The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Antakya’ tag

TWD Inside Free Syria

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Man vs War. I was so ill prepared for this trek. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Written by derekhenryflood

January 31st, 2012 at 10:04 am

It’s a Hazy Shade of Winter on the Syrian Border

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The gloomy Orontes River flowing through downtown Antakya. You can feel the dampness from this image. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

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.

The Republic of Hatay's Majlis (Meclis in Turkish-parliament) now houses a trendy cafe and regional cultural center overlooking the Orontes and downtown Antakya. The short lived republic existed from September 7, 1938 to June 29, 1939. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

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.

One of the best facets of Turkish life: the food. Kasarli Pide (Turkish "pizza") in the foreground. a feast fit for a sultan in the city of Adana after a long trip from Queens. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

January 27th, 2012 at 4:39 am

The Waiting Game

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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…

Written by derekhenryflood

January 24th, 2012 at 7:55 pm