The War Diaries

"We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Syria After the Khilifah: Now Comes the Hard Part

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The canary SDF banner with accompanying YPG and YPJ flags in Hasakeh.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Unawatuna- Today the SDF finally declared the total clearing of Baghouz and with it the last patch of formal IS territorial control anywhere in Syria and Iraq. So today signifies the conclusion of the al-Jazeera Storm campaign which was launched September 2017 to clear Deir ez-Zor, Mayadeen, and Albu Kamal districts of IS control east of the Euphrates.

It was a grinding fight that was put on hold while the TSK (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri-Turkish armed forces) invaded the then PYD-controlled Efrin region to tear apart an oasis of calm within Syria and crush Kurdish identity politics there and in the rest of what had been known as Rojava. So now that the SDF-controlled part of Deir ez-Zor governorate has been fully liberated, many questions immediately present themselves, such as: what will be the present and future purpose of the SDF without the khilifah (‘caliphate’) to fight against? How will the coalition’s presence and continued engagement in Syria be militarily & monetarily justified?

And those are just two of what could be a hundred critical questions about the future of the SDF and its relationship to its American partners as well as interactions amongst different factions inside the SDF that have different aims. In light of the Manbij restaurant bombing, US engagement may continue if IS insurgent attacks ramp up morphing into an all-out guerrilla war in quick fashion. Perhaps looks at Diyala governorate next door in Iraq…

While the end of the Khilifah is certainly a massive victory for the SDF in which it suffered a high casualty rate fighting a fearsome death/sex cult organisation, we don’t know what their next move will be vis-a-vis negotiating with the dreaded Syrian regime or with the Kremlin’s opaque interlocutors. Of course, it seems the regime doesn’t itself know its next move either. So many moving parts, a none of us knows in which direction this eight year-old war machine is moving.

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March 23rd, 2019 at 3:32 am

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A Secure Place

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Dubai- After a somewhat tense month in Iraq and Syria, I popped down the the UAE for a few days before making my next move. So here I am for the moment in a spotlessly clean, efficient, authoritarian, stable monarchy. It is safe here but best experienced with a Western passport. One would very unlikely have the same experience with a Filipino or Bangladeshi passport. As I caught the flight from Iraq the other day, well to-do upper middle class Iraqis had to have their paper Emirati visas printed up and carefully sleeved in plastic to be presented to immigration here. Whereas I walk up to the officer seemingly without a care in the world. This week marks the 16th anniversary of the US & UK invasion of the Iraqi republic and Iraq today is still a place that is nowhere close to reaching its human potential. Through the prism of persistent regional chaos it’s easy to understand the appeal of the stability here.

As GCC nationals calmly stride through the airport including a special “niqab lane” for parochial woman draped in black to be able to show their faces safely apart from the gaze of strange males, Iraqis as citizens of an ostensible Gulf oil power must still be carefully vetted. Sure, of course that owes to the Hussein regime’s invasion of GCC member Kuwait in 1990 in an act of catastrophic hubris after eight years of war with Iran, but that Iraqis are still perceived this way in 2019 indicates what a colossal failure the 2003 ‘intervention’ was and remains. It also demonstrates the deep corruption within the Iraqi state that has undercut the aspiration of its citizens to move on from war. Just ask Basrawi protestors infuriated of the dearth of basic services including potable water in an area that should be luxurious owing to its immense hydrocarbons.

“All Donne [sic] Go Home” The feet still sit atop the plinth where the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down on April 9 2003 in Firdows Square. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

From the view here in the UAE, Gulf monarchism is undoubtedly preferable to the world of militancy and militias to the north. Sure there is no freedom of speech or assembly but the electricity never cuts out, the wifi is constant, and the trains run on time. The UAE, and Dubai in particular, have put vast effort-dependent largely on South Asian male labourers -to create a post-oil infrastructure and subsequent economy to build a vibrant tourism sector attracting visitors from fellow ’emerging markets.’

