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Archive for the ‘Syria’ tag

Syria after the caliphate: Manbij poised between conflicts

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Fighters from the US-backed (at least for now) Manbij Military Council at the al-Arimah front southwest of Manbij town where they face Russian-backed regime forces.

Manbij-I have a new piece out for Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor (subscription required) regarding the ongoing strategic deadlock over this modest city in northern Syria’s Aleppo governorate.

Manbij has been in the news as of late as the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to invade it unless its American NATO partners/foes enforce Ankara’s bidding to have the YPG retreat east of the Euphrates. There’s one problem with this AKP logic: the YPG does not control or administer Manbij. Manbij is secured by the Manbij Military Council, a constituent force of the SDF in which the YPG and YPJ are fellow constituents that are theoretically, if no way in practice, equal armed components in the SDF’s egalitarian outline. Politically it is run by the Manbij Civil Council which, although operating under the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s TEV-DEM norms, is not simply a PYD outpost under a different name. The local administration does not count itself part of Rojava and many council members speak zero Kurdish.

Turkish claims are ultimately expressions of vague bellicosity. When that country’s president and his foreign minister reference Manbij, these statements have no bearing on ground realities in this mostly Arab urban centre.

Manbij’s Asayish gendarmerie is almost entirely Arab for example. What the AKP bigs may have been conflating however was that during the battle for olive-rich Afrin (if I’m to give them the benefit of the doubt), the YPG and YPJ were transiting via Manbij on what seemed to be like a nightly basis both to and fro embattled Afrin. So in that sense, yes, the Turkish leadership was correct that was a YPG presence there but the key nuance is that it was on the move to defend the PYD’s northwestern enclave from the Turkish military and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (rebranded salafi-jihadis mostly).

Scrawled on the wall of what had been an Islamic State torture prison in Manbij, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. Stay in the Islamic State.” ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

The people of Manbij who were not able to flee north to Turkey and perhaps onward to the EU during the two year and seven month rule of IS there suffered immensely. After a siege in the spring and summer of 2016 in which the city was ultimately liberated, the place has been making a vibrant, remarkable comeback with seemingly no outside help unless you count Aleppan financiers as outsiders. Exploring the remnants of IS’s brutality there was utterly haunting. Some of the torture techniques that were described to me seemed as if they were straight out of a CIA playbook circa 2002.

Today, this town is thriving on the relative stability and freedom it provides IDPs, returnees, and those who never left, even as it faces a multitude of emerging threats with IS seemingly least among them.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 10th, 2018 at 2:56 am

Crossroads of a Global War

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Commander Heval (Comrade) Shiyar and his Manbij Military Council fighters at their position along the south bank of the Sajur River north of Manbij. These minimally armed men are at the centre of a global great game for control of Syria’s territory.©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Manbij- Along the Manbij Military Council’s mostly quiet frontline with the Turkish military and its Islamist Syrian Arab proxy militias, headlines have emanated from this mostly misunderstood crisis locus. One of the most crucial points which I personally found maddeningly frustrating was that Turkish president Erdoğan’s constantly parroted talking point that the Kurdish YPG militia must withdraw unconditionally west of the Euphrates River. This ultimatum is designed to meet Ankara’s narrow, localised geostrategic demands that what it deems the “terror corridor” of northern Syria must be cleared of “terrorists” on conditions dictated by the Turkish president and his obedient foreign minister.

This assertion was repeated by Western media outlets with global reach in such a blatantly unexamined manner. Some of that may have to do with outlets being risk averse when it comes to hiring freelancers in Syria specifically I would guess from the beheading episodes of 2014 though no one has ever actually told me this in writing, but it seems implied. One major US outlet told me they refused work from independent journalist working in Iraq and Syria in 2017 when I was covering the Raqqa offensive. At the time I presumed this because a freelancer they’d hired was kidnapped/captured though the editor I corresponded with then left me to make merely an educated guess. Thus an intensely complicated place like Manbij that requires immense nuance and time spent has not been aided by fleeting coverage in the mainstream media. This has helped advance the Turkish position on the matter–at least in terms of rhetoric-as-news-copy–coupled with the anti-intellectualism of a bumbling American leader repeatedly contradicting his own field commanders who partner with the Manbij Military Council. Thus I digress.

In an effort to examine battlefield nuance, I have an article in the April issue for Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required titled “Strategic Prize” as well as its companion online piece, “Diverse forces converge on Syria’s Manbij,” reporting from the frontlines of this incredibly complex threat environment.

