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Interviews with an FSA Media-Center Coordinator and a Doctor in Aleppo

Today, we're serving up two interviews Robert King conducted in the field with Ahmed Al-Hajji, an FSA media-center coordinator in Aleppo, and Dr. Osman, a doctor at a hospital in Aleppo.

by Robert King
Nov 29 2012, 2:20pm

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. On Monday, 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 Ahmed Al-Hajji, an FSA media-center coordinator in Aleppo, and Dr. Osman, a doctor at a hospital in Aleppo.

September 26, 2012: A wounded fighter from  the Tawhid brigade in Aleppo. 

VICE: What is your role in the revolution?  
Ahmed al-Hajji: I’m responsible for the media center. We take videos of what’s happening: shellings, jets, and fighting, sometimes.

What were you doing before the war?
Before the war, I was studying mechanical engineering. Now I’m officially a mechanical engineer.

When the revolution began, did you have hopes that America and Europe would help to overthrow Assad?
In the beginning, yes, I did. In the beginning of the revolution, of course I hoped that, and I thought that America and Europe would support us and help us. But after a few months, I saw that it’s impossible for any country to give us help. 

Are there any groups that are giving you help?
Groups like what?

Are any Islamic groups coming to help fight for the revolution?
There are some Syrians who help us. They live outside the country. They help us with some equipment. They help teach us what to do. They give us some important information. 

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama said they were going to give the Free Syrian Army and people in the media center communications equipment. Have they fulfilled this promise to the people of Syria?
Until now, no. And really, we don’t wait for them to give us anything. It would be such a good help if they did it. But we know they won’t do it. 

During the beginnings of the revolution, were there ever people waving American flags, hoping that America would help to free oppressed Syrians?
No, during the beginning we thought America was going to help us and Europe was going help us. Not because we raised their flags but because we thought they believed in democracy and human rights. Now we know they don’t believe in it. They just believe, “What can I get from this?” 

Why do you think America and the rest of the West haven’t offered any military or logistical support?
Because Syria is a very important country, and we border Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. It’s a very important place in the world. So they don’t want us to be strong. They don’t want the FSA to be strong. They don’t want us to have heavy weapons or medium weapons. 

October 2, 2012: The body of an FSA fighter who died during a battle against the Syrian Army is carried to an Aleppo hospital.

What does freedom mean to you?
It’s a big question. Freedom is not only saying, “We want freedom, we want freedom.” It means a lot of things. Freedom means to be human. When you don’t have your freedom you’re like an animal. You’re like a slave. And the life of a slave? It’s hard to live. 

Do you feel like you’ve been a slave under the Assad regime?
No. Because my father and my mother taught me what freedom is. I’m young, not old. So I have not had this experience of the pressure from this society. I’ve lived my freedom before. But most of the people? Yeah, they used to be slaves, because they have to go to work in the morning and come home at night. They didn’t have time for anything. They couldn’t say anything. They were just doing things and didn’t know why. They don’t even have time to think.

What was it like living under the Assad regime?
It’s like being in Iran. You have everything, but not for you. Everything’s around you, but not for you.

Who is it for?
Assad’s family. His group, his mafia.

You go out in the mornings, film the dead bodies, and then you upload it to the internet—that is your work. Why do you risk your life to document these things?
I do this due to thinking life is not to be lived like this. If I didn’t have my freedom, death would be better. And our children deserve our giving of our lives for this land, for freedom. You have to pay a price for freedom. It’s an expensive price to pay, but we should pay it. Even if the price is very, very expensive. 

Before our interview you told me that you have been reported dead two times. Can you explain that to me?
I can’t even explain it to myself. Five days ago, we were in a big situation and we were surrounded by Assad’s army. Some people thought I was dead because there was no way to get out of there. And we had surrendered. But, thank God, we survived. So when I came back, everyone was surprised. They thought I was dead. It had been published. 

Are there foreign fighters who are fighting alongside you in Syria?

What groups that you’re aware of?
There are a few groups of people fighting here in Aleppo. Outside Aleppo, I don’t know. But in Aleppo, we saw them and everybody saw them. A few guys—100 or 200 maximum. We thank them. We thank them because they came here to help the Syrian people. We appreciate that they give their lives for our freedom. It means a lot to us. 

