The Man Who Was There
Robert King Has Been Covering the FSA So Long They Named Him “Haji Memphis”
September 30, 2012: Fighters with the jihadist Tawhid brigade in the midst of a battle with Syrian Army troops inside Aleppo’s hotly contested al-Arkoub neighborhood.
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. Robert is a man with a heart of gold, a preternatural gut, and balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond). For more than two decades he has documented the most volatile places in the world at their most violent times, including Iraq, Albania, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and many others. We won’t get into all he’s done and where he’s been here because the following 20 pages of reportage he sent us speak for themselves.
August 28, 2012: A man holds up his Koran in front of an FSA flag at a protest after Friday prayers in Aleppo.
I became interested in the conflict in Syria for the same reason I’ve always wanted to cover anything—it seemed to be underreported. There weren’t very many news organizations willing to commit resources needed to inform their readers about the situation on a continuous basis, so I took it upon myself to do so.
I genuinely believed in the Syrian people’s call for more than just demonstrations, especially once it was made apparent that Assad’s regime was using helicopters, jets, detainment, and torture to squash the rebellion. During a stint in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005, I was kidnapped by a brigade of Sunni fighters. I managed to escape, but I was wary of going back to the region—especially to a country where a violent battle had erupted between rebel forces and government troops. Still, I knew I had to go, and before I left my home in Memphis I established connections with relief and aid groups working inside Syria.
My initial contacts directed me toward other people who, once I was inside, would hopefully point me in the direction of activists who could smuggle me in via a city near the Syrian border. When I felt confident that I had ensured my safe passage as much as I could, I began to move into Syria very cautiously.
For about $1,000 round trip, I was able to take a back door into the country and was guaranteed—as much as a smuggler can guarantee—safe passage for ten days inside the governorate of Idlib. They took me to a town called Binnish, where they told me they could find me a place to stay for about $100 a night.
The first round wasn’t a very easy go. At that point, late March through April, there were still very few publications willing to assign long excursions into Syria. I also quickly discovered that the activists I was embedded with were in the habit of staying up and drinking Pepsi till the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping in until 3 PM.
The reality was that Binnish was pretty dead. There wasn’t much fighting or anything else going on, and it was difficult to get my guides to take me to the places I wanted to go. Looking back, hiring these people was probably not the wisest investment. Around Easter weekend, toward the end of my three-week trip, a horrific massacre broke out about ten miles away in Taftanaz. Dozens of people were slaughtered. And I was one of the only Western journalists there.
After the onslaught, there were fears that the fighting would spread to Binnish. The Free Syrian Army rebels who had tried to contain the attack in Taftanaz left about two hours after they arrived because they had run out of ammunition. It quickly became apparent that they were incapable of protecting or enforcing anything.
April 5, 2012: During a ceasefire, the Syrian Army allowed local villagers to collect and identify their dead following a massacre in Taftanaz.
My guides began running out of patience, specifically with my requests to transport me to potentially dangerous places I wanted to cover in the region. They totally flipped out when I informed them that Human Rights Watch had said they would pay for me to document the aftermath of the recent massacre, so two days later I returned to Turkey and holed up in Antakya for a bit. I began calling contacts in Lebanon to see whether they could get me into the city of al-Qusayr, where, it seemed to me, most of the intense fighting in Syria was taking place at the time.
I had now been working in and around Syria for a month without much to show for it, at least anything that had been published. I was very frustrated. When I had reached out to Time they said a story about Syria had already run the week before. Newsweek was going to run one of my images from a massacre, but a senior editor pulled the story without explanation.
I had these photos of the mass killings in Taftanaz, as far as I know the only ones that were offered to American publications, and no one wanted them. I was pissed off, upset with the industry and what it had become. I kept thinking, You can’t do this anymore. It’s not worth it. But I went to al-Qusayr anyway and ended up staying for two months.
I was determined to remain in al-Qusayr until more of my photos were published. But I was also shooting video, and on my birthday the BBC bought 30 seconds of my footage. Then Al Jazeera reporters arrived in the region, and finally I thought things might be rolling along—maybe even snowballing. Meanwhile I was witnessing the most horrendous civilian casualties, some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I’d see ten children a day wounded from indiscriminate shelling and other attacks.
By the time I arrived in al-Qusayr, it was under siege, surrounded by the Syrian Army, which had taken two positions inside the city—the state hospital and the mayor’s building. Snipers were perched in both locations, while the highway was locked down, with convoys of additional troops heading into the city. Surveillance aircraft and drones scanned the area frequently, and it was bombarded with mortars and other heavy artillery on a daily basis. About 200 FSA troops held down their positions, but they were clearly outnumbered and outgunned. Adding to the severity of the situation, most of the people from the city of Homs—which was also occupied by Syrian Army troops—had fled to nearby al-Qusayr or into the surrounding countryside.
June 8, 2012: Wounded children are treated inside a makeshift field hospital in al-Qusayr. The volunteer doctors and nurses in these hospitals face torture and death if they are captured by the regime and work under harsh conditions with few supplies, the majority of which must be smuggled from Lebanon. Despite these odds, the doctors are able to treat more than 100 patients per day.
Overall, I think the majority of the American media was ignoring the situation—especially after the UN’s peace plan fell apart. Anderson Cooper has been an exception. He is probably one of the only people on television who has been willing to cover it on a regular basis. I think reporters have shied away from it because the issues are very complex, it could make the US and other Western governments look bad in an election year, and journalists like Paul Conroy (who compared what had happened in Homs to Srebrenica or Rwanda) have been wounded while reporting. News agencies were scared that it was too high a risk to send reporters into the area. It wasn’t like Egypt or Libya or other places fighting erupted during the Arab Spring, where you could just fly in and do whatever the hell you wanted. If you didn’t have any real contacts before getting in, it was prohibitively expensive because you’d have to sit around in a hotel and try to establish in 30 days or less what should be three or four months’ worth of preparations. The story required a lot more homework than most.
My appearance on Anderson Cooper 360 in June got me more work, and other outlets started covering the uprising. Something clicked, and higher-up editors and producers said to their staffs, “Hey, what the fuck are you doing on Syria, and why aren’t you using this guy’s pictures?”
October 3, 2012: A young boy killed during a rocket attack on civilians is carried through the streets of Aleppo by his weeping father.
I had gotten some attention for covering a field hospital in al-Qusayr that was supposedly strictly for civilians, but in the chaos of the situation everyone who made it there got some sort of treatment. The Syrian Army had taken the main hospital in the city, so this group of doctors began using a little bombed-out house. One of them, a gastroenterologist trained in Russia who spoke a bit of English, explained the situation to me. The other guy operating had worked as a veterinarian before the uprising, and the rest of the staff was made up of volunteers. Power was supplied by a generator, and their position was known by the Syrian Army, who continued to attack the hospital, which is unquestionably a war crime. In my experience, the Syrian Army considered everyone in the small agricultural village to be an enemy combatant.
FSA members started to dig out bunkers and bomb shelters. One rebel media-center staffer I met had dug his own grave in a cemetery reserved for martyrs. And this was when the UN was still trying to broker a ceasefire. So there weren’t as many jets in the air as there are now, but helicopters, snipers, and other large munitions were still constantly assailing townspeople. It was never-ending.