Thus the choice in the wider Middle East seems to be between freedom of press or freedom from political and religious violence. And it is a stark one. Civil liberties can potentially be equated with civil violence whereas an ironclad monarchical system that brooks no dissent but ensures a rock solid security environment (not counting Bahrain 2011 and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province) as those who have experienced the former can attest to.

Taking a walk in Dubai’s quiet diplomatic quarter. I went to the consulate of a state that had recently announced a peace deal with three of its neighbours but was not quite ready for a random Westerner to ask for a tourist visa just yet. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

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March 21st, 2019 at 12:06 pm

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The River-Wading Into Syria’s Next Conflict

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An observation point for Deir ez-Zor Military Council fighters along the Euphrates river from where they can monitor regime movements on the west bank. And by “regime” they were referring to pro-regime Shia militias with Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief among them. Having been initially lured to Syria to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab and other Shia holy sites, Shia militias have since been firmly woven into the deadly fabric of the Syrian theatre.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Qamishlo/Erbil-Working in Syria is never a facile effort unless perhaps one brings many thousands of dollars/euros/pounds to insulate themselves from as many genuine interactions with Syrians as conceivable. I think I sometimes revel in the adversity. The Byzantium of offices and permission papers on either side of the border. The stoicism I’m forced to project while navigating this convoluted framework. Smile, Kurmanji, chai, sit, repeat. 

When I succeed without a fixer, based purely on linguistic and interpersonal skills, it’s that much more satisfying. In Deir ez-Zor governorate, I just jumped into total immersion with the eponymous Military Council, the local constituent war fighting group of the SDF. While everyone else was engaged in pack journalism further south, I got a feel for the area’s indigenous cultural dynamic and tribal endogamy rather than the now familiar though still poorly understood Apoism originating in Cold War-era Turkey being imported from the north. 

The tension over the control of the Wadi al-Furat (Euphrates river valley) is palpable throughout the governorate as the conventional frontline fight against IS winds/wound down. Within the SDF umbrella, each group has starkly different priorities. The YPG-YPJ is concerned about protecting its Rojava heartland, the MMC feels trapped in limbo between Turkey and its proxies and the regime and its backers. Whilst the Deiri fighters, far from the Turkish border, are worried about the regime, aka the enfeebled nationalist-named Syrian Arab Army in lopsided partnership with assorted Shia groups, pushing into their tribal lands they fought to push IS out of. In my new piece forJane’s Intelligence Review,I examine the current threat they face and how this looming danger may portend into something larger. 

A YPG=helmed, American-supplied Humvee- originally intended for Iraqi security forces-returns from the Baghouz frontline to the south in Albu Kamal district. The SDF’s hardware of American provenance was in use on the IS front, leaving the front with the regime virtually undefended. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

In terms of foreign reporting, so much of what is going on in Syria has been and continues to be based on constant repetition of talking points of seemingly scurrilous origin. How many times must we read “Kurdish-led” or “US-backed” without scrutinising them on the ground? The veracity of these depend heavily on the area one is observing. There are members of the SDF who receive little to no US military assistance depending on present utility of their force and position. And there are local units who are entirely Arab in make up. Yes, I know the aforementioned, oft repeated terms refer to Mazlum Kobane and the YPG but their copy-and-paste overuse obscures nuances within the war’s human geography. These nuances may seem unimportant now but they likely will be in the near term if there are seismic shifts in the battlefield’s principal orientation. For a rough analogy, just think of what occurred in Kirkuk in October 2017 less than two weeks after the liberation of al-Hawija.

I think most people either don’t care or don’t understand on a fundamental level what is taking place in SDF-controlled regions of Syria’s fractured governorates. I don’t claim to understand all of these nebulous political-military currents obviously, hardly any one could. But I’m certain there’s far more going on than what is repeated ad nauseam on the wires and in much of credible Anglophone and Francophone media. Some of my fellow Western reporters have even referred to the YPG-the West’s ostensible partners-as “Kurdish militants” which to me reads like unexamined AKP propagation coming directly from the defence ministry in Ankara. I guess maybe if you’re Istanbul-based or trying to curry favour with the Turkish government or just hoping not to get backlisted, you have to play ball. When the FTThe Independent,and Washington Post are using the same terminology as Anadolu and PressTV, well you get the idea…

There’s been somewhat of a ‘trending’ narrative of late that the war for Syria is nearing its conclusion or that the Syrian regime has regained its hold on much of the country. The Syrian war isn’t close to having concluded. And the regime has only been able to make said gains with the help of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. However, the geopolitical aims of its regional middle and great power backers respectively should only be conflated at the West’s peril. Tehran and Moscow have decidedly differing aims in Syria. This competition may come to the fore sooner that we may expect. I would venture that the two are more competitors than collaborators in this sense.

