Sadness in Syria, Hama.

Faisal was the first Syrian friend I made on my first ever visit, he was also the first friend I lost in the war; I made many more friends and lost more too.

My first visit to Syria must be some twenty years ago now, only my diaries lost in my Mothers cavernous loft have the details, so much of my memory is draped in the dust of time but that day is still clear to me.

I walked over the old stone bridge spanning the al Assi River, the Norias grinding on the far bank, I spotted a sandwich shop, more a kiosk really, I treated the young man behind the counter to my recently learned Arabic greeting, he smiled as he replied, he prepared my sandwich and we both sat on plastic chairs and became friends, he told me some years later the reason he had taken to me was my fumbling Arabic.

Hama had been the city that first garnered my attention in Syria, I had only recently learned of its bloody history and no sooner had I arrived in Damascus I set out to visit, qualified advice being whatever you do, don’t mention the war, but obviously I am not one for following advice as regular readers of these pages will no doubt be aware.

Hama had suffered a brutal crackdown in the political unrest in the 1980s, half the city was raised and tens of thousands were killed, the city like many in Syria is multi faith but the Muslin brotherhood and conservative Islam were synonymous, prior to the uprising in 2011 most political analysts had declared the Syrian government to have crushed the Ikwan (MB).

I asked Faisal as we sipped tea where he learned his English, he told me he had learned while in prison as a child; he showed me a crumpled photograph of his house before it was destroyed, it was a matter of fact conversation, not angry or melodramatic although he sighed somewhat tiredly as he remembered the death of his horse, even my horse he said shaking his head.

I joined him and a group of his friends again that night, in fact for the next few days I would spend the nights chatting until the early hours, walking the quiet cobbled streets, empty accept shadows, under antique arches and past the Automan Hamam, on more than one occasion getting back to find my hotel locked up, I learned a lot in those few days and acquired an affection for Hama that has never left me.

Over the years I would drop by Hama and visit my friend, when we sat together late at night our conversations were always about the injustice of political power, and not just his own, elected or not the abuse of power that punished the weak or poor, when I visited with Friends then it was just his whole hearted hospitality.

Faisal was a good friend and was always there to help when I needed it, my early days in Syria especially, on one occasion I had asked his recommendation for a restaurant to entertain a visiting friend, I took his suggestion and enjoyed a beautiful Syrian meal beside the banks of the Orontes River, when the cheque was ordered the waiter said the bill had been taken care of.

We came from very different backgrounds and lead very different lives yet became very good friends, I don’t know the exact details of his death, as was very common in the early days of the Syrian uprising his death was shared on Facebook, despite the utter sadness I felt, still feel, it did not come as a shock, he was prepared to stand up for what he believed in, and for that bravery he paid with his life.

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The Pigeon Men Of Damascus

One of my enduring memories of living in Damascus will always be the early morning ritual of my neighbor’s pigeon’s swoop and circle above my house. While I sip coffee on my rooftop he would wave and whistle at his birds, even when the war started they continued to fly, they still do. The formation they rarely strayed from their flight path, much like the fighter jets that also became a morning ritual and one I wish would not endure.

Syrians know the men as Kashash al Hamam, almost every working class neighborhood has one, men of dubious character, so dubious in fact their testimony is not accepted in court, although they’re hardly pushers or pimps. I am sure most Syrians in exile reading this will feel a peck at their heart strings; looking down from Qasyun as the sun is setting and among a thousand minarets are a thousand flocks that swirl and eddy over the city.

Innocuous it may seem but their reputation as fly-by-nights has been earned through guile; kidnapping and extortion are all part of the sport – when a neighbor’s bird is lured by a feathered temptress onto the roof of the pigeon loft, a net is waiting, and then begins the harangue and haggle. Mostly it’s a game and all the contestants know the unwritten rules but from time to time blood is spilled.

Morally too there is dispute; Kashash al Hamam are deemed un-Islamic, spending too much time and money on their birds and not enough with their family, and of course the fact that the sport is carried out on rooftops that afford a voyeuristic vantage point, open courtyards where modesty can be disregarded.

