Strolling the Champs-Élysées with 120,000 Syrian Refugees – The Fallout of Chemical Warfare in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Mega Camp
On the morning of August 21, Mohamed watched rockets fly over his village outside Damascus, Syria’s capital. Shortly after the bombs exploded, rumors spread throughout the neighborhood that the rockets had been loaded with sarin nerve gas and were deployed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against the neighborhood because it was a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the ragtag rebel army established by defected government soldiers who oppose Assad’s rule.
Mohamed is a farmer, not a combatant, but he told me he promptly went to a local FSA outpost, where the rebels were giving instructions on how to survive the chemical-weapons attack: “Place cold, wet towels over your face,” an FSA soldier had instructed him. “Stay low to the ground. Close all your doors.”
But when Mohamed returned to his house, it was too late: two of his children, whom he’d left playing in the garden, were dead.
Mohamed left Syria, and five days later, I met him during my visit to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, about 100 miles from Damascus. The camp was opened in a collaborative effort between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Jordanian government last July. Since then, Za’atari has become home for the vast numbers of Syrians, like Mohamed, who have fled the violence and trauma of their country’s civil war, which began in March 2011.
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.
John McAfee Is in Guatemala City and He Just Hired the Best Lawyer in the Country
Photos by Robert King
This morning I had a delicious breakfast of crepes and fresh fruit with John McAfee and his 20-year-old Belizean girlfriend, Sam Vanegas, at a luxurious resort in Guatemala City. We awoke early, preparing for our meeting with powerful Guatemalan lawyer and former Attorney General Telésforo Guerra. He also happens to be Sam’s uncle.
Less than 30 minutes ago, after explaining his situation in detail, John retained the services of Mr. Guerra. He has agreed to help John untangle the web of confusion and—according to John—corruption that has taken over his life in Belize since April.
“I’ve been on the run for three weeks,” John said to Mr. Guerra. “I crossed the border into Guatemala with the reporters from VICE and your daughter. We have passports, but we have no entry stamps into Guatemala or exit stamps from Belize. I need a lawyer, sir.”
They shook hands, we handed over our passports to Mr. Guerra, and John professed his love for Sam: “I have known Samantha for a year and a half. She is a remarkable young woman. I love her very much and we are getting married. Unfortunately you will have a potential criminal in the family. My apologies for that, and I will do the best I can to make it up to you.” Mr. Guerra smiled and chuckled.
John’s face relaxed as a wave of exhaustion and relief washed over him. Later in my hotel room, after reading aloud what I had written above to the happy lovers, Sam said, “That sounds good! Finally you used your brain and not your ass.” I promise that in the coming weeks, once we wrap up our documentary and corresponding magazine piece, you will find out exactly what that means.
In the coming days—most likely tomorrow—John will hold a press conference in Guatemala City at a location that is to be determined. I have been with John and Sam for the last five days, and very soon the world will be able to watch everything that happened along the way. It has been dangerous, amazing, touching, and many other adjectives that I cannot remember right now because I am so exhausted and blown away by it all.
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.
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.
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. The journalist with balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond) returned from Aleppo with 20 pages of reportage for our Syria Issue, which we’ll be doling out to you over the next few days. Yesterday, we featured an oral history of his experiences in the thick of the conflict between the Assad regime and the FSA. Today, we’re serving up two interviews he conducted in the field with Haji Mara, the commander of the largest FSA brigade in Aleppo, and Abu Turab, a carpenter turned FSA rebel from Homs.
VICE: Where were you in March 2011, when the 13 boys were arrested in Daraa for spraying anti-Assad graffiti?
Abu Turab: I was at work.
Were you involved in protests? If so, what was your experience at those protests?
I took part in the protests, where I took a bullet. But I was not arrested.
Was there one specific moment when you decided, I need to fight against Assad militarily?
I began thinking about joining the FSA during the occupation of my city when the shabiha swept through.
When did you first hear about the Free Syrian Army?
The first I heard about the FSA was on TV.
Do you have family who is also fighting?
My entire family is fighting.
How did you join? What is the name of your battalion, and how was it formed?|
I cannot mention the name of the battalion, but it was formed by neighborhood residents.
What qualifications does one need to fight as part of the FSA?
Anyone can join the FSA.
How is it organized? How are decisions made in your battalion?
We make decisions collectively.
Who decides where and when you will fight?
All of us decide, together, about the fighting.
What was the very first battle you participated in with the FSA?
My first battle with the FSA was liberating Az Zahrawi palace [a historic site in Homs].
Who exactly were you fighting against?
I was fighting the shabiha.
Who were you fighting with?
I was fighting with people from Homs.
Have you seen anyone killed? If so, what was the situation?
Every day I see many people getting killed by tanks and barrel bombs. These are filled with barameel [a mixture of TNT, oil, and other substances that explodes, burns, and destroys everything] and dropped from helicopters. People are torn into small pieces.
What has been the single worst personal moment for you since the civil war began?
Since the siege started around the old parts of Homs, many injured people cannot get medical help. We are forced to use primitive tools to amputate limbs when wounds become infected. I will fight again soon.
Have you changed since you began fighting?
Yes, I am a better person now.
Have any of your opinions changed since you began fighting with the FSA?
I am more confident in God now. It became clear during this conflict that the international community had lied.
After the war, what will you do?
After this, I will go back to my job.
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.