On the 21st of August 2013, I crossed into Syria with a good friend from the Free Syrian Army, and two others who had joined us in crossing the border. I entered Syria with the purpose of
, to show the world the true character of the revolution and to raise money for refugees and others who desperately need help, as well as dispel many of the media lies about events there.
The crossing was incredibly swift and easy, taking into account the fact that we were in the middle of what is probably one of history's largest genocides. We avoided the Bab al-Hawa gate post and crossed via another location (which I cannot name for security reasons), as fighting around Bab al-Hawa, and checkpoints set up by a minority of extremist fruitloops in some jihadist groups in the area could have proved to be a major problem for westerners crossing there. Instead, we crossed a few miles further down.
Once I got into Idlib, around the Darkush region, I saw clear evidence of a liberated region which was thriving, albeit at a struggling pace for many people. Children played with their friends around houses and fields (many giving voluntary victory signs for the camera and seeming brimming with optimism), people busily worked inside and outside their houses, trucks and cars transporting goods and people were a common sight along the roads...
|Syrian children in Idlib jostle to show their optimism to my|
camera; a heart-warming and inspiring sight amid all the
tragedy and sadness.
And yet, poverty and hardship was never far round the corner. Many houses were spartan in appearance, with the inhabitants having to be constantly hard at work in all manner of ways - slaving over wood-burning stoves, doing washing, attending to wide-eyed, inquisitive-looking children clad in dusty clothes, you name it. Most of the post-revolution infrastructure was clearly extinguished when the regime's forces lost control of huge swathes of Idlib, save for a few emptied villages in which their thugs have brutally driven out the population and occupied their homes (I saw them inside civilian houses from a short distance with my own eyes, on a trip near to the front-line with the Free Syrian Army).
Yet people have carried on, as they often do in times of crisis - Free Syrian Army soldiers (none of them foreigners, I only met one foreign rebel fighter in the home of a friend. He was from Tunisia, and joined the FSA, not al-Nusra or other such groups. This is a story which the media often ignores) have set up makeshift checkpoints all along the roads, to ensure the safety of all passers by, and to eliminate the chances of regime spies slipping through, people have set up makeshift shops and stalls along roads (selling anything from cola to biscuits), many small shops remain open, selling all manner of foodstuffs, and some schools remain open - I accompanied one friend and his friends to an Arabic exam.
Yet this is far from the idealistic, anarchic, chaotic image of the revolution that western occupistas, teenagle pseudo-intellectual Leninists and Castro admirers would venerate (when they're not canonising Assad as a hero, on the basis that he mouths off against the west) - they spend so long shouting "Viva la revolution!" that they forget a fundamental fact - this is an uprising, and one that has been forced into becoming militarised. People die. Unfortunately, in this case, when they do die, they die in the hundreds of thousands. Everyone - or nearly everyone - seems to have lost someone.
A son, a daughter, a friend, an associate - everybody knows someone who has lost someone. I was reduced to tears when my good friend described how he felt like he didn't want to live, and his mother, brother, and brother's son had been killed by Assad's genocide. Even those who manage to escape this horrific bombing, which regularly occurs all across Idlib (I saw Assad destroy a hospital in Darkush using artillery fire, with my own eyes), are often forced to take drastic, squalid measures to stay alive. Even when people have houses and homes to go to, power cuts are unfortunately a regular feature of daily life, hindering communications and day-to-day life for an already struggling population. Myself and my friends often experienced them fro several hours.
|A (former) hospital in Darkush, courtesy of the Assad regime.|
Does this look like some sort of terrorist HQ to any of you?
I met families forced to flee their homes who now sleep under trees, open to the elements, for refuge (with my friend warning that deaths of children could start soon if they aren't helped), I met people living in squalid tents and houses beside a river to avoid the bombings (including an elderly lady who had lost her son, and a family who had a toilet directly next to the kitchen where food is prepared), and I saw an elderly man who's eyes needed medical attention, but he couldn't get to a hospital, as the nearby hospital in Jisr ash-Shugour (where the regime notoriously massacred 120 defectors from the police and army in June 2011, as well as many civilians) is in the city there, which is still under the control of the Assad regime.
Stories like these are repeated everywhere, and I got several interviews with people who told these tales. Even as I spoke to one family, shells fell nearby, and what sounded very much like a gunshot echoed from nearby as well. Nowhere is truly safe in Syria, despite the fact that the Free Syrian Army is everywhere. Wherever I went, I was accompanied these men, at least one of whom was always armed, for our own safety.
The Free Syrian Army are hugely different to the al-Qaeda-linked fruitloops that so many leftists, regime apologists, and unsavory, sneering internet experts (most of whom have restricted their research to listening to the incoherent, generic ramblings of Syrian expat Syrian Girl Partisan for a few minutes) would have you believe. I didn't see a single jihadist or hardline Islamist during my travels across Idlib. If the closest I can get to finding one is a fighter from Tunisia who took his religion seriously, then it doesn't cast the media coverage of the Syrian genocide in a good light at all. It seems like they parrot reports which parrot reports which come from shady sources with affections for the Assad regime - notorious 'journalists'/shills like Cockburn, Fisk, and countless others.
