This is quite a symbolic picture. On the left is Abo Hafs (nome di guerre), he is sitting with Bashar al-Zoubi. Abo Hafs is a Palestinian and a General in the FSA in the Daraa region of Syria. In all the middle east, Palestinians are looked upon as second class citizens by the governments of the countries where they reside as refugees. Here we have a Palestinian who is viewed as an equal.He grew up in Syria and for him it is home. The people, not the Assad regime of Syria, are demonstrating that all are equal, no matter their background.
During my project and when I was in Jordan I had the opportunity to see this young Syrian girl reciting her poetry about the war in Syria. She has so much energy and she writes everything herself. The translation of what she says is below the video but take a moment to listen to the Arabic, it is really quite beautiful and you can feel the rhythm and power of her words.
Transcript from Arabic to English
Excuse me loyalist, this is what your regime has done to your children and brothers and your religion
and still this tyrant enjoys your support even if it is little ,oh loyalist of Asaad , shame and disgust paints your clothes , and your children’s clothes .
if you had done otherwise it would be a crown on your head and the head of your grand children,
this tyrant beat all tyrants with his tyranny
he was left to destroy the country of Damascus ( bilad al sham = Syria , Iraq , Jordan , Lebanon and Palestine )
he was left to destroy your wealth
rescue Damascus and its foundation for if not, regret won’t do you any good,
your excuses will not do you any good
to the leaders of the Arabs , know that one day you will meet God and you will see the shame you feel in front of him , with the blackness of your eyes and faces
then America and all your allies will not do you no good
and there will be a day when the ground shakes from under your thrones ,
if you want earth , earth is yours , but god help you from his wrath ,
but if you wanted heaven , saddle your horses in the name of god and give us your help
for victory will come from god , on the arms of our free army , from our sons and you together for we depend on god and those brave men , not you and your money
for a people like the people of Syria do not kneel for injustice and you have taken injustice as a crown upon your head
for we are a people who if we wanted a dignified life we fight for it
but you spend your life in your selfishness
but there are still amongst us those who are honorable , men like the hero Bashar al Zoubi, and others who put the fear of god between their eyes .
god help our victorious soldiers and may god reward their deeds.
My book is coming along well. I should be finished in the next week or so. Also I have permission to have an exhibition of my photos from Syria in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during Ramadan. Will keep you posted.
Still in draft form, work in progress but it is a taste.
After weeks of preparation, the time had come. I was going into Syria. I would cross with my good Syrian friend Abou Maen, we were both so eager to go after all the preparation we had made. The plan was to cross the border from Turkey to Syria from Kilis. While waiting for our contact Mohanned, I had time to see what what was happening at the entrance to the refugee camp on the Turkish side of the border. There was a sizeable group of Syrian refugees hanging around outside. It was not possible to get a look at the inside of the camp, you need an electronic pass to enter, so only those registered at the camp can come and go. I did have the chance to chat with one man and ask him about life inside. He told me that it is difficult, the Red Crescent deliver food every fifteen days but it is only sufficient to feed a person for ten days. I asked him how it was possible to live. He said that a lot of people do small jobs when they can, to get the money to buy extra food. I asked him what sort of jobs he did, he went quiet for a moment, looked at me, and said quietly that he smuggles cigarettes, not big time, but enough to pay to feed his family. I looked at him, and thought to myself, if I was in the same situation then I guess I would do something similar, how can you watch your family go hungry?
