Like all boys own adventures it has to start with a map, though in this case not a crumpled piece sepia parchment rolled up and tied with a ribbon, no, this was a modern day adventure and by that I don’t mean the map was provided by Google and illuminated on an ipad either, the map was meticulously marked out using the condiments on the table of the Crown Plaza hotel in the Jordanian capital Amman.
The electricity has been out for three hours, I sit in the courtyard watching the flame of a candle flicker, the sound of shelling has stopped but intermittent gunfire still sounds from a few streets away, nothing unusual these days, I try to read but the candle light is not enough, I don’t want to use the LED light as I don’t know when the power will return, I may need the precious light, same for my phone and computer so I just listen to the gun shots and watch the strange shapes the candle casts upon the wall, I can hear my neighbor’s preparing food, the clink of cutlery on plates, the normality of dinner being prepared while a battle is being fought just down the road, I go to lay down, am not tired but bored and maybe I will be woken by the electricity returning.
As soon as I close my eyes the sound of an explosion very close, the house trembles, my heart jumps, I lay still for a second then go to the courtyard, it’s very quiet, all of a sudden more bursts of shooting this time also very close, as always I look to the sky, I can’t see out from my house and can really only gauge things by sound, the shooting only last a few seconds, quiet again, soon I can hear activity in the streets outside, am tempted to go and investigate but I know it’s not a good idea, I sit and wait, it stays calm for a while, then the ping of the fluorescent tube stuttering back to life and the neighbors kids clap as the power returns, I settle down and watch the TV.
Its maybe an hour since the explosion and I hear Raslan running crying along the alley, he’s about 14 years old and wouldn’t look out of place on a farm, a big lad with ruddy cheeks and hands like shovels, he lives next door and hangs out with his friends around the neighborhood, I wonder what has upset him, the explosion earlier is still on my mind.
The doorbell rings, Its Ahmad from next door, he speaks English but we rarely say much more than hello to each other in passing, it’s odd for him to visit unless he wants something, he asks if I heard the explosion, where was it I ask, Bab Salam, just around the corner, they blew up the house he says, twenty people killed, they blew up the house he repeats his voice getting higher, he describes the house and cocks an eyebrow when I indicate I know who’s house it is, opposition fighters crept along the river, not for the first time, shabeha he says referring to the occupants of the house, well known in the Old City for their activities supporting the regime, they have been targeted before, Ahmad is agitated and keeps repeating himself, they blew up the house, today Bab Salam, tomorrow Bab Touma, our alley is between the two ancient gates, who knows what can happen he says, I can’t quite understand his behavior, at first I thought understandably he must be scared but then I started to get the impression he was trying to scare me, I asked about Raslan, oh he said dismissively he lost his ID, I was relieved at that although losing your ID would be plenty of reason to cry in Syria especially these days, am I leaving Ahmad asked, no plans I said, not unless I really have to I told him as I walked him to the door.
The next day I talked with friends about the explosion, Ahmad’s version was typically exageratted, the death toll was one or two not twenty.But his high pitched tone was still ringing in my hears long after the sound of the explosion, they blew up the house, they blew up the house.
4 March 2012
Another nasty couple of weeks have passed, carnage and killing in Homs and beyond, two brave journalists died for trying to tell the truth, they chose to risk their lives believing that showing the world what is happening in Syria would make a difference, they like thousands of Syrians were killed for what they believed in.
Getting to the truth these days despite the digital age is just as difficult as it has always been, I am spending less time watching and reading the news regarding Syria, FB and Twitter equally tiresome, in all cases we have to draw from whom we trust for accuracy but it involves wading through a mountain of shit to do so.
A few nights ago while making my way to Mocha and More in the civilized surroundings of the Four Seasons my musing was interrupted by an explosion, not huge but not fireworks either, as I rounded the corner seconds later I watched the Four Seasons security guards extinguishing a few flames under a parked car, it was nothing, a small car parked on the corner opposite the now closed Taj Mahal restaurant, after the smoke had cleared there was no sign anything had happened, it took an hour until Twitter had the answers, the Four Seasons had been attacked, a sound bomb in Abu Ramanah, Molotov Cocktail thrown at high ranking officer, several people saying in fact there was no explosion, like everything else in Syria I really only base my opinions on what I see and what I hear.
One thing that did stick in my mind was a conversation with a friend who had been at the funeral in Mezzeh that drew such a huge crowd, it was not the tale of snipers shooting at peaceful mourners, not the gangs of Shabiha that flooded into the area to break things up, not the local residents opening their doors to the fleeing protestors, not the bit about bullet dropping out of the side of the stomach of the wounded man while trying to compress the wound, what really struck me was him telling me how much he had shouted and screamed at the regime, going home hoarse, a quiet mild mannered educated young man seizing the opportunity to vent so much built up anger, like so many others around the country.
People are of course still cautious, its amusing to see how suddenly conversation will stop when you happen upon people in the street, eyes glancing from side to side, talk resuming as you pass out of earshot, though not always the case, as I walked past the court building the other morning the area swarming with security as usual, I overheard a man openly cursing the “Shabiha cunts” to his friend as he correctly identified a bus load heading out to the suburbs.
The regime clearly has support but I like many others can feel a palpable change in Damascus.
