Evading Shabiha death squads and other methods of trying not to die.
There’s something about the words “behind enemy lines” that sounds cool and glamourous. 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 realised 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 realised 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 armour 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 kilometres through the olive groves; were bundled into the back of a waiting car and set off at 90mph. 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 there very often, as Assad's men dislike leaving the safety of their armoured vehicles. This means that the rebels have been able have 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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Most of them come from Bashar al-Assads’ Allawite sect, and know that they are fighting for their lives. If Assad falls, then so do they, and after decades of occupying positions of power in Syrian society, they will do whatever they can to maintain the status quo.
As such, they are his henchmen, they move around like marauding gangs, in civilian cars armed to the teeth and are liable to open fire at any point. The FSA play a constant game of cat and mouse with them, distracting them on one road, sometimes with homemade dynamite, thereby allowing them to move down another. At times, when there is no other option, the FSA will engage them and try to take one alive for information.
On that first night we avoided them, but only just, and only because the rebels know the landscape and can travel cross-country through the olive groves. In this sense, the Free Syrian Army are a veritable insurgency that can melt into the countryside, and if they had more weapons, they would be able to do much more damage.
It was 5AM when we eventually made it to our stop-off, a cave high in the hills that the FSA use as an operations centre. Walking in, we were hit by a cloud of shisha smoke, and there, in a circle, danced a dozen heavily armed, bearded men, clapping and singing like this was the hottest new club in the region. There were some ratty gilded sofas in one corner, RPG’s and grenades lying around randomly and a little television showing a sort of mash-up of the atrocities that had been committed that day. As we entered, we became the latest attraction.
Having finished all our hugs, kisses and introductions we went to sleep, huddled between all of them on blankets on the ground. Or rather tried to, as the cacophony of snores that echoed in the small cave came close to resembling the rumbling of a heavy calibre machine gun.
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The next day we moved around the region, as carefully as the previous night. We entered towns that had been hit, and, creeping towards government emplacements, saw how they tried to hide their tanks under tarpaulins. As part of the UN-backed ceasefire, tanks and armoured vehicles are supposed to have been removed from villages, but nothing like this has happened, and they remain everywhere.
We travelled to villages that had been bombed. Not just by tanks or shells, but in some cases, by dynamite, helicopters, tanks and bulldozers – all at once. Families left destitute lived in tents next to the flattened remains of their homes, and in many cases we met old farmers, young children and women who had been mercilessly attacked. It is indiscriminate, and if ever there is a sign that a regime cares not for its people, this was it. Wherever we went we stayed for only ten minutes, such is the fear of Assad spies. We discovered this for ourselves just the following day.
We knew that most attacks took place on Friday after prayers, so we disguised ourselves as best as we could and took part in one of the protests. Rick is famous for his streak of red hair, and in preparation he tried to dye it brown. Unfortunately, the only thing he managed to dye brown was his sickly white skin. We wrapped him in a scarf and tried to forget about it.
Two hundred men and children shouted anti-Assad chants, drums beat loudly and people lifted their arms, swayed and waved flags and banners. Suddenly, a hail of bullets flew from the rooftops, the crowd scattered and chaos ensued. FSA fighters charged towards the bullets, returning fire, and we followed close on their heels. As the two sides exchanged fire, we found ourselves in the middle of a terribly one-sided gun battle.
As with all these engagements, the FSA's strategy is to return a bit of fire and then pull back; There is little they can do against the vastly superior weapons of the army.
We had retreated to our hideout when suddenly a group of flustered men ran in. The army had been tipped off that western journalists were in the country and that we had filmed them opening fire onto the protests. They had left their base and were making a move to capture us.
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A fight broke out among the guys in the cave. Some wanted us to leave and said we were making things worse for them. Others insisted we stay, so that we could continue to see what was happening. There is nothing worse than being told the army has snaked out of its base and is coming for you, except I guess being told this, while angry, armed men are screaming in Arabic, pointing at you, and you have nowhere to go. It was at that point that I believe both Rick and I wanted out, but that was simply not an option any more.
Trusting the safety of the cave, we remained there untill the following day, though neither of us slept. Our only saving grace was that we were high in the hills and that the rebels had surrounded the area to warn us in case anyone came. They had decided we should stay, and surrounded and hugged us promising to die before either of us were harmed. “We are brothers now,” they all said, and I believed it. It might sound like an unrealistic thing to say now, but there in that cave, I knew for a fact that they would have fought to the death to protect us, and I don't think I've ever felt more humbled.
The next day, we learnt that it was still not safe to leave. The routes back to Turkey had been sealed and the army were still searching for us. As the original plan had been to go into the centre of Idlib, the FSA decided it was safest for us to go further into the country. Perhaps not the best sounding idea, but certainly one we thought would throw Assad's troops off.
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After another nerve-racking trip huddled in the back of a truck, we reached the outskirts of the city. Here we waited for many hours, while helicopters circled overhead and the rebels tried to find us a way in.
The shelling had been going on all night, and we were told there were many wounded. It was this we had come to report on, but with the backdrop being what it was and with the chance of being caught ever growing, we finally decided to pull out.
Stories from inside the city told of indiscriminate shelling and tank fire. Of torture, and prison cells 15ft by 20ft crammed with 60 people, from teenagers to old men. Of makeshift hospitals, treating the wounded in living rooms, because government hospitals simply let civilians die, and those doctors that help rebels are killed. We were also told that the siege had strangled the medicine and food supplies and that nobody was being let out.
Because of that, it was decided that a northern route would be safest and we set off again. Hurtling through the hills, we suddenly came round a bend and straight into a checkpoint. We screeched to a halt but before we could reverse, a few screaming men dressed in black moved towards us, their guns raised. The FSA members in the front of the car pushed their guns lower and got out. We followed suit, when suddenly a volley of shots was unleashed over our heads. With a feeling of absolute dread we got to our knees, convinced this was the end.
Through all my work I’ve never felt convinced I was going to die, and I wish I could explain what it was like. But images of home didn’t go through my mind, nor did I cry or panic, simply because I wasn’t capable of it. Instead there was an emptiness, and a pounding in my head and in my heart. Next to me, Rick’s breathing had sped up to that of a panting dog, while our fixer shot his hands in the air and waved them to an invisible gunman on his right. To this day, we’re still not sure what he was doing.
As our FSA minders screamed back at them, trying to talk us out of it, incredibly it emerged that this was another FSA group – not the enemy. It turned out that Shabiha were approaching just a mile behind us, and these men were waiting to attack them. We just happened to find ourselves caught between two advancing armies.
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In a daze, we got back into the car and made it to the mountains. Still quivering and hiding at the back, we got out and began to walk the few miles to the border. There wasn’t a second that I wasn’t on edge, not one second where I could grasp quite what had just happened until we reached the border and cut our way through.
Just as we believed we were safe, gunfire erupted again as the Turks opened fire with shotguns. Pellets hit the buildings around us and we took off. Rick and I lost the other two and lay hugging each other under some stairs in a farmer's outbuilding. Sweat was pouring from under our body armour, and at one point I actually remember catching a drop as it fell.
We crouched there and listened as they searched. We heard them cocking their guns and getting closer. When we finally had a minute, we fled leaping over walls, houses (Rick brought one down) and finally further into Turkey. When we got safe, we turned on our phones to discover the others had been caught and so, we handed ourselves in. Had we not, our fixer – who was Syrian – would have been sent to the refugee camps. So we vouched for him.
We spent the night in jail and were deported immmediately after – but this was absolutely secondary to all that had happened over the past four days, and to the plight of the millions of Syrians who don’t have the option of leaving, like we finally did.