Archive for January, 2012
Antakya- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my journey into rebel-held northern Syria. In over a decade of jihads, war zones and civil unrest, I think this was the most difficult thing I have ever accomplished in terms of logistics. My entire body is shot and at one point repelling down a muddy mountainside I slipped into a coil of concertina wire that my amazing fixer and smuggler had to rescue me from. Then while attempting to sprint through an Assadist free fire zone, I got trapped in mud so thick it might as well have been quicksand. On the way back I had to trek through pitch black forest that we lit with cell phones to try and find our way. For some reason we hiked back to Turkey a different way than we came in which was totally disorienting. We linked arms and forded a very fast moving icy river that was nearly waist deep lit by the moon while screaming “takbir” and the corresponding “allahu akbar” to steel our resolve.
At that point my mind went into a trance-like state bent on pure survival. Then when I got back to the comfort of my hotel room in Antakya and collapsed on my bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought that I did this for one day and the rebels of Free Syrian Army live this way everyday. Hard to contemplate. I’ll be going back to the West in a couple of days (where I will be speaking at the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers Winter Seminar outside Köln) and there is no way anyone can relate to what I’ve just experienced.
In other news, TWD was quoted in a Global Post article titled “African Union Looks East” about the inauguration of China’s gaudy new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which I reported on last year. Even that relatively innocent story ended up in a violent encounter when a paranoid Chinese government foreman ordered a hulking Ethiopian security guard to grab my camera and delete the contents of my flash card. They were unsuccessful due to my cunning.
Ain al-Baida- Made an incredibly arduous trek into Syria’s war-torn Idlib Governorate yesterday. Working on my first article on the hardscrabble conditions of the Free Syrian Army. I was missing driving in the relative comfort of a late model Toyota on Libya’s desert highways about a 1/3 of the way into this hardcore journey. In order to keep going I kept telling myself that worthwhile outcomes do not come easily in this life. Sometimes you have to literally scale mountains in order to get a story out. No dog-and-pony show here. I never get tired of entering crumbling mukhabarat states without a visa. Throwing this image up as a teaser. More soon.
Antakya- I have an article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my view from a rain soaked Hatay Province of events just over the border in a besieged Syria. It’s been raining here nonstop since my arrival, which I’m told is the norm at this time of year. It’s cold and damp. I unknowingly checked into an Alawi-owned hotel in the center of town. As soon as I arrived I met with a brilliant and incredibly friendly translator who warned me of Assad’s spies in the city and the perceived allegiance of their co-religionists here on the Turkish side of the border. The Alawis of the hotel would surely notify the local Syrian mukhabarat stationed here, the translator told me. They would be alerted to my presence upon arrival. This was apparently accepted as the norm in Antakya. When my sources showed up for an interview in my room, their first comments was, “you had to check into an Alawi hotel?” They laughed and I made a self-depracating comment about being a naive Westerner who would never have guessed where I was staying would be an issue.
It’s always an awkward juxtaposition to be in such a vibrant, relatively healthy community when next door to a hot war where shells are falling. I’m sitting in limbo in my hotel, which I must say is fantastic for the price ($39 USD a night for a king size bed and great wifi). I wait patiently for a contact to call me for a lead into the next story. I duck into a hallway to get out of the constant deluge. He tells me of danger ahead. A zone where journos aren’t collaterals but rather the targets of snipers and tank operators. I must tread with caution. I tell him I’ve been to Libya and was nearly hit by a Qaddafist sniper last summer. I don’t want a repeat of the same. Or do I?
Here’s the reality of the journo mindset. When everyone was kept out of Syria and that was simply accepted as the status quo, there was no issue. But as soon as one person gets deep into Homs behind the lines with the Free Syrian Army or talks about freely walking around the liberated town of Zabadani, that raises the bar for everyone. It is a furious momentum that builds around a set of extremely driven, competitive, often brilliant people where one’s feet can float off of firm ground drunk on the false notion of invincibility. It is all a farce. Yet it goes on. None of the bogus justifications or rationales in the world can make sense of dying in another man’s war.
When I noticed on Twitter that the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson (whom I met in Libya a few times) was inside Homs, and I’m sitting, twiddling my thumbs in Turkey, it gave me that feeling. Of course Jon Lee made it inside Syria. He wouldn’t accept anything less than being on the first tier of a story. A guy like him doesn’t waste his time on the periphery. He goes for the jugular of the action, the beating heart of the story.