It was dawn; I was lost in that moment between the conscious and unconsciousness of sleep, then the sound of heavy boots thumping the cobbled stones in the alley outside, in my confused state I didn’t understand what I could hear, then suddenly the sound of the stock of a gun being repeatedly bashed against a metal door, the fog of sleep banished in a second as I sat stone still, within seconds the shout of “jeish” screamed at the unanswered door, I sprang from my bed and stumbled into my trousers, comically tripping as my heart and mind raced, I through a coat over my camera bag and slid it under my desk, then the same bashing on my door, my heart heaved through my chest, I shouldn’t have been so surprised as the army had been searching houses in the Old City over the previous couple of days, I hadn’t quite realized they were going literally from house to house and had assumed just to those suspected, I opened the door and the soldier just stared at me and said nothing, other soldiers were milling around in the alley while others were going in and out of my neighbor’s houses, yes I said half expecting him to have opened the conversation, “jeish” he shouted at me, oddly I was calm, he was the same height as me and I smiled and said I could see he was the army, I handed him my ID which he had not actually asked for, he looked a little confused and passed it to a superior, they seemed a little amused when they read it expired in 2015, I invited them inside and they questioned me, had I any weapons, now there’s a funny story I thought but decided against mentioning the fact I did in fact have .22 air rifle hidden inside the sofa, I knew it was harmless but didn’t feel in the mood to tell them the very amusing story of the rat and the gun dealer, no I said, no weapons, had I seen anyone with weapons in the area he asked, my eyes glanced at the four Kalashnikov wielding soldiers poking around in my laundry basket and said I hadn’t, they didn’t look very hard and did their best to be polite, the plain-clothed superior handed back my residents card and said I was welcome, it was my house but I didn’t feel very welcome, they all filed out, I closed the door and my heart started to thump again.
Diary from Damascus 14 August 2012
Sitting in an Istanbul café, nervously smoking, recently arrived from Syria without papers a Syrian soldier defected from the Syrian army tells us his story, one of a series of portraits of Syrians living in Istanbul.
Listen to his story and others on BBC Radio 4 iPM show
Saturday morning at 5.45am UK time 7.45 in Turkey
As a photographer my eyesight is naturally enough the sense I most rely on, these days though since I am denied the opportunity to use my camera it’s my sense of hearing that seems to be working overtime, almost every morning the jarring sounds of conflict wake me from my sleep, yesterday the sounds continued throughout most of the morning, today they seemed to have paused, I sit with my morning coffee waiting for the noise to return, during Ramadan mornings tend to start very slowly, most of my neighbors seem to be still asleep, for a few minutes the only sound is of the sparrows darting about the rooftops.
By midday the peace is shattered this time the noise an explosion the fills the air and shakes the foundations of my house, the outside walls I am told are 400 hundred years old and I wonder if at any time in the past they endured such torment, another bang and I feel my stomach flinch, the sounds are much closer today, how close I can’t really tell, a couple of km’s maybe, what must that noise sound like there I wonder.
It’s a little unusual here to go to bed before midnight, its summer and Ramadan, not to mention the war, midnight is ambitious to say the least, still it’s what I attempted to do, in my mind I knew it wouldn’t work, a phone call maybe or just the neighbors TV, I lay down and drifted off, it was just twenty minutes later the sound of automatic gunfire had me jumping from my bed, this time the shooting was very close, sustained bursts, I heard Hassan and Osama running franticly back home, best friends they often hang out at the entrance to our alley, the shooting and small explosions were reverberating all around, the fighting was clearly in the adjacent alleyways, I dressed and tried to workout in my mind what scenario was being played out, the Old City is not what you would describe as strategic to anyone, the sounds were coming from all directions, very close but also from further away, I had little option but to stay in my house, I wanted to go to the roof and get a better idea but bullets had been zipping in the air above my head, I was pretty sure whatever nightmare was being played outside that I would be safe in my house, I never thought of myself as a typical Englishman but nevertheless I put the kettle on and made tea, I listened to the sound of different weapons being used, not knowing the type just the seriousness each sound makes, was this just another clash, the like of which I had been hearing for months in other parts of the city or was this the beginning of something even worse, as awful as things have been all over the country I knew things could still get worse, the fighting continued through the night, the sounds mostly further away from my house and less sustained, I heard the dawn call to prayer from my local mosque and not long after that I fell asleep.
By morning peace and quiet had resumed, my natural inclination was to go out and see what had happened but part of me was in no rush, when I eventually I did life seemed back as it was, no obvious evidence of the previous night’s gun battles, I spoke with a few friends who had differing versions of events, more rumor and hearsay, the media seemed slow on the uptake but were soon to imply sectarian motives, the two eastern gates of the Old City; Bab Touma and Bab Sharki are easily labeled as government loyalist areas, a simple assumption but only an assumption, the fighting though was not confined to those areas, most of what I could hear was from the Bab al Salam area, ironically meaning The Peace Gate and further to west, the Old City is easy to carve up into sectarian portions but in reality its very mixed, like the rest of Damascus, mixed by sect and mixed in loyalty, there are many making mischief out of this, the majority of Syrians I speak to are more than aware of this and are refusing to fall into the trap, the Syrian people are being tested to the limits, I have great faith in their ability to overcome this appalling time.
Sunday July 29th 2012