship. The man—a cross-eyed Egyptian who I would later learn served as the group’s public-relations officer and preacher, of sorts—laughed heartily.
“Watch out, we’re terrorists!” his colleague, a lanky Emirati with facial hair reminiscent of Orlando Bloom chimed in, before he started laughing, too. The Emirati then excitedly asked me what part of New York City I was from. “Oh, Brooklyn? Yeah, I know it. I went to school in Seattle for a year,” he said.
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.
Meet Syria’s 11-Year-Old Killing Machine
Mohammed Afar is 11 years old. The modified AK-47 assault rifle he carries stretches to nearly two-thirds his height.
Over top of his faded yellow jacket a Free Syrian Army vest holds three extra clips, each full with live ammunition, and a walkie-talkie. An FSA badge sits on one side and a rendering of the Islamic Shahada, in Arabic calligraphy, on the other.
He says he does not miss school or want to stay at home with his mother and two sisters.
“I want to stay as a fighter until Bashar is killed,” he says, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The fighters surrounding him, all claiming to be from Liwa al-Tawhid, pass him a sniper rifle and offer to take him to a frontline, so he can demonstrate his shooting.
“He is a great shot,” says his father, Mohammed Saleh Afar. “He is my little lion.”
Over the course of its grinding 21-month insurgency, Syria’s children have endured numerous abuses.
Caught-up in shelling, airstrikes, and sniping, they have additionally been subject to arbitrary arrest, torture and rape, as reported by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria in August; which, additionally, noted “with concern reports that children under 18 are fighting and performing auxiliary roles for anti-Government armed groups.”
Both the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children carry provisions that call for not using combatants under the age of 15, while the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute makes it a war crime.
Wijbe Abma Started a Charity in a Syrian War Zone
Kilis, like most border towns, feels like a bastardized, slightly less-racist Wild West: gossip spreads, people pass through, supplies (legal and otherwise) are bought and sold. In this particular border town, however, it feels like that sense of transit is more tangible than in most. Kilis, in southern Turkey, is the gateway to Aleppo, a key battleground in the ongoing conflict in Syria and one of the oldest cities in the world. Unfortunately, with fighting normally including stuff like shells, explosions, and carnage, a good deal of old Aleppo is being devastated.
This border town is also the home of Wijbe Abma, a 21-year-old “freelance” aid worker. He runs Don’t Forget Syria, an idea that started small and has snowballed to a size the founder is not quite comfortable with. It’s one man’s plan to bring aid directly to civilians within war-torn Aleppo. On his first run, he gave out 100 blankets, but his idea was picked up by the press, donations flooded in, and he now has $17,200 burning a hole in his PayPal account, a logistical clusterfuck to untangle, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) trying to sell him flour.
A few months ago Wijbe was a regular student, traveling home from a year of teaching, drinking shochu, and banging out karaoke in South Korea when he found himself in Antakya in southern Turkey, now home to thousands of Syrians. Here a Syrian man from Aleppo told him about his son who’d been killed by regime shelling. They talked about his troubles and what was left of his city. Like many Syrians, confused and angered by the lack of international assistance, he asked: “Why won’t anyone help?” Wijbe decided to stop partying and do something.
Wijbe selecting blankets.
“It started very small,” he says. “I decided to do myself what all of the NGOs had talked about, but none actually seemed to be doing.” The idea was simple; he would walk across the border at Kilis to the makeshift camps in Syria with a couple of blankets in a rucksack, give them out to those in need, and keep traveling.
On arrival, he realized the problem was larger than he’d initially thought. The camp was dismissive and Wijbe began to feel powerless when it became apparent that no one would allow him to choose who to help. That autonomy is something Wijbe takes seriously. “More important than aid that helps is aid that doesn’t harm. The only way you know someone isn’t taking it all and selling it for weapons is to do it yourself,” he said.
Motivated, he left and founded his own aid project, committing $920 of his savings for the first 100 blankets. A Syrian friend tells me he originally bought one and slept under it for a night to test it. He caught a cold for a week, threw it out and found thicker, warmer blankets. With the help of Syrian civilians he took the blankets to Aleppo and went door to door. Each blanket came with a letter, in Arabic, explaining that it came from an individual with a desire to help and show that someone cared. On the way back their car had a dozen rounds fired at it from a nearby army base, which is a novel way of saying thank you.
OUR SYRIA CORRESPONDENT IS DOING AN AMA TOMORROW
VICE Syria correspondent and veteran conflict photographer Robert King will be on Reddit tomorrow at 10:30 AM to answer your questions about what he’s witnessed in his coverage of Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Gaza, Mexico, Iraq, and now the year-long bloody civil war in Syria.
Robert has been embedded with the Free Syrian Army so long that they’ve given him the nickname ‘Haji Memphis,’ after his hometown. He has documented the devastation of the Al-Quasyr Hospital, themassacre at Taftanaz, the burning of the ancient souk in Aleppo’s Old City, and the courageous doctors at the Dar al-Shifa field hospital in Aleppo, which was rocketed into rubble just days ago.
Robert, or the Bulletproof Ghost as we call him, was also the subject of the 2008 feature-length documentary, Shooting Robert King.
You can join VICE and Robert on Reddit tomorrow at 10:30 AM EST with your questions. Check VICE’s Twitter feed or this post tomorrow for the link.
Your hospital has been hit numerous times by Assad’s forces, is that correct?
Yes. It has been hit five times and more than 15 times around the hospital.
Do you consider these actions to be war crimes?
Yes, of course, but the Syrian regime considers medical staffs and doctors military targets.
Why do you think that is?
Because when you kill one doctor, it’s much better than killing 1,000 fighters.
Inside Aleppo, Syria’s “Stalingrad”
I am traveling with the Free Syrian Army on the front line of the al-Arqub neighborhood in Aleppo. Sniper rounds crack as the bullets zip over our heads. The acidic taste of gunpowder scares my throat and burns my waterless tear ducts. Just a half mile from the gutted and destroyed Dar al-Shifa hospital, we are traveling in an area known by the locals as Stalingrad. The reference plays on the macabre similarities between the Nazi’s relentless bombardment of the Russian city during the Second World War, and the unforgiving attacks this part of Aleppo has seen during Syria’s uprising. One group of fighters here is so conservative they refuse us the luxury of smoking a cigarette while escaping death on the hollowed streets.
The only signs of life come from atop a bleeding tree scarred and bent by bullets and shrapnel. This bleeding tree offers me a moment of solace, because the pathetic little spruce has refused to die. In defiance of war and the death that follows, this ugly thing sprung two new leaves—green specks of life on the naked branches that defy man’s destruction. This sight offers me a faint memory of what the allure of life was before this inhuman war.