Manbij and its rural hinterland are in fact defended by the Manbij Military Council, a mostly young Arab force helmed by veteran Kurdish commanders that in reality not simply a branch of the YPG. Like the YPG it is a constituent militia making up the SDF but it is a distinct force grouping with a high degree of operational autonomy.

The late Abu Amjad who led the MMC was in fact a Manbiji Arab. The MMC does not have female YPJ fighters along its frontline positions facing Ankara’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ forces or those areas where it is facing the Russian and Iranian-backed nizam (Syrian colloquial Arabic denoting the Assad regime). Manbij was a logistical resupply hub for Kurdish militias during the siege of Afrin to be sure but I never observed that they were responsible for this critical frontier city’s armed security.

Few independent journalists have actually visited Manbij and spent real time here but understandably so. Aside from a very brief dog-and-pony show with a not particularly articulate American general in early February, the coverage of this incredibly intricate battle space has been lacklustre at best. Though I also must emphasise just how difficult it has become to get not only into Syria but to get access to the core of the stories there. One must deal with the opaque decision making processes of not one but two internationally unrecognised governments whilst in a constant pursuit of freshly stamped permission papers with expiration dates. Having worked in Syria before in no way means working there the next time will be more easily facilitated either. Generally speaking, it doesn’t get easier.

The ethnic Arab frontline village of al-Dadat secured by the MMC, an area which the Turkish president claims is ruled by Kurdish “terrorists.” ©Derek Henry Flood

But then if things like this were easy and obvious I probably wouldn’t be pursuing them in the first place. In my entire career now spanning some 17 years I’ve yet to do an embed with a Western military and the possible self censorship such endeavours entail. I focus on the doings of indigenous non-state actors such as those of the Manbij Military Council pictured at the top of this post. People from the land they are striving to protect. To me that is and has always been the real engine of these stories. Occupation forces invade and inevitably withdraw in the Levant, even if that takes decades (think Syria and Israel in post-civil war Lebanon per example) but local fighters are fighting for and guarding their own territory which involves a completely different war fighting perspective.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 3rd, 2018 at 4:00 am

Back to Iraq 6.0

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A headless statue of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad 15 years ago. If the neoconservative war planners’ goal was “regime decapitation,” in this case it was interpreted literally by beheading a statue atop its shiny plinth. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I arrived back in Iraq for the sixth time since the American-led invasion that commenced fifteen years ago (a month from now give or take). On 20 March 2003 Baghdad time, the ground forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, along the royal navy of the Kingdom of Denmark (with possibly a small contingent of special operations forces). This country has been in some form of chaos ever since. While many areas are comparatively stable as here in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s administrative seat, or the oil port of Basra far to the south, even these areas are built upon a shaky political modus vivendi that guarantees no future stability without some for of genuine communal reconciliation.

We are now living in the era of the so-called ‘terror wars,’ a time of perpetual terror and spreading instability. Though our world is oft said to be in a steady decline of conventional warfare since the conclusion of the second world war in terms of both breadth and the geographic distribution of conflict, that academic sentiment holds little if any water to the people of this region. From Operation Desert Shield to Desert Storm to Desert Fox to Iraqi Freedom to New Dawn to Inherent Resolve,* much of what Iraqis (and now Syrians) know about American power is through the blunt force of orchestrated, highly mechanized violence.

*Note: Coalition partner code names may, and often do, differ.

Here we are in early 2018 and it has been reported that American troops in Iraq are to begin a gradual force drawdown after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-abadi declared a total victory over IS…in terms of territoriality anyway. But note that a drawdown is not a withdrawal and that it may purportedly, quietly signal a troop build up in Afghanistan where the Taliban are gaining territorial control replete with shadow governance. And unlike October 2001, IS has a serious presence there now presenting themselves as a more fundamental movement in terms of Sunni salafi jurisprudence as opposed to the traditional Deobandi strain of Taliban ideology with its local South Asian characteristics. In short, the fight in Afghanistan has intensified in terms of its non-state actor complexity.

Iraq is as fractious and fluid as a nation-state can be. In the wake of the IS defeat in Ninewa, al-Anbar, and Kirkuk governorates in particular, nothing in terms of the country’s territorial integrity has been resolved nor has the insurgency been completely defeated by any means. There are still IS remnants in and around the Hamrin mountain range and there is talk, albeit somewhat unsubstantiated at the time of this writing, of a group of disgruntled Kurdish nationalists calling themselves the ‘White Flags’ or ‘White Banners’ operating on the outskirts of Tuz Khurmatu in perennially troubled Salah ad-Din governorate south of here.