I can perfectly picture the journo hotel in Damascus. Blackberrys abuzzing, people staring at their MacBooks pretending not to notice one another, nervous freelancers networking amongst A-listers. Then again, I always see myself as an outsider never fully wanting to be on the inside. It is as if I am stuck in the mindset of the D.C. hardcore scene circa 1981 and I never want to sell out. Just a Minor Threat. I remember seeing Tim Hetherington outside the hospital in Ajdabiya about a month before he was killed in Misrata. Jon Lee was there. Everyone who was left in Libya seemed to have turned up that day. I stood in the morgue silently looking at horrific casualties. I was warned by a group of edgy fighters at the western gate not to dare return the following day or there would be severe consequences. The following day a group of journos were grabbed out of their vehicles by Qaddafists. I was in a cramped minivan making the 14-hour trek back to Alexandria with a Libyan family lucky enough to have the money to go to Cairo.
To try and get in becomes a nearly irresistible urge. I fight a battle between the lusts of my lucid imagination and my more over the horizon goal of living as long as possible. There is only so long I can people watch non-hijabed gorgeous Alawi or Alevi or whatever Westernized looking Occidental girls strut by in the cold rain from the open air juice bar or çorba (soup) stand. I joked with my translator friend that there are probably more girls in Turkish-Kurdish areas of Germany rocking hijab than those in downtown Antakya. The mix of ethnicities and sects here makes for a colorful human cast. Yesterday after hearing the fajr azan (the morning call to prayer), for the first time I’ve ever noticed in Turkey (save for possibly once in Trabzon a decade ago), I heard church bells ring out. For a moment in time it feels like a paradise of fierce torrents until I remember that there are Soviet-era Syrian tanks facing Turkey not so far away at all.
There is a war nearby with a gravitational pull. You can tell yourself, “just one more harb (war), one more thawra (revolution), and then I’ll quit.” I’m not forcing myself to be here. Hell, I love it here. It’s damn exciting to be crass about it. Throughout the ummah, everything seems to take place in the shadows, within the whispers. And that, to be frank, is part of the draw. A world of public denial, a culture of the unspoken. Sex, drugs, war, it’s all available from Morocco to Mindanao. A quick phone call, a short text message, a soft knock on a hotel door. Here in this lovely rump province of French Mandate Syria, the Sajak of Alexandretta, I somehow feel at home. In fact, there is no place I would rather be at the moment.
Antakya- I’m sitting here typing in a dark, musty hotel room at 5am in the Levant. Hatay to be exact. Hatay may very well be a part of the Turkish Republic but it is also a little talked about corner of the greater Levant. Sometimes journalism is like what they say about war: lots and lots of waiting around doing nothing punctuated by extreme adrenalin rushes. I arrived in Antakya today which was blanketed in fresh snowfall. As the light went descended below the surrounding peaks, a bone chilling cold set in. Thanks to a contact I made on Lightstalkers, I met with a translator whose office happened to be directly across the street from my hotel. He told me that whatever I am trying to do here will not be easy. The local authorities from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs do their best to keep the Free Syrian Army on a tight leash.
I’m waiting to hear from a contact in the Syrian National Council to try and circumvent some of these restrictions. So for now I wait. The border is lined with tanks and snipers watching for anyone crossing in or out of Syria. In some stories that came out in 2011, some of the then newly arrived refugees claimed the snipers were Irani (Iranian), perhaps meaning they were on loan from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As anyone reading this blog might now, Tehran is terrified of losing their air bridge to Hezbollah in South Lebanon and the Bekaa. Syria is the air to land conduit for Iranian weapons and materiel to reach their proxies in the Israeli border. And Hezbollah needs Iran to act as a lever over the Syrians. And the Israelis need the entirely untenable status quo to remain in Syria for the time being for their storm clouds to appropriately gather over Netanz etc.
The transformation of Syria into some kind of a representative state which would mean being governed by its Sunni demographic majority is much too much for all of the regional players save for possibly Ankara. One of the key issues in this region is that everyone is too used to the status quo. Addicted to the status quo is probably more accurate. And that goes for Western analysts from 1967 onward as well. Syria is trying to jump out of the box it has been stuck in since 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power.
But the sand is running through the hour glass for the Assad regime. Sure it is still clinging to power and may do so for some time to come, but this is not 1982 Hama. Too much blood has been spilled and this time the revolution is being televised on Youtube. The MB in Hama thirty years ago had no such outlet for that massive crime against humanity that left one of Syria’s principal cities in ruins and sent MB members fleeing to distant corners of the Arab world to escape the Assad family’s wrath. Hafez al-Assad crushed their revolt and that was essentially the end of it…until now.
In short, it is a complicated mess here. A Sykes-Picot nightmare. Better than sitting in New York though…
Istanbul-Off to Adana in southeastern Turkey to connect to a bus in Antakya, in the Hatay region near the Syrian border. Have no idea who I will meet or what will transpire. It always begins like this. Hoping to connect with the Free Syrian Army whose upper echelon seem to be controlled by the local authorities in Hatay from what I’ve read. Not one but two journos told me the they well all the way to the border and failed. I hope to succeed. And if I don’t…well there’s always Iraq right there.