While Syria is nowhere near as complex as it once was before IS consolidated its primacy in the salafiyya-jihaiyya realm and it seemed the country was overrun with rebel groups too numerous to count (save for certain Twitter personalities that made a cottage career industry out of it at the time), the place is still highly complex

Even with the territorial defeat of IS and with HTS primarily having been reduced to swaths of Idlib governorate, the IS insurgency is already underway while HTS has made inroads into western Aleppo governroate and northern Hama governorate. Then there is the massive question of what will be the role of the SDF as the conventional war against IS ends and regime elements jockey for space while Ankara re-calibrates its incursion strategy according to the diktats of a wildly unstable American leader.

It’s not over. No one can say when it will be.

Hiding in the open from an IS attack on a Asayish-manned roundabout up the road, my Qamishloki driver converses with a local driver outside the al-Tanak oil field while we nervously waited out a YPG counter attack. All my driver had was a dated pistol for our protection. Grateful for that YPG MRAP that sped past us.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood


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March 12th, 2019 at 6:39 am

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Other People’s Wars

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Ahmad and his heval (comrade) of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council patrolling the frontline with an-Nizam (“the regime”) southeast of Deir ez-Zor city. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Deir ez-Zor- I’ve spent so much of my adult life trying to unpack the intricacies of men fighting in societies other than my own. I make it my business to wade deep into the waters of armed conflicts that I so often feel are misunderstood or misinterpreted by the outside world, partly, because they, us, are simply not there. The civil-cum-transnational fight for Syria is particularly complex in this regard. For many in the West, the hallmark of this forlorn place was or still is the choreographed beheadings of foreign hostages in mid-2014. That gruesome episode is in no way representative of Syria or Syrians as a whole. It would be like if someone from the EU thought of the United States as one continuous school shooting episode from which it could never recover.

In that sense, the takfiri’een, those who appointed themselves the capacity to declare others apostates deserving execution, grossly misrepresent this shattered nation-state on the world stage. The worst of a minute minority of humanity was in effect able to define this war aided by big media. This occurred on our collective watch at the world’s peril. This goes for within major media outlets as well. In 2017 and 2018, I had editors I contacted–when I was long gone from this place in the safety of Dubai or Thailand– say they would not take freelance work from here because they have a foggy policy against such though in each case they are failed to articulate precisely why or obfuscated their reasoning. Some hinted that they had a blockade in effect narrowly on freelance work out of Syria because it could encourage other hopeful, perhaps naive correspondents to come here not being entirely aware of the risk or maybe because of the reckless allure risk can provide for some. But writing armchair pieces from the comfort of a Beirut or Istanbul cafe while Whatsapping sources here is just not the same as being here on the ground. Anecdotes cannot be a substitute for experience.

Friends here assume it was because of what happened in the summer and fall of 2014 ostensibly in ar-Raqqa governorate or perhaps the disappearance of Marine veteran Austin Tice in 2012. What was curious to me was even as the security paradigm in Syria had clearly shifted since the period of extraordinary risk in 2014-2015, media outlets back home hadn’t adapted their polices to reflect this sea change in security here. Maybe that’s all changed by 2019 but I’m not clear. Last week famed UK songstress Joss Stone performed in Deirik accompanied by legendary British cameraman Paul Conroy who was nearly killed in Homs city in 2012 his first return to Syrian territory since if that demonstrates anything.