In my time exploring this fascinating world I found less of the darker side, constantly being warned to stay away from the edge of the roof so as not to annoy the neighbors, for the most part the men I met just wanted a distraction from the usual stresses of everyday life, a cigarette and a cup of tea.

Now as Syria is being ripped apart by a brutal war and the Daesh virus spreads unchecked across the country, the self-styled Mullahs of the so called Islamic State have issued a Fatwa outlawing the keeping of pigeons, the reason farcical in the extreme; the sight of the birds genitals as they fly overhead being offensive to Islam. It would be funny if it were not so desperately sad.

The fabric of Syrian society is being torn to shreds, once tolerant and accepting it’s now divided and bleeding, the bearded firebrands are not welcome in Syria, perhaps it’s not the keeping of pigeons that is the problem but that the dove is a symbol of peace.

Sabah relaxes while his pigeons fly around the rooftops of Damascus Syria

I lived in Syria for ten years including the first two and half years of the war, I ran foul of the security services and was placed under investigation, follow my Damascus Diaries for the unfolding drama.

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Syrian Resilience, A Portrait.

I photographed Syrian farmer Mohammed Darwish in late 2009 while on assignment for the Financial Times, this was three years after the worst drought for nine hundred years and two years before the beginning of the current Syrian war.

Mohammed was forced to leave his farm in Hasekeh in the north east of the country after successive crop failures, over the course of the drought hundreds of thousands of other Syrian farmers were forced to migrate south to the cities which were often already overcrowded with refugees from the war in neighboring Iraq.

How much the drought impacted the war is open to debate but there must be little doubt that socio economic factors must have contributed, the war has touched every segment of Syrian society but the poorest needless to say suffer most, millions of refugees in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are from the most vulnerable communities.

Mohammed was determined to continue working the harsh Syrian steppe and resist migrating to the city, we found him tending a flock of sheep on a narrow strip of land currently under Syrian government control but sandwiched between the deluded forces of the Islamic State to the east and west.

Needless to say I have no idea how or where Mohammed is now, like so many Syrians I met and photographed over the years, I do though smile when I remember him asking if I was going to take a thousand pictures and when we asked if he had anything waiting for him back in Hasakeh he replied only an old mattress, but you can’t eat a mattress he said and drew heavily on his cigarette.

My fingers were freezing as I fired off the thousandth frame but I wanted to capture the resilience etched in Mohammed’s face.

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I lived the first two and half years of the current Syrian crisis, read more from my  Damascus Diaries here: Damascus The Beginning of the End

 

 

Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal

So it was bound to come out sooner or later; Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal.

Thanks to that bloody Assange and his leaking Wiki tittle-tattle, like a jealous teenager Julian it seems has been scrolling through Hilary’s Whatsapp messages and internet history to find irrefutable proof that the inevitable leader of the free world has been funding the Islamic State.

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That the Democrat nominee is corrupt would not come as a surprise to many, that she has been funding ISIS is, albeit unlikely, hardly something she would shy away from had the deal something to offer in her interests such as, well you know, profit, no, obviously the shock of the revelations is my involvement.

So the accusation that Hills back in the early 1990’s was a board member of the French cement company Lafarge, the same company may have received micro finance loans aimed at development projects in third world countries, Lafarge has a cement factory in Raqqa province in Syria, in the heart of the short lived (I am sure) Caliphate, the French CEO is reported to have paid via a series of middle men, or as we prefer to call them; blood sucking parasitic war lords, substantial amounts of cash to keep the factory operational, ISIS taxes or protection money call it what you like, the factory was able to continue production and importantly continue to employ and pay local staff until it finally closed in 2014.

So where in this sordid story does Wreford come in I hear you ask; In the summer of 2011 I was commissioned by Lafarge to visit Raqqa province and photograph the factory, staff and some of the surrounding area, the revolution in Syria was well underway by that time and fighting was taking place in Homs and the south but Aleppo and the north still relatively calm, it proved to be one of my last paying jobs in Syria.

I flew with a representative of Lafarge to Aleppo, as usual on arrival my camera equipment caused a degree of excitement with the security guys, journalist, journalist one was the cry of one young recruit almost weeping with pleasure, we calmed them down with some official paperwork and set of for our hotel.