After about an hour Mohanned arrived, he came from the Syrian side to meet us, he was to be our contact in Aleppo, honestly I don’t think there isn’t anyone in the north of the country that he doesn’t know, in his late twenties, very intelligent and articulate, he would become a good friend, saying that, I very nearly killed him the next day, but that will come later. Going to the Turkish border control we hit a problem, Mohanned is registered as a refugee in Turkey, he has a sister in the camp and so needs to be able to get in to see her. When he pulled out his passport he also accidentally let be seen his refugee card. The border police were never going to let him cross after seeing this, it was quite frustrating and I was wondering if we would get across with him. In the end we decided that Abou Maen and I would cross with a taxi driver and he would come across by bus. The border police are much more lax about bus passengers so after half an hour or so he arrived. The actual border crossing for me was quite a moment, going from peace into a war zone in just a few hundred meters. On either side of the fenced off road of the border crossing, the Turkish have laid out a mine field on their side anyone trying to cross into Turkey except by the road will be either blown up or shot, they are very strict about controlling entrance into their country. Seeing the Syrian flags as we drove along, gently fluttering in the breeze, those green, white and black horizontal stripes with the three stars, telling me I was about to enter a very different world from the peace of Switzerland where I now live.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect, I tend to live by the motto ‘expect the unexpected’ and mentally tried to prepare myself for whatever I might see. The first stop was the Bab Al Salam refugee camp which is directly at the border. A huge sprawl of white UNHCR tents spread out before me, rubbish littering the ground. The sun was out and it was pleasantly warm, but looks are deceiving, this part of Syria had just come out of one of the hardest winters in living memory, very wet and cold and a fair amount of snow. Now the ground was dry, but I can imagine how much of a quagmire it must have been and how difficult to keep your family warm while living in a tent. People use small camping stoves for cooking, or if they are lucky, they have a small wood burner with a metal tube chimney poking out of the door. Obviously it isn’t the best idea to have any sort of fire inside a tent, but what choice do the people have. There are accidents and tents catch fire. I was told that it takes about eleven seconds for a tent to catch completely on fire, also the problem is that many of these tents are very close together, so if one goes up then it will take several others with it, people die.
I must admit that I was expecting to see a lot of misery but it wasn’t quite as simple as that. I saw a large group of women lined up to get their food, men wandering around, cigarette sellers and lots and lots of children. In fact it was the children that most impacted me, I was totally unprepared to see so many smiling, laughing faces. Really, I was shocked. Yes, you could see some children with blank looks, their eyes focused on something a million miles away, but the majority were having fun, asking, pleading with me to take their pictures, laughing and jostling each other to get into camera shot. For my first hour or so in Syria it was almost like a sensory overload, the total opposite of what I had expected. So much for my motto! However, there was one boy, I guess he is about eleven or twelve, he just followed me, didn’t say a word. His eyes, you just knew that he had seen some terrible things. I took his picture, he just stood there, not a word, no change of expression. His is one of the faces that still haunt me.
One of the things I noticed was how it is the women that do all the work, the men seemed rather aimless, sitting around or wandering from here to there. The problem for them is that in their culture the man goes out to work and the woman looks after the domestic things. Only now, the men don’t have work so they don’t do anything apart from sitting with other men and drinking tea.
As I was looking around the camp I was invited to sit and drink tea with a small group of men, one of them spoke English and they were curious to know who I was and what I was doing. So I sat, crossed legged on the blanket with them, one of them gave me a cushion to make me more comfortable, tea was passed to me. One of the questions I always asked was ‘what was your job before the war’ just to give me an idea of who I was talking to, these people had jobs and totally different lives before this revolution began, just looking at a person and calling them a refugee negates their entire identity. So there I was, sat with a small group, construction workers, mechanics, an accountant. I asked them what they wanted to come out of the revolution and they all said they wanted to be free and not have to live under such a brutal regime, to have the opportunity to build something with their lives instead of working long hours everyday just to have enough money to live from day to day. Most of the group I was sat with were in their twenties and thirties. Guys with energy, the question I wanted to ask but didn’t, was why they were sitting on their butts in a camp instead of doing something for their country. I had just arrived in Syria and decided that it would not be a good idea to get myself killed so soon into my trip by asking this question. Later I would understand why so often these men do nothing, some really must stay to look after their families, especially if there are no other male relatives on hand. For the others however, it was something much more insidious, the Syrian regime has pushed down on the majority of people for so long, cramping their movement in so many ways that many have been conditioned to believe that they can’t do anything except live day by day. Now that they have freedom, and I saw this often, many of them have no idea what do with it. For fifty years the regime has controlled so many aspects of these people’s lives that now they are a little bit like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. For the vast majority, they finish school when they are about twelve years old and go to work with their families. They have never been taught how to think, question or understand how to make a new life for themselves. So now, many of the men I saw in the camps sit around with no idea of what they should do. Don’t get me wrong, not all are like that, there are many who have joined the revolution and want to fight for a better life or work in some other way to liberate their country, but yes, there are a large number who are just sitting things out and waiting for someone to give them bread. I have to say that the women seem to be much stronger, even if their home is now just a tent, they still have to cook, clean and look after their families, in this way their lives haven’t changed so much and they are getting on with things. I will be talking about the role of women in the revolution later. They are doing some remarkable work, both inside and outside of Syria.