Kurdistan Democratic Party-aligned Peshmerga in one of the ‘Disputed Territories,’ Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate, five years back. While facing off a multitude of Sunni and nominally Sufi insurgents, they were also facing off the forces of the central government. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In Iraq, and now neighbouring Syria, the end of one war merely often only signifies the start of the next. This is due in large part to indigenous political elites pandering only to their power base while never genuinely mediating, much less resolving, core ethno-sectarian fissures coupled with Western policy makers having only a primordial understanding of.

The terror wars expand and contract but they do not end. There is no end game, no coherent strategy. And there never was.

The Iraqi flag flowing in Erbil fifteen years after the latest stage in the war here began (and then morphed). ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

February 14th, 2018 at 11:23 am

Syria after IS

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SDF fighters throw up victory gestures in the final phase of the battle against IS in central ar-Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have a new article out with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre about the risks faced by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces following their final defeat against the so-called Islamic State. My piece assesses what the armed landscape will look like in the near term following the territorial demise of kalashnikov-toting adherents of salafiyya-jihadiyya ideology who sought to erase the physical history of the Ba’athist, post-colonial, and ancient edifices on which the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys draw their culture in order to create a macabre, social media-fueled vision of utopia.

As militants from as far afield as Trinidad and Turkmenistan are killed or attempt to flee, this will force several awkward realignments of both state and non-state actors. The United States military has no coherent policy on an end game for its Syria strategy, stating it is solely focused of defeating IS with its SDF partners. But as the battle is all but entirely finished save for a small pocket of eastern Deir ez-Zor, this narrow, soda straw view of the war there does not factor the next phase of which it is on the precipice.

The air force of the Russian Federation is pummeling rebel enclaves that continue to resist the al-Assad regime in faltering scorched earth policy reminiscent of the shelling of Grozny in the 1990s. Moscow insists it only has advisors in the context of the Syrian Arab Army’s ground war but that doesn’t include Russian and other CIS citizens who are fighting on behalf of the opaque doings of private military companies supporting the regime in the name of hard currency.

And this is only to name but a few looming factors as the calcified regime in Damascus tries to hold and consolidate its gains with Russian and Iranian support. The regime may try to evict the various factions that comprise the SDF from ar-Raqqa and environs lest another player joins the action space (read:Turkey).

Written by derekhenryflood

November 24th, 2017 at 7:41 am

The Devastation

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An SDF fighter from the Manbij Military Council scouts for IS in the ruins of ar-Raqqa in northern central Syria. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Ar-Raqqa- I have a new article out in the October edition of Jane’s Intelligence Review back in the UK based on my frontline observations and analysis in ar-Raqqa before IS would completely withdrew from the city exactly two weeks on. The destruction I witnessed was astounding in terms of sheer totality. I can’t recall seeing a single structure that was unscathed as the SDF and IS fought it out in those last weeks of waning salafi occupation.

It was a ‘things will get worse before they get better’ scenario writ large as the entire breadth of the city was shattered while IS snipers fired pot shots from their veiled positions and American fighters circled overhead smashing them with GPS coordinates provided by the SDF ground spotters.

Driving around the city’s cratered intersections evoked a mid-1990s Grozny in terms of such a modest sized city withstood scorched earth. Ar-Raqqa was littered with corpses and almost wholly depopulated at the time of my visit. Unexploded ordinance and booby trapped dwellings made the zone uninhabitable for all but the men of the MMC and YPG in the SDF units I encountered.

When I interviewed a commander at the YPG media house about who would govern and secure ar-Raqqa after the battle concluded, his responses were vague at best. The conclusion of each battle in the transnationally inflected Syrian civil war meant that each end begat a new conflict erupting within weeks if not days in the battlespace.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 3rd, 2017 at 10:50 am

Posted in Non-state warfare,Syria

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The Shia Ascendancy

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A procession organized by the hazwa (Shia clerical body) outside the shrine complex of Imam Ali in Najaf. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

A procession organized by the hazwa (Shia theological insitution) outside the shrine complex of Imam Ali in Najaf. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I don’t have much time to do full fledged blog posts as of late but today I was prepping an image for my ongoing #fabledcity street art project, (prints available for sale via paypal) rooting around my archives. While flipping through my catalog looking for chromes of the ziggurat of Ur outside Nasiriyyah, Iraq, the above image struck me. With the pointed desecration of ancient, pre-Islamic or non-Sunni holy places going on in Syria and Iraq, Shia empowerment is directly related to the preservation of the ziggurat pictured below.