Since Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 I have thrown myself into one maelstrom after another in a bid to understand why other people fight one another with aged Soviet or Soviet-inspired weaponry. The West, the United States in particular, fails these people time and again yet they still fight, still hope, still live. From North Africa to South Asia, I travel, I risk, I try to understand. I’m not fascinated by violence by any means but by the push-pull factors of ethno-linguistic or religio-political dynamics that drive these rich, neglected societies. I’m here primarily for the conversation in any language or dialect.

Deir ez-Zor is one such place. It’s not quite ready for a stunning British pop star yet but it is accessible. So many players, so much about-to-be squandered opportunity. . Such lovely people.

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March 7th, 2019 at 4:46 am

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Days Like These

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With fighters from the Deir ez-Zor Military Council at their garrison in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. The kindness and generosity they showed me was unrivaled. These guys are facing a host of security challenges even before the final liberation of Baghouz and are not sure whether they can count on American military assistance to the SDF continue battling an IS insurgency that is already well underway. Photo by Abo Sima

Deir ez-Zor- I spent the weekend conducting field research in the eponymous district of Syria’s war ravaged eastern governorate to see what was going on beyond the headlines. I saw the press convoy leaving the temporary dormitory on the grounds of the SDF-controlled al-Omar oil field heading down to the battle of Baghouz and wanted no part of what appeared to be a dog-and-pony show as I much prefer to work alone in order to create more visceral human connections. I generally bristle at being told where I can point my camera and whom I can and cannot interact with.

My objective was to interview and embed with members of the indigenous war-fighting group the Deir ez-Zor Military Council. I wanted to get their take on the armed power struggle with an-nizam (“regime” or “system”). Rather than elevate despicable so-called “ISIS brides” to their 15 minutes of fame or cover the offensive being waged by non-indigenous forces, I had wanted to gain insight into the very localised political-military dynamics of the region that may ultimately decide its future. Great power politics are very much at play in Deir ez-Zor with presence of the armed forces of the United States and Russian Federation (“Russia”) along with a litany of other non-state or substate players helming from Lebanon to Pakistan. But I hold that the future of the security status quo in the governorate will ultimately be determined by the local tribes.

The commander I interviewed provided my driver and I with an armed escort from his garrison through the desert that served as both a short cut to the road north back to al-Hasakah governorate and a method to circumvent IS takfiri’een who have been launching attacks on insecure roadways. Article forthcoming…

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March 4th, 2019 at 12:08 pm

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A Day in Duhok

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A view of a mountain ridge on the edge of Duhok with a giant KRG flag painted on a hillside. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Duhok- I’ve arrived in this damp, green mountainous city in northern Iraq as part of my ongoing journey toward the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. After a few days getting with Erbil and the Sorani Kurdish & Iraqi Arabic the flows through its streets Arriving in this ancient Assyrian settlement in Iraq’s far north, I immediately noticed the difference as the Kurmanji dialect is spoken here much more than Sorani (with some Badini dialect speakers adding to the mix). Checking into a hotel I stayed in last year, I was eager to drop some of my refreshed Sorani phrases when I immediately realised the words spoken here are more akin to those just over the border in Syria than back down in Erbil. Its a far less cosmopolitan environment than Erbil with very little Arabic spoken here and far fewer people from other parts of Iraq. It is also more lush and quiescent north of the Tigris than the more dusty, arid landscapes below.

While Erbil is a mostly flat, sprawling urban centre where seemingly everyone is driving everywhere save for the bazaar/souq, hilly Dohuk seems comparatively quaint in that its a more compact space suitable for walking around exploring its back streets. I stopped in a small tea house for a glass of chai, almost having forgotten how friendly people are here. In a mishmash of Sorani and Kurmanji I asked for glass of chai and an older patron insisted on paying 500 dinars for mine, thanking me for coming in. As he stood up we exchanged pleasantries, I noticed he casually had a weathered kalashnikov dangling from his shoulder as if to remind us where we are. He certainly didn’t have the outward appearance of being a member of the local security forces. The other gentleman in the shop proudly displayed emails to me from the International Organisation for Migration-indicating that he was either an internally displaced person or a refugee (I didn’t ask) and instructions on how to line up at the American embassy in Baghdad to apply for (I suppose) a resettlement visa.

