Interviews with a Commander and a Rebel Soldier in the FSA
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. The journalist with balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond) returned from Aleppo with 20 pages of reportage for our Syria Issue, which we’ll be doling out to you over the next few days. Yesterday, we featured an oral history of his experiences in the thick of the conflict between the Assad regime and the FSA. Today, we're serving up two interviews he conducted in the field with Haji Mara, the commander of the largest FSA brigade in Aleppo, and Abu Turab, a carpenter turned FSA rebel from Homs.
VICE: Where were you in March 2011, when the 13 boys were arrested in Daraa for spraying anti-Assad graffiti?
Abu Turab: I was at work.
Were you involved in protests? If so, what was your experience at those protests?
I took part in the protests, where I took a bullet. But I was not arrested.
Was there one specific moment when you decided, I need to fight against Assad militarily?
I began thinking about joining the FSA during the occupation of my city when the shabiha swept through.
When did you first hear about the Free Syrian Army?
The first I heard about the FSA was on TV.
Do you have family who is also fighting?
My entire family is fighting.
How did you join? What is the name of your battalion, and how was it formed?|
I cannot mention the name of the battalion, but it was formed by neighborhood residents.
What qualifications does one need to fight as part of the FSA?
Anyone can join the FSA.
How is it organized? How are decisions made in your battalion?
We make decisions collectively.
Who decides where and when you will fight?
All of us decide, together, about the fighting.
What was the very first battle you participated in with the FSA?
My first battle with the FSA was liberating Az Zahrawi palace [a historic site in Homs].
Who exactly were you fighting against?
I was fighting the shabiha.
Who were you fighting with?
I was fighting with people from Homs.
Have you seen anyone killed? If so, what was the situation?
Every day I see many people getting killed by tanks and barrel bombs. These are filled with barameel [a mixture of TNT, oil, and other substances that explodes, burns, and destroys everything] and dropped from helicopters. People are torn into small pieces.
What has been the single worst personal moment for you since the civil war began?
Since the siege started around the old parts of Homs, many injured people cannot get medical help. We are forced to use primitive tools to amputate limbs when wounds become infected. I will fight again soon.
Have you changed since you began fighting?
Yes, I am a better person now.
Have any of your opinions changed since you began fighting with the FSA?
I am more confident in God now. It became clear during this conflict that the international community had lied.
After the war, what will you do?
After this, I will go back to my job.
August 28, 2012: Former commodities trader Abdul al-Kader, better known as Haji Mara, commands the largest brigade of FSA fighters in Aleppo.
VICE: How are your men doing?
Haji Mara: To be honest, we’re nothing next to the army. The army has well-equipped units, planes, and arms. And we just have Kalashnikovs. One shot hits and another shot misses. Even given that, we now cover 60 to 70 percent of Aleppo. And this sacrifice is the highest priority. Of course, our main focus is, first of all, God, and second, the concerns of the young people.
What can you tell the people in America and in Europe and around the world about your movement?
First, I want to send a message to all the world leaders. All of the world leaders are shameful. There is shame written on their foreheads because our women and children are being killed every day, and they remain silent. We’re no longer concerned with world leaders. We’re sending our message to the people of life, people who have a conscience. Right now we want to take a stand. We are brothers in humanity. We are brothers in Islam. So let’s take a stand, a real stand with these people who are being murdered and slaughtered daily. Consider a citizen who wants to buy bread and there’s a bombing at the bakery. Is that order? If you go now, you’ll see people sleeping in the streets. And after all this, the people are silent? Why? Where is the soul? Where are the Muslims? My message is to have them take a genuine stand with the people, to have their voices reach the ears of their oppressive rulers.
What does freedom in your country mean to you?
Of course, we started the revolution to have freedom. This freedom is for all of us. Freedom to practice my religion and carry out my duties as God wishes, without anyone objecting. My freedom is my right to express myself and speak out. My freedom is to take part in everything. We’re not little. Since we were little, they told us, “Shut up, my son, the walls have ears.” We have learned about and been brought up on this horror since we were young. We were reared on horror. That is the thing we need to break. We want to live like the rest of the people.
What can the world do to help Syria?
The world can do a lot. They can come out and protest and condemn the world organizations that haven’t committed to helping the Syrian people; they can force these governments to make a move.
There are a lot of rumors of foreigners here in Aleppo fighting with you. What do you say about the reports that the FSA is made up of extremists?
My brother, the Free Syrian Army and the revolutionaries are all from Syria. But yes, you will find, other than them, people who choose to come here and support their brothers. They came from Tunisia, Libya, and other places. But there are very few of them. And God bless them, we tell them. In regard to all the revolutionaries, they are Syrian revolutionaries, you understand? They’re revolutionaries from this soil. And you are here with cameras seeing things. Maybe there will be a few foreign individuals out of the hundreds. But that doesn’t mean that the entire Free Syrian Army is made up of foreign fighters.
Why did you decide to join the revolution?
It started off with peaceful demonstrations. The youth came out with olive branches. Then they shelled and attacked the youth. We couldn’t remain angels after that. For six or seven months we didn’t even think of picking up our weapons. We thought that “our Bashar” would receive the same fate as Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh. We thought that the revolution would be over in a few months. But it turned out we didn’t have a president. It turned out we have a murderer. And this murderer took up arms, and our only option is to take up arms and take him out of office.
How did you become a commander?
In my opinion, I’m not an officer. I’m a servant and a brother. We’re not like other organizations where I just wave at them as I pass. No, I am hand-in-hand with my men, and I’m killing with them to silence this regime. And right here, we’re only 200 meters away from the battlefield. In regard to how I was appointed, the brothers are the ones who have been so generous with the title. They’re the ones who put me up here in this position.
What are your plans if you win the revolution?
I will get some rest. I’m getting tired. It’s been about a month of me focusing hard like this. God willing, we want to look after the state of the country. God willing, the situation will be stable. Because these people, their safety is in my heart. Like you’re seeing, there’s still oppression. There are opportunists claiming the name of the revolution. But these people are liars and criminals. We’re fighting, and they’re coming up behind us and stealing. We’re going to deal them justice. We’re not going to rest until we deal them justice and see the situation stabilize. At that time, I’m going to try to return to my original job.
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.