In simplest terms, the ruins situated at Ur are safe from IS sledge hammers and explosives because they are so deeply within a  demographic region in southern Iraq that is firmly under Shia-majority control. Which historic sites survive this tumultuous period may simply depend on which sect administers that particular area. At the same time, the manner in which the Shia government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki kept Sunni Arabs constantly disenfranchised ensured that some kind of Sunni insurgency would be rekindled in a post-America Iraq. We just didn’t know it would get this bad.  Similarly, the oppression of the Sunni Arab majority in neighboring Syria by the late Hafez al-Assad undergirds the 2011 uprising that devolving into the dreadful civil war we are stuck with today.

These images may appear unrelated but the survival of the latter does have something to do with the rise of the former.

The magnificent ziggurat of Ur, adjacent to Taleel Air Base (since renamed Ali Air Base) outside Nasiriyyah, Iraq. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The magnificent ziggurat of Ur, adjacent to Taleel Air Base (since renamed Ali Air Base) outside Nasiriyyah, Iraq. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

June 7th, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Iraq

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Kobane: from Indifference to Intervention

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An Unnecessary Siege from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

Barcelona- I have a new article this week for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor concerning my observations on the siege of Kobane from October 10-15. I also have a short piece on the subject in the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required). Kobane has lost traction in the media milieu because it has been going on for so long now. The siege is still very much going on with IS reportedly retaking Tel Shahir outside the city. As this AFP video shows, the air coalition is still very much invested in this ongoing battle. Media presence or no, the YPG and now their FSA partners continue to resist the area’s attempted takeover by IS.

It was a hectic, grating stint that I departed not because “media lost interest” as I saw a properly funded Washington Post correspondent judgmentally tweeted the other day, but because as a freelancer my financial risk-reward ratio had tipped too far into the risk category and I decided it was no longer feasible for me to stay in terms of cost. When the area was crawling with journos, it was labeled the “hill of shame,” (by someone who works for Rupert Murdoch) and when there were too few of us it is also mocked.

Shortly after I left there were the two big developments everyone was waiting for: the American air drop of KRG supplied weapons and aid and the Turks caving (though through a compromise of sorts that keeps the PKK isolated) whereby they will allow the KRG’s peshmerga into Kobane to reinforce the YPG/YPJ while not specifically allowing the PYD to send in its own people. The transfer of pehsmerga through Turkish territory still has not happened and the air drop was examined because some materiel fell into the hands of IS.

Click this image to read the full article.

Click this image to read the full article.

As the Turks have stayed steadily non-confrontational, the global Kurdish community has been politically mobilized over the plight of Kobane and the U.S. and most of the GCC states have intervened with air power in Syria in a broader anti-IS campaign (though Kobane has been almost an entirely American effort in terms of air strikes).

Errant mortars from IS positions land with some frequency on Turkish soil but for now, Ankara wouldn’t dare invoke NATO’s Article 5 protocol regarding an attack on a member state.

A mortar launched from inside Kobane lands in Mursitpinar, Turkey. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A mortar launched from inside Kobane lands in Mursitpinar, Turkey. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

There has been some chatter that the so-called peshmerga are in fact Iraqi Kurdish-trained Syrian nationals although this was quickly denied by Fuad Hussein, KRG President Massoud Barzani’s chief of staff, who made a press statement that those headed toward Kobane would include solely Iraqi nationals.

One recurring thought I had during my nights in dark, lonely Gaziantep which were only made bearable by ultra friendly hotel staff I could make furtive small talk with was how much the Syrian war has changed Turkey itself. Turkey has let itself become extremely vulnerable to the potential of salafi-jihadi mass casualty terror attacks. While Ankara’s focus is still on the threat posed by the PKK and the three decades of on and off asymmetrical warfare with rural insurgency coupled with urban terrorism, the difference between IS and the PKK is that the PKK is an inherently rational actor. If Apoists were not rational, there would be no ongoing peace process to speak of.

Some believe that the release of the 46 Turkish and 3 Iraqi hostages capturing during the IS raid on the Mosul consulate indicates that Davutoglu et al believe IS is a pragmatic movement to some degree that Turkey can interact with when necessary. For now Turkey is allowing a policy of containment but Kobane is challenging all that because it is visible for all the world to see. IS jihadis made an astute calculation that be waging a slaughter in a PYD-administered canton of Rojava defended by the YPG, that Turkey would not mind. And in a sense they turned out to be right.

A Turkish tank hugs a hillside in Mursitpinar as street fighting rages across the plain in Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish tank hugs a hillside in Mursitpinar as street fighting rages across the plain in Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

In the handful of interactions I had with Turkish security forces, they exasperating seemed more interested in curtailing the free movement of journalists and of course vocal Kurdish activists who had congregated on the border than with confronting IS in the slightest way. Turkish nationalists may say, “this is the Syrians’ war, let them fight it out so long as it doesn’t affect us.’ But that sentiment is entirely unrealistic. The IS poses a grave threat to Turkey itself. It is naive to think otherwise.