There are plenty of IDPs in this governorate following the IS genocide in August 2014 when the salafi-jihadi outfit laid waste to Sinjar district in Ninewah governorate before being repelled by the PKK, YPG, and US air strikes. I wondered how he intended on getting there as the drive through southern Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din governorates is high risk, especially around Suleiman Bek. Flying from Erbil is a far safer option. I wished him the best of luck.


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February 22nd, 2019 at 2:52 pm

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A City with Stories to Tell

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The KRG flag flying above the dilapidated houses inside Erbil’s famed citadel with red symbolising the spilt blood of the martyrs, the white standing for peace, the green for the verdant land with the sun at the centre standing for light the gives life.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I arrived in the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from Beirut as yet another plot point in my journey toward Syria. I made it a point today to visit the city’s magnificent citadel just before it closes at sundown. The citadel is built atop a massive tell, or ancient, man-made mound dating back millennia. Known as Arbela in antiquity, claims have been made that Erbil is the oldest continually inhabited human settlement in existence. I don’t think most journos that pass through here give all that much thought to this town itself as it has played a role of transport and logistical hub for perilous, onward destinations. Erbil is stable, relatively secure, and quiet, lacking the appeal that the seductive chaos of nearby Mosul and Kirkuk tempt curious outsiders with. I too am mostly caught up in that vortex. But my early passion was and remains archaeology. The stone carved lore of the Near East (a dated term denoting this region’s geographic relationship with Europe as the world’s center) with its vaunted empires led by flamboyant warrior -kings puts today’s conflicts in perspective if one takes a moment to pause and reflect upon the grand narrative of civilisation as a whole.

I realised as the MEA flight was about to touch down that 2019 marks my tenth year working in and walking the streets of this city. I first turned up here trying to research a difficult story at the time on the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê‎ (PJAK), an Iranian Kurdish insurgent group that were launching cross border attacks from the Qandil Mountains into northwestern Iran hitting the Pasdaran (IRGC) in Kordestan and West Azerbaijan provinces. After a lot of waiting around and a clandestine trip into the mountains, I was able to interview an Iraq-based PJAK commander called Agiri Rojhilat. Rojhilat, obviously a nom de guerre of the commander I spoke with a decade ago, means “eastern Kurdistan” in the same manner that the term Rojava in northern Syria signifies “western Kurdistan.” Since then I’ve been returning here to cover different angles of the wider struggle for Kurdish identity across the region. These days I’m focused more on Rojava. Unfortunately for Iran’s restless Kurds very little news seeps out of Rojhilat other than what is reported by state news agencies and culture-specific news outlets.

Now ten years on I will look into what Syria’s Kurds and their Arab allies will be doing as the security dynamic in north and east Syria shifts to the next phase of the war. I’ve seen some reporting as of late describing the war in the past tense in the wake of the Moscow and Tehran-backed regime’s massive territorial gains that came at great human cost. The regime is also allowing some Western journos into Damascus in an attempt to display a degree of normalcy. Syria is by no means on a path to peace. Even if the guns briefly appear to have gone quiet on the front(s), with so many players jockeying in the same contested, under-governed space, we are simply in a lull before the next phase of the conflict begins.

At least the citadel here in Erbil is still standing.

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February 20th, 2019 at 3:09 pm

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Stepping Into the Mosaic

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Walking around East Beirut looking for things familiar, I can attest that this 32-story Credit Libanais tower certainly wasn’t there during Israeli air raids in 2006. Note the car for sale in the bottom left with the California licence plate. Now that reminded me of the war when I realised it was a status symbol to be driving cars around that still had American plates. I remembered seeing a car in front of me on the way to Nabatiyeh once that still had a Michigan plate. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Beirut- It had been twelve and a half years since I’d last set foot into Lebanon’s cacophonous seaside capital. In July of 2006 I arrived here to cover the war that had suddenly erupted between a troika of war fighting groups-Hezbollah, Harakat Amal, and Hizb as-Suyu al-Lubnani (the Guevarist-leaning Lebanese Communist Party) battling the invading Israel Defence Forces following a Hezbollah provocation that resulted in a pair IDF conscripts being taken captive and three others killed. The war ravaged Lebanon’s infrastructure that was already tremendously enfeebled by the 1975-1990 factional civil war.

