The Marxist-imbued Mozambican flag bearing the Kalashnikov rifle. Source: Wikipedia
New York- The Avtomat Kalashnikova assault rifle, known popularly as the AK-47 or Kalashnikov, became one of the defining symbols of Third World national liberation movements and a physical manifestation of anti-imperialist thought in the second half of the twentieth century. The Kalashnikov appears most notably Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO)-designed flag of Mozambique pictured above. Hezbollah has a Kalashnikov-like weapon pictured on its yellow and green flag as a symbol of its persistent resistance to Israeli occupation and military hegemony. During the ‘summer war’ in July and August of 2006, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, one of the Shia group’s principal external state backers, had Hezbollah’s yellow banners flying up and down its Mediterranean coast to drum up Syrian domestic support as well as that of visiting GCC tourists. Syria’s cities were plastered with these what should be incongruous visuals that summer. Anyone who covers the developing world’s violent conflicts is likely intimately and awkwardly familiar with the Kalashnikov’s wood and metal sinews coupled with that unmistakable banana clip.
In going through old photo portfolios this week I discovered an image I’d nearly forgotten I’d taken of a massive Soviet-style Kalashnikov monument on the road in central Iran. I love the photo not for its artistic merit obviously but for what it symbolizes. I tweeted the photo to C.J. Chivers, author of the definitive Kalashnikov book, The Gun. In return he created a kind blog post featuring my snapshot which I’ve reposted below.
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…
New York- I posted a new video on my still nascent youtube channel about covering a mass guerrilla funeral on August 17th, 2006 in Srifa, South Lebanon after the U.N. mediated ceasefire. My driver Kamal was from the neighboring village and was curious to revisit the area and check on the homes of his two brothers and their families who hadn’t left. Israeli UAVs buzzed overhead as the town buried its martyrs. Thirty coffins were interred in a mass grave which was then covered over with concrete slabs to seal the dead men into the soil for eternity. The heat and wretchedness of the event was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced.While virtually all media accounts of the war described it as strictly between the IDF and Hezbollah, on the ground in South Lebanon, Harakat Amal-the armed wing of the “Movement of the Disinherited” and Hizb-i-Shuy’ui-i-Lubnani-the armed wing of the Lebanese Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) fought the IDF in united front to defend South Lebanon and the Litani river from the invading forces. The Israeli invasion enhanced social cohesion amongst groups that had fought one another and which there had often been a great degree of animosity. The LCP had once fought Amal in the context of the civil war and Amal had once battled Hezbollah. The LCP’s local party headquarters had been demolished by the IAF if one needs context as the LCP cadres’ participation in the conflict. What fascinated me was the Guevarist theme of the LCP fighters.
A few years later I was leafing through Gilles Kepel’s Beyond Terror and Martyrdom at Kramer Books in Dupont Circle when I happened to see a reference on page 71 stating that, “Che Guevara was rumored to be from southern Lebanon.” Of course I haven’t heard this reference anywhere else. The wikipedia entry on Guevara says he’s Castilian, Basque, and Irish.
In a strange personal footnote to my experience, while photographing the event there was a gangly European photographer who I assumed was either Dutch or Scandanavian. He stood out even more because it was standing in the raised plow of a backhoe photographing from above. I wondered briefly who he was and how he knew about the funeral. A few weeks later I was back in New York walking with a friend exiting the turnstile of the West 4th street subway, the same super tall Dutch looking guy from Srifa was coming through the next turnstile the other way into the station. I didn’t bother to tell my friend because knowing he knew nothing about the international journalism scene, my shock would be lost on him. A year later when the NOOR photo agency was founded around the time of the annual Perpignan festival, I pieced it together to realize it was Kadir van Lohuizen that had crossed my path in South Lebanon and the West Village in the course of a month in 2006. Weird. I seriously doubt he recognized me that evening in the subway.