New York- A couple of notable videos came online today which I gleaned from the Syrian Youth Movement site. In the first, a German filmmaker snuck into Homs at great risk and links up with FSA rebels in Baba Amr. It aired on CNN this weekend. The second, a Zeina Kohdr segment from AJE reports from a village in northern Lebanon where FSA members have sought refuge. Since it will be a short while before I return to this Middle East, I figured I might as well post some interesting work by others.
One of the more interesting aspects for me in the two reports is how the geographically disparate rebel groupings can work toward a cohesive military goal other than the over simplified notion of ousting al-Assad. They face enormous obstacles without an internationalist intervention of some sort. If it weren’t for such action in Libya, that war would assuredly be dragging on. The obvious difference between the two scenarios is the Israel-Iran factor in relation to Syria. Intervening in Libya was much less complicated in that sense. Chad and Niger aren’t Israel.
New York-I’m posting the verbatim email I received from Maryam al-Khawaja just now on a vicious attack on @NabeelRajab. I interviewed Nabeel twice in 2011. Those articles can be read here and here. Luckily he was released not long after. Though it is easily the most oft overlooked corner of the Arab world’s uprisings, Bahrain’s bitter struggle is far from over with no end in sight. Of course I can’t help but think how things would play out differently if the fifth fleet were to depart for good.
Bahrain: Vicious Attack on Human Rights defender Nabeel Rajab
06 Jan 2012
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies hold the authorities in Bahrain full responsibility for the life and safety of human Rights defender Nabeel Rajab.
The President of Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab was beaten severely by the security forces in Bahrain then moved in an ambulance to Salmaniya hospital after participating in a peaceful protest in Manama earlier tonight (video of the attack on the protest). He has told his lawyer on a phone call following the attack that the policemen gathered around him suddenly and started to beat him. He informed the lawyer that while lying on the ground he was beaten all over his body and specially on his back and face and that his face injuries are serious. He has an injury just below his right eye. He was then taken to Salmanyia hospital which is still controlled by a heavy security presence since last March. Human rights activists from Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) and his lawyer Mohammed Al-Jishi who have headed immediately to the hospital were prevented from seeing him. His Son Adam Rajab saw his dad in the hospital, carried by police, he said Nabeel’s face was swollen. When Adam tried to take a picture of his dad he got pushed and his phone was taken from him. Dr Alaa AlShehabi reported from the hospital that Nabeel is surrounded by 8-10 security officers and that he is suffering from concussion, back pain and bruises to his back and face. He told Dr Alaa that he was attacked by a group of police officers with sticks, he was kicked, punched & beaten all over his body and especially on the face. BCHR member Said Yousif AlMahafdha was able to see Nabeel for a moment by was then asked by Minister of interior officers to leave immediately.
BCHR knew that Nabeel is being interrogated right now, though he can’t talk and is currently on a wheel chair. His family was not allowed to stay with him.
Following the same attack, Sayed Yousif AlMahafdha, active member of the BCHR, was also injured with a stun grenade in his leg and arm. In addition, supporters gathered in solidarity outside Nabeel’s house in Bani-Jamra were attacked with tear gas.
This is an urgent appeal, the fact that the ministry of interior is controlling access to Nabeel with heavy security presence around him and preventing taking photos is very worrying and we are concerned about his health and life. Rajab is believed to be under arrest, until authorities with the Ministry of Interior allow visitation or reveal Mr. Rajab’s status.
There is an imminent fear of torture, in case Rajab was transferred to a detention facility, particularly that there is a trend of targeting human right defenders in Bahrain, who are frequently subjected to torture and other ill treatment while in detention.
GCHR, BCHR and CIHRS believe that the security forces attack on human rights defender Nabeel Rajab is directly related to his legitimate work in defense of human rights and democracy in Bahrain.
We are deeply concerned that this latest attack comes as part of an increasingly hostile environment that human rights defenders in Bahrain are facing which has included the repression of peaceful demonstrations in the villages of Bahrain, the arbitrary arrest of nonviolent protesters on daily basis, and the attacks and intimidation of human rights defenders who are defending the people’s rights in Bahrain.
We condemn in the strongest possible term this vicious attack on a well known human rights figure inside Bahrain and on the regional and international levels. GCHR, BCHR and CIHRS, are gravely concerned for the physical and psychological integrity of Nabeel Rajab and hold the government of Bahrain responsible for his safety.
New York-With insurgent videos like this surfacing from Syria, it is beyond about time that we discard the term crackdown to describe what is going on in that very troubled Sykes-Picot construct. What is shown in the video-apparently Syrian insurgents relentlessly attacking a regime convoy near the Jordanian border-is a scene from an armed conflict. Time for a change in how we talk about what is going on in that country.