Do you think al-Qaeda has infiltrated Syria?
Officially? No. But there is a little group of guys who think like al-Qaeda, but they didn’t organize with al-Qaeda officially. Let us back up to the question about why America and Europe don’t want to help us. Why? They want it like this. They want al-Qaeda to come here. And when al-Qaeda comes here, they want al-Qaeda to be killed here. 

At a demonstration I attended on Friday there were a lot of Islamic flags, like the type al-Qaeda uses. Is that something new that’s taking place here and, if so, why do you think it’s happening?
Two things: Aleppo is not like most cities in Syria. There are a lot of religious people here. It’s famous for that. People wear hijabs and go to mosque. It’s not like Homs, not like Damascus. The second thing is, when life becomes so hard, when killing comes fast and the enemy is taking more lives—young kids, girls, women—anybody in the world would turn to their God. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists. Many intellectuals say religion is created just for dangerous situations. Because in danger, man should have someone more powerful above him, someone he can beg to help him. In any crisis, any group of people is going to become more religious. Even in America, if Obama started shelling his people, American people would go to their God. I know a lot of Americans don’t believe in God, in any god. But in something like that, they will be back to God and go to church and put Bibles around them everywhere. Something like that would take them from darkness to heaven, give them a spot of hope that anybody would need in that situation.

Do you like working with foreign media?
I like it because I want the world’s people to see what’s going on here. We’re going to fight, not just the FSA fighting Assad’s army. We at the media centers have to fight the propaganda of Assad’s media. His media is not for people inside Syria, because he knows that they know that he lies. We have to work with the foreign journalists, take them where the shellings and dead people are, where there’s destruction. Like for example, I took you today to the Old City, to see the fire; Assad’s army set fire to our historic city. 

September 30, 2012: Wounded civilians, children, and FSA fighters are treated inside an Aleppo hospital.  

VICE: How long have you been a doctor?
Dr. Osman: Since 2005.

Your hospital has been hit numerous times by Assad’s forces, is that correct?
Yes. It has been hit five times and more than 15 times around the hospital.

Do you consider these actions to be war crimes? 
Yes, of course, but the Syrian regime considers medical staffs and doctors military targets.

Why do you think that is?
Because when you kill one doctor, it’s much better than killing 1,000 fighters.

Is your life in danger?
My life has been in danger for a long time, but my concerns are for my family and my father and my mother because the Syrian regime will capture me and make trouble for everybody I know here. 

But you’re willing to take that risk. Why?
I’m not a man who escapes from his duty; this is my duty, this is my life, this is my message. We save lives.

Did you sign the Hippocratic oath when you finished university, agreeing you would save lives and do no harm for the term of your service?
Yes, all doctors do that.

Assad is a doctor by training, so he must have signed it too. 
Assad is a doctor by law, but in his blood he is a dictator.

So you’re saying he doesn’t honor his oath?
No, and he has had many doctors killed. Three of my friends were captured by Air Force intelligence. They captured medical students and killed them and one of their buddies. 

You doctors are considered heroes in this revolution. Would you consider yourself a hero?
No, I am a normal person. I just do my duty. We worked from the beginning of the demonstrations and revolution. I was arrested two times; I stayed in prison for five months. Many more people are arrested and have trouble. 

Why were you arrested?
I was arrested because I treated a wounded person who was injured in a demonstration.

How long can you keep patients at your hospital? 
This is not a safe area—the hospitals are not safe. We can’t make patients stay here for a long time, so we send them to a safe area if necessary. 

Does your hospital lack medical supplies?
Yes. It’s good but not good enough. We have some materials and supplies. The biggest problem is the surgery supplies. Many of my patients have died because there is not always enough proper surgery equipment and anesthesia.

On average, how many patients do you treat?
Between 100 and 150 in a week. Most are civilians. Some are from the Free Syrian Army.

Are you getting any outside support from the West?
Yes, we have doctors working at the hospital who are British, and many others support us. But our biggest support comes from our brothers in Egypt.

Is it hard for you to sleep at night?
Every night I see bad dreams about children who have leg amputations, and every day I think about going outside Syria to continue my normal life. But if I left, who would take these patients? I hope this war will end soon and we will change this problem and not see these bad dreams.

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.