The Man Who Was There

Robert King Is the Bulletproof Ghost of Conflict Reporting

He's Been Covering the FSA So Long They Named Him “Haji Memphis”

By Robert King

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.