After a couple of hours it was time to head out and make our way towards Aleppo. Our first brief stop was in Azaz, the site of the first major battle win of the Free Syria Army against the regime. It was a huge battle and was given the name ‘graveyard of the tanks’ as more than twenty tanks were destroyed, remarkable when you consider how lightly armed the FSA were in comparison. I was told that balloons filled with paint were thrown at the tanks to block the vision portals as part of the battle strategy. What else could they do without heavy weapons? It must have been an insane battle, looking at the town, the level of destruction along with the burnt out hulls of the tanks I was filled with a sense of just how strong this conflict has become since those first peaceful demonstrations back in 2011. The people never wanted conflict, they had only asked for more freedom and for the regime to relinquish some of its iron grip of control. That it has got to this point of open warfare with ordinary people prepared to fight and die for their cause tells me just how desperate they are. I hate war but I can understand when they tell me it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. This regime will not give up its power easily, that is the problem with power, it tends to corrupt. Like a sweet poison, power corrupts those who desire it and search to drink ever more from its poisoned chalice, creating only suffering when it refuses to be relinquished.
I have now been to Zaatari refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan a couple of times. While the majority of the children seem to be quite happy and playful there are some who are very much traumatized. Quite often, kids will run away when a camera is pointed at them because they think you are going to shoot them, the look of fear on their faces is so strong.
Something else quite shocking I discovered in the camp is that the supply of food is so limited that families are forced to sell the baby milk powder they are given by relief agencies just so that they can have enough money to buy bread for their families, the babies must then eat solid food but it is the only way these families can survive.
I’m really busy. So far I have had the opportunity to meet and interview some very interesting people from Syria, including some exclusives. The 2 photos here are me with General Mousa Zoubi who defected from the regime and was one of the regime’s most senior people. This is the first time he has ever given an interview about why he defected and how he went about it. The second picture is me with Sheikh Ahmad N. Qassem Al-khatib. I will be telling more about him later. He decided to make me a gift of a watch, it completely took me by surprise but it was very nice.
In the next few days I am going back to the refugee camps in Wadi Kalled in Lebanon to show the human suffering in that area. The Syrian refugees there have almost nothing and more often than ever they come under artillery attack from the Syrian regime,
I have just spent a month in Syria looking at the war in order to understand why this war is happening. At the moment I am in the process of writing about my experience. I had the opportunity to talk to many people from political, military and humanitarian wings of the new Syrian opposition. My intention is to give as clear a description of what I found as possible. With that, I also took many photos of what I saw and they form a chronological record of my time in this fascinating country. After two years of war I find the people very resilient and resourceful. What really amazed me was the children- how they deal with the war really encapsulates the spirit and determination of this people.
I will be making exhibitions of my pictures from Syria that form a narrative to the human side of what is a very difficult situation for so many people. Here in this post are a very small number of images that give a taste of what I will show later.