When they're not fighting, they're living with their families in neat, respectable looking homes (despite shortages, family homes are still where the heart is for everyone) where children toddle around playing, and relatives and friends come and go for a meal, a glass of tea, or a chat - many spend much of their time looking after their children, using radios and the internet to coordinate and plan their next moves (again, the picture of fabulously armed, US-backed rebels really doesn't add up at any point whatsoever), and enjoying family life.
No matter where I went, the same narrative about this organisation became more and more abundantly clear - these men are not some sort of homogeneous mass of al-Qaeda backed terrorists, they are normal people who have taken up arms to fight for their family's safety, to defend their country against a leader who has openly welcomed invaders from Shiite terrorist groups (such as Hezbollah) to kill his countrymen, and to topple a government which was, and is, widely detested, no matter where I went and who I talked to. I couldn't find a single person willing to speak positively about Assad or his regime.
Next to none of the Free Army fighters I spoke to could find warm words of praise for al-Qaeda, or any of their related groups or offshoots, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and others. In the words of one friend who's opinion I asked for: "I am a normal Muslim."
This is a narrative repeated across the board - nobody here cares for sword-waving loons or their hardline rhetoric about Sharia law, intolerance for minorities, or establishing an Islamic state. Nobody here wants a Talibanesque dystopia to be founded in Syria after Assad falls. What everyone here wants is for their country to be totally liberated from Assad's thugs, so that they can choose their leaders themselves. Not via shady Islamic Emirates, but via the ballot box and a free press, something which was a forbidden dream for over four decades.
In addition, the badly-contrived rumor which has seen rampant success in gaining the regime sympathetic voices across the board - that the rebels are Islamists who will kill Christians, Alawites, and other minorities - was also shown to be a lie. I met an anti-Assad Christian who was very pleased to meet a westerner who cared about supporting the cause for freedom, all the fighters I was with were perfectly willing to declare that they were fighting for a Syria which would include everyone, regardless of race or religion. The Free Syrian Army itself is also known to have brigades from all the minorities, including Christian, Alawite, and Palestinian brigades.
What's more, the final nail in the ludicrous coffin of the hypothesis that the US and the oh-so-evil Zionist state of Israel are arming and funding the revolutionary forces in Syria, is the plain and simple fact that no Free Syrian Army group has received anything from the west or their allies in the Gulf, in the form of weapons, funding, or any other form of remotely useful military assistance.
The commander of the Liwa al-Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wastani Brigade uses Google Maps to plan his battles, many fighters here have to conserve their ammunition in battle because they simply can't afford too much of it as it is in short supply, and every single commander here spoke of a complete lack of the advanced weapons necessary to win this war - konkurs anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons (e.g. SAM systems to shoot down jets which bomb people and their homes and property), and my close friend who helped me over the borders even spoke about a lack of bullets.
How on earth can qualified "journalists" like Robert Fisk (although any illusion of his journalistic approach was decisively destroyed by his one-sided reporting from the safety of a government-run hotel), politicians, self-styled "experts" and news outlets approach the allegation that the FSA is backed by the US and is linked to al-Qaeda, when practically all the members have immense disdain for extremist groups and receive nothing useful to assist their fight?
Even their promises of "non-lethal" aid have had little effect in this region - I encountered a blind child who looked to be suffering from hunger (or possibly malnutrition), who had no help. Those who couldn't get to hospitals received nothing from the outside world. Qatar, I was told, sent a small amount of non-lethal supplies, but nothing much which would make a difference to anyone.
|The rugged, beautiful terrain of Idlib, August 2013, taken on|
my trip there. Why anyone would want to destroy such a
beautiful country, just to keep a large office and some power,
is beyond me.
The amount of aid which should be going outside the refugee camps, as opposed to staying within them, is unbelievable. I caught all this on film, so whoever is keen to see this evidence firsthand, is more than welcome to do so when I release it to the world.
Not because people were being killed, of course. The US has never shown much concern for the killings of Syrian people, despite their tough-talking condemnations and hollow words. Assad killing people by using guns, bombs, his air force, SCUD missiles, napalm, knives, and any number of horrific means is seemingly perfectly alright with the US and their allies... Yet murder with chemical weapons is somehow different?
I left Syria on the morning of the 29th of August, with plenty to think about, plenty filmed, and plenty of optimism, amid all the sadness, loss, and hope in Idib, and throughout Syria. I have many people to thank for helping me with my work - which I will soon unveil to the world, with a personal thanks going to each one.
The Obama administration, and indeed the whole world, has delayed action for long enough, consolidating genocide, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, and strengthening the regime itself. It is the innocent civilians who pay the price. I know this even more, since I have seen it with my own eyes.