We checked into the brand new Carlton Citadel hotel, a swanky palace of a place that was once a beautiful Ottoman hospital, I had already visited the hotel just before it opened the previous year, its only redeeming feature being the views over the beautiful old city of Aleppo. Syria in 2010 was a very different place and tourism investment was flourishing, the Carlton though was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the time being 2014 and the wrong place being the front line between the Syrian regime army who were using it as a base to attack the rebel opposition, in an audacious attack opposition forces tunneled under the hotel and laid enough explosives to raise the hotel to the ground, its Google + page now declaring it permanently closed.

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The Carlton Citadel just before it closed.

Early the following morning we drove the 150 Kms or so via a few military checkpoints without problem to the factory where we spent the day, unlike cement factories I have photographed in Egypt this was pristine, efficient, safety conscious and came with the usual overwhelming Syrian hospitality that included not only a substantial lunch but also a porta-cabin with bed and shower to relax in. The afternoon was spent visiting some of the local farming villages, remote and beautiful countryside, Bedouin shepherds and fields of smiling sunflowers, it was a calm and peaceful time but the war was very close and would inevitably arrive.

The factory eventually closed its doors in 2014, the staff were paid for a while but soon mostly fired, and the local villages were overrun by the godless animals of Daash, now as I write this the trip is fresh in my mind yet so much has changed, I hope those beautiful people have survived all that has been wrought upon them.

My name has been redacted from the emails but I will confess here and now I did take money from Hilary Clinton via a Syrian intermediary working for Lafarge during the Syrian uprising.

Just Another Day of War in Damascus

From my back-dated Damascus Diary.

Emerging from Hamadiyah souk the light is almost blinding, the shoppers silhouetted, the modern world outside the Old City is noisy and harsh; in the summer the heat slaps you in the face and where the traffic is frustrated and angry.
The Old City an urban oasis offers protection, a sanctuary where the narrow alleys and trellised vines shield the sun, the mud brick thick walls of century before muffle the noise, its only necessity that compels me to walk the half kilometer of covered bazaar, leaving behind the calmness and languid pace, where only pigeons being chased by children disturb the peace until the Muezzins recital, a sound even to the unbeliever is as harmonious as birdsong.
Always it feels like leaving one world for another, a world of cars and commerce, of electric elevators, offices and underpasses.
In the past when I had to leave the Old City I would avoid Hamadiya simply to avoid the crowd of shoppers seemingly all heading towards me but these days I prefer it simply as it avoids a couple of checkpoints, that’s not to say it’s not watched, soldiers lounge in front of the Mosque at one end and undercover police mill around at the other, they never shown any interest in me and I pretend not to notice them.
Sharia Thawra, Revolution Street, every Middle Eastern city has one and this one no less revolting, clogged with traffic, the car park opposite empty since the car bomb, I had been in the exact spot twenty-four hours exactly before it exploded, I felt the blast under my feet while walking in the souk near my house, I should vary my route I keep telling myself-kidnapping is becoming more and more of a threat, past the Palace of Justice and more irony, over the road and into the electric souk, a thriving market in generators that now only the very well off can now afford to counter the frequent cuts.
Standing on the corner of Merjeh Square I think how anyone of the hundreds of cars parked randomly on corners could be full of TNT or whatever it is they use.
I cross over the foot bridge as a convoy of ragged Syrian troops trundles underneath to or from the front line just a couple of kilometers in either direction, at the bottom of the footbridge a soldier is checking bags, the road is closed now and concrete blast walls line the street, perhaps when all this is over it could stay pedestrianized I wonder, its much nicer, another bag check, everyone being very polite.
My current favorite watering hole, for coffee that is, Pages café, Americano coffee and electricity, well more than in the Old City anyway, the WiFi is somewhat iffy but enough-it’s not as though I have images to file these days. The café is crowded as usual, the smoking ban being flouted, I can’t see anyone being brave enough to try enforcing it either given the situation, most of the familiar faces of my friends have gone now, some have died but most have left the country, the waiter brings my coffee without me ordering it, I perch on a redundant barber’s chair by the window, most of the clientele are students busy with studies, hunched over books, ipads and laptops, the sound of artillery thundering overheard gets no attention whatsoever, if it wasn’t for a war outside the scene inside would be the same anywhere, bright young things working on a bright future, on various occasions I have been approached and asked for help with language study, CV writing, job and visa applications, rarely we discuss the elephant in the room.
Despite everything happening I retain great faith in the young Syrian generation to drag the country from the mire, however long it takes.
The following day a massive car bomb explodes in Merjeh square, dozens are killed and scores injured, mangled cars are strewn across the streets and every windowpane blown out of every building, I felt the blast under my feet at home and watched the black smoke billow in the breeze.

