My Four Days of Madness with the Free Syrian Army
There’s something about the words “behind enemy lines” that sounds cool and glamorous. Perhaps it’s because of the film of the same name where, against all the odds, Owen Wilson saves the day, gets the girl, and looks good doing it, but I can assure you that in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth.
I realized this after spending four days with Syrian rebels in the Northern province of Idlib; escaping from the dreaded, pro-regime Shabiha death squads, getting shot at from rooftops, crawling around enemy emplacements, sleeping in a cave and finally finding myself on my knees at gunpoint.
Photographer Rick Findler and I were on assignment to look at how the Free Syrian Army were getting on in the North, and to catalogue the atrocities in the besieged city of Idlib, where no Western journalists had been for three weeks at the time of our departure. Having covered conflict throughout the Middle East, both of us thought we were well prepared and embarked with our usual bravado.
It wasn’t long, however, until we realized this was a very different situation, and as we crouched under a bush at the Syrian border at midnight, only 20 feet away from Shabiha, who had been tipped off about our arrival, and with explosions echoing across the valley, it crossed my mind to turn back. Two hours later they had stopped searching for us, but soon afterwards three naked men wearing only Kalashnikovs and tight red pants appeared from nowhere and ordered us to take off our clothes.
“What the fuck does he mean,” I whispered to Rick, who looked back at me blankly. It all felt rather surreal.
The FSA lieutenant we were with seemed to think this was normal though, so we undressed and followed the naked men into Syria. The next thing we knew, we were up to our necks in freezing water; our clothes, cameras, and body armor over our heads, fording through a river.
On the other side, and without a moment to think, we got dressed and ran a couple of kilometers through the olive groves. Then we bundled into the back of a waiting car and set off at 90 mph. It was incredibly tense, and as we travelled from safe house to safe house, from car to car, while huddled under blankets in trucks and on the backs of motorbikes surrounded by armed rebels, it dawned on us that we were now deep in enemy territory and there was no turning back.
There are large parts of Syria's northern region that are under tentative rebel control. The army does not patrol these areas very often, as Assad's men dislike leaving the safety of their armored vehicles. This means that the rebels have been able to set up checkpoints, which allow them to monitor the movement of people in the region and, more importantly, to travel with a vague degree of freedom. But this goes wrong constantly, and on many days cars leave without ever coming back, having been shot up at random. The great fear, however, remain the Shabiha; gangs of pro-Assad thugs who can appear at any time looking to cave your skull in.
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