Walking around the grey warrens of Gaziantep at night scouring for a restaurant that would still be open after a long day on the border, it often crossed my mind that IS supporters, logisticians, and loosely affiliated Syrian and Turkish criminal networks surely abounded. The war inside Syria does not exist in a geographic vacuum. For its rear base are the provinces of southern Turkey. It’s not unthinkable that one could be bundled into a vehicle in some elaborate trap and smuggled into Syria.

Erdogan has made a strategic blunder of epic proportions in the last 3 years with his short-sighted Syria policy especially when considering how much Turkey depends on its thriving tourism industry. With Turkey’s budget flights and great bus system, if jihadi networks are active, even if in a relatively quietest fashion right now, in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, who’s to say they might not be taking some R&R in Marmaris or Fethiye in the future, if not already?

You can mentally bifurcate Turkey into two halves let’s say: the western half is for foreign tourists while the eastern provinces bordering Iraq and Syria are where trouble is allowed to happen and where salafi-jihadi volunteers from across the world filter into Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa governorates. But the reality however is far different. Turkey is really well interconnected.

In the heart of Marmaris’ waterfront tourist district you can buy bus tickets to Gaziantep, Sanaliurfa, Hatay and so forth. Turkey’s regions cannot be so neatly separated out. Neither does IS’s virulent ideology respect borders demarcated in the early 20th Century. Just the opposite: it claims it exists to eradicate them.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 22nd, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Middle East,Syria,Turkey

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The Intervention

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Military interventions are not theoretical war games or 'surgical' in any way. They affect the lives of real people. Each scenario should be based on its merits, rather than merely on the oversimplified failures of the past. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Military interventions are not theoretical war games or ‘surgical’ in any way. They affect the lives of real people. Each scenario should be vetted on its own merits, rather than merely on the oversimplified failures of the past. Bombing is a horrific act but then IS is a horrific force. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Murşitpinar- Another quick blog entry with some images from Kobane and environs and recent days. The media narrative on the siege has shifted from predictions of the city’s imminent fall to IS being on the back foot in the battle thanks to a sharp uptick in coalition bombing. Although on the surface this is a fight between the harshest kind of Islamists engaged in offensive jihad to eradicate those they deem unbelievers–in this case the Kurds of the secular, leftist PYD-YPG/YPJ–the struggle for Kobane is primarily a battle of ethnic identity politics, at least as many Kurds I spoke with see it.

For lightly buried in the takfiri salafism of IS, particularly I suspect the older members with genuine military experience, is an Arab ethnocentrism despite the modicum of ethnic diversity of IS’s commanders. Then there are the Turkish troops and border gendarmes who are content to watch all this go on from a barely safe distance. Understandably Turkey does not want to be drawn in, at least not under conditions upon which Ankara is not the actor setting them.

There are those who are opposed to the very concept of military intervention in wars far from home based on their ideological principles or because they reflexively distrust the specific crowd that advocates for military solutions to humanitarian crises. What should have been done to rescue Kobane? The best policy may be that such cases be looked at individually rather than the flawed policies of those that came before. Part of why these situations are deemed failures is when people conduct post-mortems on them and find that once the world took its eyes off supporting state/institution-building and reconstruction, the place rapidly devolves into chaos. See: Libya.

What will happen in Syrian Kurdistan–if it is not overrun by IS–will be determined by the post-intervention steps that are far more difficult than demolishing concrete block structures from many thousands of feet in the air. But for now, the Kurds are cheering.

An errant mortar lands on Turkish soil in a battle between IS and the YPG. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

An errant mortar lands on Turkish soil in a battle between IS and the YPG. This shows just how much Turkey has taken a hands-off approach to the war at their doorstep. They refuse to be goaded into the war despite what some might consider provocations at there feet.  ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A coalition air strike hit western Kobane in the late afternoon of October 15. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A coalition air strike hit western Kobane in the late afternoon of October 15. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

After being repeatedly intimidated by Turkish security forces, journalists were forced to flee to safer ground. Here a TV reporter prepares for a live stand up far from the action. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

After being repeatedly intimidated by Turkish security forces, journalists were forced to flee to safer ground. Here a TV reporter prepares for a live stand up far from the action. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Ambulances are a far too common sight on these Orwellian road trips. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Ambulances are a far too common sight on these Orwellian road trips. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 16th, 2014 at 2:06 pm