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Outside Pages Cafe Damascus on a better day.

Do You Have Any Weapons Asked the Syrian Officer?

wreford-6The ancient walls of my Damascene house are a foot deep and yet the noise from outside penetrate as though its wafer thin, fortunately for the most part it’s a quiet neighborhood, just the kids terrorizing the feral cats or playing football are a nuisance but I can hardly grudge them that.
Lost deep in muddled dreams I woke suddenly to the sound of boots thundering along the alley outside, my heart rate and mind racing I lay wide eyed and stared up at the beams of the ceiling, a split second and the butt of a gun was being hammered against a neighbors door and a yell of “jeish” followed by the unmistakable metallic click clack of a Kalashnikov being cocked, I stumbled out of bed and comically tried to pull on my clothes, I grabbed my papers and flung a coat over my camera sitting idle as usual on my desk.
Then the inevitable crash on my door; “jeish” the young conscript barked at me, yes the army I can see that I thought but what the fuck do you want, I offered my papers instead of my thoughts and welcomed in several recruits and an officer, while the officer looked through my passport and questioned me his subordinates rooted through my house.
Did I have any weapons? Well, now there’s a funny story I thought. The truthful answer was yes I did, I had a hunting knife given to me by Ahmed the Egyptian, a failed drug dealer who was trying to move into the stolen art market, the knife was an incentive for my art world connections, probably I should relate that story at a later date, do remind me. I also had a .22 Air-rifle, a pretty harmless weapon unless you are a sparrow or a rat; in fact it was a rat that induced me to buy it, I liked the sparrows and had three regularly flitting about my courtyard, the rat though was not welcome.
Abu Eid the carpenter who worked on my house was also a gun dealer-well collector is probably a more accurate description-maybe, in his workshop he presented various options including an French army pistol and a pump action shot gun, I felt a bit of a wimp going for the .22 but I paid him a 1000 Syrian Lira and hid it inside a rucksack to take home.
Needless to say my reply to the Syrian officer sucking the atmosphere out of my courtyard was a definitive no, of course I didn’t, over his shoulder I watched one of the conscripts poking around near the sofa where I had concealed the rifle, they searched the house as they had been searching all the houses in the Old City, the officer handed back my papers and they all left leaving a stale smell of sweat and tobacco lingering in the night air.
I didn’t really think the silly gun would be a problem but had decided to hide it inside the sofa just to keep it out of sight; nosey neighbors able to peek down into the courtyard could easily mistake it for something more sinister.
This was the first house search, there followed several more, each time a similar routine, on one occasion one of the soldier checking my terrace yelled down excitedly I had a chair up there, the implication being I may be a sniper, I explained its where I drink my coffee in the mornings, you can ask the snipers on the other roof I was tempted to say who some time earlier had waved me from my morning ritual. On another occasion I stupidly decided to sort out all my camera equipment, my desk was strewn with everything I had, old, redundant and broken as well as current, I knew before going to bed I should hide it all away again but couldn’t be bothered, what were the chances of another midnight visit?
They bashed on the door early next morning, I wearily welcomed the troops in, the cannon fodder fanned out and poked around my laundry while for some inexplicable reason I ushered the officer into my office, you are an artist he asked-referring to my answer earlier about my occupation, yes a painter I emphasized with a squiggle movement of my hand and an imaginary brush, a routine I had practiced often, once while crossing the border at Qamishly the border guard suggested we go to his office where I could paint his portrait! There were precious few signs of any painting around my office only something akin to the annual stock-take at Dixons, yep an artist I repeated, I can’t say he looked convinced but he didn’t pursue it, weapons is what he was after and once again they failed to look in the sofa, which I should mention is a style common in Syria with a storage cupboard under the cushions.

