Robert King Is the Bulletproof Ghost of Conflict Reporting
He's 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 reportage he sent us speaks for itself.
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.
October 3, 2012: A father cradles his dead son who was killed after the Syrian Army attacked a civilian populated area in Aleppo.
hen I left al-Qusayr in mid-June, it was still encircled. I returned home to Memphis to visit my family and regroup. By this time, the heaviest fighting was taking place in Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest and most ancient cities, which, before the revolution, was Syria’s center of commerce. After some downtime, I decided to crowdsource my next trip through a Kickstarter project and received enough funds to fly back to Turkey, where I then walked across the border at Kilis (which, at this point, was recognized as FSA-controlled by the Turks—the FSA even stamped my passport) and met with a prearranged contact, who arrived on a motorcycle and drove me to Umm al Marra, where I stayed for a few days while arranging to travel to Aleppo.
Around this time I met a guy from Long Island who is currently working as an activist in Syria. He organized a trip for me and another journalist into Aleppo, where I would be embedded with the FSA media center. Over the course of my visit, they took me to the front lines, a local hospital, and other places ravaged by the war.
Aleppo is a big city, one considered metropolitan before the uprising. But most of the university students had fled at this point, replaced by villagers who had moved in from the countryside. What struck me the most about Aleppo, in comparison with cities like al-Qusayr and Homs, is that not many people would flash the victory sign when the FSA passed by. Surely, not everyone in the city supports the rebels, but in my opinion the lack of public support was because no one can trust his or her neighbor in Aleppo at the moment. Paranoia abounds because there are still Assad supporters in the region, sending back reports to regime forces. And the portions of the city where the major fighting is happening are largely deserted.
September 28, 2012: Syrians line up to buy bread outside a bakery, one of the few remaining in Aleppo. The army has targeted bread lines, killing hundreds of innocent, hungry civilians in the process.
That said, the FSA has a strong foothold in Aleppo. They control bread distribution and gas prices and have overtaken key municipal buildings. But some things are still out of reach. For instance, there’s no chance they could set up a school for the children right now—it would be irresponsible. And as in Homs, the Syrian Army has been indiscriminately targeting civilians and FSA soldiers alike.
One day while I was in the hospital, this poor kid was brought in who had his head damn near chopped off during a rocket attack on his house. Another day I saw two fathers holding their young dead sons; they were crying and completely inconsolable. As a dad I could relate. It was heartbreaking—one of the saddest moments I have experienced in my life.
Based on what I saw, I believe that Assad’s troops are purging a certain gene pool. I do not believe it’s a stretch to say it amounts to ethnic cleansing, because they are targeting three generations of Sunnis: those who started the revolution, their children, and the children’s grandparents. Their goal is to ensure there won’t be enough offspring left to create a truly secular state, even if the revolution succeeds. I’ve seen enough piles of dead Syrians to wholeheartedly believe this is the case. Western governments and the UN want to say it’s a civil war, but it’s not. The FSA and their allies don’t have enough resources for there to be a semblance of balance in terms of armaments and people on the ground. It’s a slaughter.
In late August I shot an anti-Assad demonstration in Aleppo. I had been to similar gatherings in Binnish and al-Qusayr. The demonstration in al-Qusayr was much more organized and began with a prayer. It was as if they brought a bunch of somewhat disparate causes and demonstrations together to converge in one area. Aleppo was different. The black flags of Islamic extremists were flying, and they were handing them out to kids and families who had gathered around. I can only think that the FSA’s desperation is why they’re incorporating jihadist groups into their ranks. Extremists are the only ones willing to step up, and when things are this bleak you’ll take all the help you can get.
Another atrocity I witnessed in Aleppo was the burning of the ancient souk (an Arab marketplace or bazaar) in the Old City. On our way to the scene we passed Haji Mara, one of four commanders of the FSA unit operating in the region. He was riding his motorcycle, on his way to meet with the fighters in his unit and check on their positions, so we turned around to pursue him. I wanted to speak with him; I had been wanting to photograph him for a while, and this was my chance.
After my interview with Haji Mara, my driver took me to the burning souk. When I arrived at the old market, I was fixated on the sunlight piercing the atriums, as well as the flames and smoke emanating from its walls. All the while, the regime’s snipers were shooting at the rebels.
As the smoke began to clear, holes opened up and the snipers took shots at vendors who were trying to remove merchandise from their rapidly incinerating shops. Just about everyone was weeping.
The medieval souk was one of the best preserved of its kind and had been listed as a historic site by UNESCO. It has since served as a rallying point for supporters of pan-Arab culture, and its destruction is yet another war crime that will exacerbate the conflict in untold ways.
The situation in Syria is like many others throughout history—the eventual fallout of a religious minority ruling and oppressing the majority. I’m just trying to record it all, and I’ll be back soon. That’s the best I can do.
September 29, 2012: A small business owner checks out his destroyed shop while walking through a burning souk in Aleppo’s Old City.
Words and photos by Robert King/Polaris
As told to Aaron Lake Smith and Rocco Castoro
Additional reporting by ST McNeil
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.