Although virtually no societies in ethnic Arab-majority nation-states are culturally monolithic, the Levant is often termed a mosaic society for its relgio-cultural complexity. The same can be said for Syria and many parts of Iraq. These three states are composed of troubled, pluralistic societies that tend to upend tired orientalist stereotypes rather than uphold them. Lebanon with its Mediterranean coast that faces EU member state Cyprus offshore is by far the most accessible with its relative openness and visa policy (well depending on one’s passport of course).

Fields of ruin. Residents toured ruins of Hezbollah-controlled Haret Hreyk in Baabda district after the August cease fire began. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

The global breadth of the Lebanese mercantilist diaspora amplifies this aspect from the West to West Africa helping this small, fractious state punch well above its weight in terms of cultural impact as well as business acumen. It is as if the distinct ancient groups that comprise this land are tesserae that piece together to form a mesmorising Roman-period mosaic. With each war, the tesserae chip and break and are looted. Emigration and cultural destruction have damaged the mosaic tremendously across the Levant, or Sham if you prefer. But still there is a head, then there is a heart, then emerges an outstretched hand.

Though the war was ostensibly a retaliation against Hezbollah in South Lebanon for its reckless provocation, bombings were hitting much further north including this bridge in Byblos, midway between Beirut and Tripoli. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

The IDF launched a vicious campaign of collective punishment on Lebanese society as a whole. This ultimately strengthened Hezbollah’s position in the country’s domestic political polity. Its guerrilla push back of the IDF further cemented its self-created image as a ‘resistance’ organisation. After all, without the occasional foreign occupying force, what is there to resist? Without the necessity to resist what rationale is there to continually remain in the political sphere? The IDF played perfectly into their hands. As the war ground on and the air strikes widened, Lebanese from many different stripes heralded Hezbollah and the other temporarily allied militias efforts to defend the nation.

A rescue worker gazes at the ruins of south Beirut, destroyed by the Israelis in the hours before of the cease fire between Israel and Hezbollah. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood.

I’d always meant to return to Beirut in part to retrace my steps from that tumultuous summer but also to create new memories in a recovering urban landscape. But each year, new conflicts erupted in places near and far and I simply kept putting a return off. Now in 2019, as i journey incrementally back to Syria’s scorched battlefields, instead of going the usual route via Istanbul, I decided to take a different path this time around. On my agenda was to find my old apartment block from that terrifying time in the city’s Ghabi neighbourhood east of of the Phalangist stronghold of Sassine Square. After a fantastic vegan Armenian lunch in Bourj Hammoud with a couple of American aid workers I’d met who’d both previously been stationed in Iraq, I hiked up to Achrafieh and descended into the warren-like hills looking for a memory.

It wasn’t as easy to find as I’d envisioned partly due to the new structures that had cropped up in the area in the last decade. When I finally did find it, I was taken aback by this otherwise quite ordinary, dated Mediterranean style building. Not because if its banal architectural traits but because the intensity of the memory it held for me within. Racing out to the balcony at 3:30 am to see a fire ball erupting from another apartment block. Over and over.

Parts of Beirut are booming now, with large parts of the city being gentrified or wholly redeveloped. Hezbollah made a catastrophic mistake in challenging the military might of an Israeli state ready to swivel its posture from one of defence to offence with the slightest casus belli. The IDF should have known better than to invade Lebanon six years after it finally withdrew its forces. The belligerents battered each other, innocents were slaughtered, and illiberal political actors only further entrenched themselves in their respective Levantine echo chambers.

Finding this nondescript concrete apartment block evoked intense memories of a summer of terror and trauma. Moments before dark I spotted it overlooking the Pierre Gemayel roadway that separates the capital from the adjacent Mount Lebanon governorate that hugs the capital. The darkened sky above reminded me of the bombardments this city endured all those years ago. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

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February 19th, 2019 at 2:59 pm

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