As I continued to think about my inevitable departure from Syria I packed boxes and re-arranged the house, I wouldn’t be able to take very much with me so it was just a case of preparing the house for someone else to live in, I decided perhaps the sofa was not such a cool hiding place despite getting away with it three times, I found a narrow gap beneath the closet and slipped it under.
Getting a good night’s sleep was becoming an increasing problem, the noise of the gunfights or the sudden silence, either way it was hard to switch off, sleep was always interrupted, always.
I leapt startled from my bed again, I slept dressed these days, the hammering at my door worse than the shelling, I swore I would replace the metal door with a wooden one after this mess is over, which according to one very well informed friend would be a couple of months, I let the soldiers in and went through the charade again, this visit it slowly dawned on me was slightly different, only my house was being searched this time and not the neighborhood, the raid was being conducted by a Moukabarat officer not military, I recognized him although I couldn’t remember from where, they choose the night because you are half asleep and can’t think straight, I remained polite and answered the usual questions, they searched the house undoing the boxes of books I had packed up, this time they did look inside the sofa but by now it was empty, they bid me goodnight and departed.
I allowed myself a momentary smile of self-satisfaction even though I was under investigation and one way or another would end up either kicked out of the country or well, dead probably.

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Damascus The Beginning of the End ( PT6)

I knew what I was getting into moving to Syria, I knew the risks, I have no regrets, my bank cutting me off and leaving me without funds was to say the least fucking annoying, it’s hard to imagine being made bankrupt is the least of your problems, I could live with the war, I wanted to stay in Syria as long as I felt the risks were calculable, Syrians had to live with this and if I was being denied the opportunity to photograph what was happening at least I could bear witness, the media was as is no surprise all over the place and hardly giving a true picture of the situation.
My issue with the Moukhabarat was obviously something to worry about; for the most part I had been following Kipling’s advice and keeping my head, it’s just routine everybody would tell me, if it was serious they would have come for you, the Old City was crawling with security these days and I wasn’t hard to find, if they did surely my blood coloured British passport would save me from diplomatic embarrassment, my embassy and minions needless to say had long since fled, I had placed all my faith in a corrupt not very secret secret policeman, one thing stuck in my mind, the words of the soft immigration officer, after telling me I was wanted at the intelligence building he advised me not to go.
I sat on my terrace, shielded from snipers, ignoring the shelling and read Eat Prey Love; a book so annoying I wanted to throw it into the air and see if it got shot to pieces. When the power was working my television viewing was just as banal, ten years of being detached from popular US/UK culture I was now well versed in Kardashian catchphrases.
Wasseem would call and tell me where and when I should meet him, numerous visits to filthy offices, usually I would wait outside, at the passport office in Merjeh I sat at the guards desk and watched as several detainees were lead away handcuffed and chained to each other, the filed through the reception area and up the stairs, nobody paid any attention, now as I think about it I hardly paid attention only looking up from the messages on my phone as they passed.
Cruising the clogged streets of Damascus with Wassem as my chauffer had its advantages, closed roads were open to us, checkpoints were just a formality as we skirted around long queues of those waiting to humiliated; a friend had been arrested at a checkpoint a few weeks previously, when he asked why he was told “we’re arresting everybody today” Wassem would pepper me with questions about my financial situation, the value and size of my house with obvious thoughts in the back of his mind, he had an agenda and was helping me not only for the few hundred dollars we had agreed but had his eye on a bigger goal, despite his position he never questioned me on the current situation which was unusual for those connected to the regime.
A battle was raging a few streets away, I climbed to the roof to get an idea of where it was happening, some neighbors had the same idea but they thought it prudent to bring the children too, as if the collapse of the country was entertainment or a video game, suddenly bullets were flying above my head and striking the satellite dishes, I ducked instinctively for cover although I knew I was shielded by the higher building, my neighbors on the other hand were not and made a run for the stairs, the shooting only lasted a few minutes but it gave me plenty to contemplate after, how far do those bullets travel.

Things were not looking any better.

Damascus Old City
Damascus Old City