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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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 the Nihilist-Anarchist Network Bringing Chaos to a Town Near You
On May 7th, 2012, two masked gunmen crept up on the CEO of nuclear engineering firm Ansaldo Nucleare outside his home in Italy. As their target—56-year-old Roberto Adinolfi—emerged from his house, the gunmenfired three shots at him. One shattered Adinolfi’s right kneecap. The attackers weren’t petty extortionists or Mafia guns-for-hire, as was initially assumed, but members of what is considered to be a highly organized and shadowy left-wing terrorist organisation named Federazione Anarchica Informale—shortened to the FAI, or The Informal Anarchist Federation in English.
After the FAI had claimed the attack on Adinolfi, the mainstream press effectively attributed it to a bunch of trigger-happy Italian anarchists who were trying to imitate the Red Brigades—the Leninist-Marxist Brigate Rosse whose paramilitaries caused havoc in Italy throughout the 70s and 80s. In reality, the FAI actually holds no Marxist beliefs at all and have stated to me via an anonymous source that they have no affiliation with the Red Brigades whatsoever.
My source has taken many precautions and will only communicate with me via methods that are virtually untraceable, secretly handing me reams of FAI literature to sift through for research. The group’s members are people who international security agents would very much like to sit down and talk to. Clearly they’re anxious about police infiltration and take every precaution they can to protect the identities of their “comrades.”
As demonstrated by Adinolfi’s kneecapping (carried out because of his company’s affiliation with Italian defense conglomerate Finmeccanica, currently being investigated on corruption charges), the FAI’s MO is to carry out violent resistance against what they call the “European Fortress”—an FAI term for the unjust and oppressive forces they feel are running the continent.
Instead of peacefully handing out leaflets, they mask up and employ the full force of “direct action,” proven by their many attacks like the bombing of private banks in Rome, the torching of surveillance towers in Russia, and the destruction of rail lines in the UK. They’ve also tried to send letter bombs to MEPs, which were either intercepted or didn’t explode (something the FAI says was an intentional scare tactic).
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.
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.
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.
THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL
ANTI-REGIME ACTIVIST TAREK ALGORHANI TALKS ABOUT FIGHTING GUNS WITH CANS AND TAGS
An anonymous activist who participates in the graffiti movement.
When Tarek Algorhani walked out of a Syrian prison in June 2011, he had no idea that a revolution had erupted in his country—or that it had ignited over a cause he had been thrown in jail nearly six years for championing: inalienable human rights.
In November 2005, Tarek and eight other bloggers founded Al Domary, a political site that used cartoons and other drawings to criticize the Syrian government and demand an end to the Assad regime. It quickly became one of the most popular anti-regime sites in the country. The Al Domary crew successfully used masked IP addresses and pseudonyms to evade the Syrian secret police until, three months after the site’s launch, one of their bloggers was arrested, tortured, and forced to give up the location and identities of his comrades. The authorities shut down the site, confiscated their computers, and destroyed all files related to the operation. In February 2006, the bloggers were convicted of treason and each sentenced to five years, except for Tarek, who received nine because the authorities considered him to be the site’s mastermind.
Tarek was sent to Sednaya, a political prison 14 miles north of Damascus, where his jailers subjected him to marathon torture sessions. They stuffed him inside a tire, spun him around for hours, and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. “We had prisoners who were moved from Abu Ghraib to Sednaya. They would cry at night, saying, ‘I want to go back to Abu Ghraib,’” he said.
The dark prison cells were filthy, and some of the inmates’ wounds became so infected that their legs had to be amputated. Escape was impossible; even if someone managed to sneak out, the surrounding desert was seeded with land mines.
Five and a half years into his sentence, Tarek was pardoned for reasons he still doesn’t understand. He returned to Damascus and discovered that a series of anti-regime demonstrations had begun. The thought of going back to prison didn’t stop him from joining the movement, and he returned to agitation in no time, teaching activists how to shoot videos and upload them to YouTube. He kept detailed lists of the missing and killed to send to human rights groups, and established contacts to get first aid to anyone injured.
Barely six months passed before Tarek once again became a wanted man—his name had been flagged at security checkpoints, and he was listed as an enemy of the state on official records. In January, he fled to Tunisia and began another human-rights internet project—this one centered around tagging anti-regime graffiti throughout the streets of Syria. In mid-October I called him up to ask how the fight was going.
A paper stencil against a wall in Syria that reads: “The Martyr Ahmed Asham.”
VICE: What prompted you to use graffiti to push back against the regime?
Tarek Alghorani: The revolution in Syria started because of graffiti. A small group of boys from Daraa watched the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution on TV, and they spray-painted the slogan “the people want the regime to fall.” The Mukhabarat, the secret police, arrested them, tortured them, ripped out their fingernails, and that’s when the rest of the country broke out in protests. At the beginning of the revolution, whenever people assembled, there were only a few of them. The police and security forces could easily split them up with no trace left behind. That’s where the idea of drawings came in. Even if the police came in and dispersed people, anyone walking by later would know, “There was a protest here, revolutionaries were here.” It’s a stamp, a mark. And it’s difficult for the police, because they get tired. Every time they would clean up a wall, something else would appear.
What role do you play in this graffiti movement?
In the beginning, activists would just quickly spray the walls with words and phrases like “freedom” or “down with the regime,” like the kids from Daraa, but it was rushed. I wanted to introduce an element of art to it, something to commemorate the martyrs we have lost in the revolution. Our goal is to use art to voice our concerns. In April, I started uploading videos on YouTube of how to spray-paint walls and put stencil drawings on Facebook for graffiti artists to use.
Ground Zero: Syria - The Burning of the Old Souk
Amid a fierce battle between Assad’s security forces and Free Syrian Army insurgents, fire swept through the old Souk of Aleppo, a historic covered market and World Heritage site. Rebel fighters and activists have reported that the blaze was sparked by the use of incendiary mortar rounds by Assad’s forces.
Even as you pull that flak jacket over your camo trousers and stuff a sequined sweater into your knapsack (there might be a dance party after the demo), even as you draw an A on your arm and circle it or tattoo meat is murder on your vegan-sleek tummy, the ghosts of progressive fashions past are cheering you on.
Every generation of rabble-rousers believes it has invented its own unique style and negotiated its own sartorial relationship with the larger world, but those activists who have gone before, on whose incendiary shoulders we proudly stand, also had their special ways of signifying to one another. Without saying a word, they were members of a larger movement.
The subject is far too vast to tackle in one little article, but as natty dressers around the globe prepare to suit up and carry the tumultuous messages of 2011 forward—from Occupy Wall Street to the streets of the Middle East and collective actions in the squares of Leicester, Tahrir, Red, and Pearl—it could be a fun exercise to take a moment to examine the outfits favored by our illustrious activist ancestors over the past 100 or so years.
Herein is a brief, deeply personal, resolutely nonexhaustive, highly abbreviated look at a century of great moments in our shared revolutionary sartorial history.
As it turns out, the myth of rabid feminists burning their bras is just that—a fable. (The conceit was apparently dreamed up by a feminist journalist to liken the nascent women’s movement to draft-card-burning rallies.) While they may not have torched their dainties, on September 7, 1968, woman’s rights advocates demonstrated on the boardwalk outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, where participants (many in t-shirts, more than a few no doubt sans brassieres) were encouraged to toss materials that symbolized their gender oppression—girdles, high heels, hair curlers, etc.—into a “Freedom Trash Can.” Their original intent was to immolate these offending items, but alas, protesters weren’t granted a permit to light a fire on the boardwalk.