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.

Take Your Bombs And Fuck Off Damascus 2012

Bomb in Bab Touma Square Damascus 21st Oct 2012

From my Damascus Diary:

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I have no idea now why I was in a good mood; my diary doesn’t mention the small details which is stupid now I think about it, I’m hardly likely to forget the car bomb exploding but that’s pretty much all I made a note of looking back to October 2012, it must have been a quiet night with less shelling or maybe the warm autumn weather that makes Damascus so lovely that time of year, either way I felt chipper as I hopped across my courtyard and into the bathroom to shower, there’s something comforting and safe about a bathroom we tend to think for no logical reason, then came the bang, hollow and very loud, the house shook, plaster fell from my ceiling and stuck to my wet naked body, despite the regularity of the explosions they send my heart rate soaring, I grab a towel and hurriedly dress, from my courtyard I can hear the activity of the neighbors all trying to discover what had happened, from my roof I could see the black smoke coming from Bab Touma Square, I stare for a moment at the plume of smoke rising above the satellite dishes, the war is closer still, it’s all around , already I knew it was probably a car bomb, how did I become such an expert on these matters, I climb back down the stairs and can hear the neighbors running to get their children from the school, I hear the panic in their voices as they try to react and deal with the situation, the primary school is just around the corner but there is a secondary school very much where the smoke was rising from, a women is cursing but at what or who I have no idea, I feel like doing the same except I just sit calmly and stare at a blank TV screen, I have no idea what I was thinking now, I do remember the feeling; one of despair, it’s a feeling I am having more often these days, I can still hear the sound of the children crying as they were dragged home from school.
Heading out into the street I hesitate and consider turning left to Bab Touma but decide against it and turn right and walk towards Al Hamadiyya stopping to talk with people I know, everyone saying the same thing; the government being behind the bomb, spreading fear, spreading terror, I don’t stop and leave the Old City for Shaalan.
Pages café my regular haunt these days is busy as ever, I sit facing the window and consider the wisdom of such a setting, looking at the cars stopping at the traffic lights outside I consider the possibility of another bomb and sitting with my face six inches from the window hardly seems wise, I look around the café, smoke filled, Lattes and Cappuccinos, laptops and mobiles, young faces, some buried in books cramming for exams, life somehow has to go on, my phone starts ringing with questions from the media about the bomb, Christian Quarter, Christian Quarter they keep repeating, as if the only people passing through one of busiest squares in Damascus were only Christians, the target according to the media was the local police station although that seemed somewhat idiotic, it is just a local police station not a security building, the same building houses the water supplier and the electricity office, I go there to pay the bills, the death toll starts to come through and the total eventually comes to a dozen, it’s a day or so later before I pass by as see the damage; the widows of Domino Café blown out, how often I sit there too, the small kiosk beside the car park is mangled, scorched black marks on the road, soon the army set up road blocks and turn the area into a military zone, slowly getting more organized, more check points, more soldiers, opposition forces are not far just the next neighborhood.
I update my Facebook status: Take Your Bombs and Fuck Off.

Abandoned Amongst The Olive Groves of Idlib Syria

Abandoned Amongst The Olive Groves Of Idlib Syria

“The scene is messy and chaotic. Water carriers and foam mattresses are being unloaded, an ambulance screams past on its way to a Turkish hospital with a newborn child. A moment of panic and everyone scuttles for cover as a Syrian warplane is spotted.” John Wreford has visited the Atmeh refugee camp.

Atmeh camp clings to the side of a hill on the edge of the Syrian-Turkish border. Colored plastic bags flap like flags trapped in the rolls of razor wire that separate the two countries. Turkish soldiers watch from a guard post on the hill above. And just to be clear, Atmeh camp is on the Syrian side of the border, part of Idlib province now under the control of the opposition.

As we enter the camp the scene is messy and chaotic. Water carriers and foam mattresses are being unloaded from a couple of small trucks, an ambulance screams past on its way to a Turkish hospital with a newborn child. A moment of panic and everyone scuttles for cover as a Syrian warplane is spotted in the distance, a truck mounted Doshka swivels and scans the sky, the danger passes and people re-emerge, a black plume of smoke rises from across the valley.
As first impressions go, Atmeh does not feel like a place of refuge. More than twenty thousand Syrians are living here, the largest camp for the internally displaced in Syria, the decision to come would not have been taken lightly, driven by fear and desperation and with nowhere else to go.

One after the other, thousands upon thousands of tents spread amongst the olive groves. The soil is rich and red and for a moment looks almost picturesque; the olive branch is a symbol of abundance, glory and peace but so far it has only provided a little shade from an unremitting sun. Drinking water is delivered by tanker, it’s not always enough, there is no electricity and the candles often cause fires and more heartache, many of the children seem to have coughs and colds.

Fetid streams of sewage run down the hill as bare footed toddlers play, women do battle with the dust that permeates every pore and try to keep the inside of their tents as clean and tidy as the living rooms they left behind, desperate but still dignified. The men though are few and far between.

It’s June and already the heat is fierce, still it will get hotter and then another winter will come and with it the rain, the red earth will turn to rivers of mud and mix with the shit that doesn’t drain away.
With its much needed wealth of experience in dealing with awful situations like this the United Nations Refugee agency and World Food Program are unable to work here without the cooperation of the Syrian government, protocol preventing humanitarian assistance. The only help being provided comes from a small group of Syrian NGO’s based inside Turkey and a handful of Syrian expat charities. I came with the Camp Zeitouna Project charged with bringing some entertainment for the children, building a playground and football pitch, helping with education and holding creative workshops, a small distraction from a life of continuous struggle in a war that doesn’t discriminate against the innocent.

The children are not backward in coming forward, swarming around us asking for photographs to be taken, posing with gap toothed smiles and victory signs, holding our hands as though lifelong friends or long-lost uncles, till now the only fun had been provided by whatever could be put to use, an old bicycle inner tube or a plastic bag tied to a piece of string, popping the caps of water bottles. They have already been labeled Syria’s lost generation and are happy to feel as though they’ve not been forgotten, but we only have the power of distraction – those with real power cannot even overcome issues of protocol.
A little girl takes my hand, I ask her name, Mariam she says with a cheeky smile, a bob of blonde hair and eyes as blue as the not too distant Mediterranean. Where are you from Mariam I ask, Haas, she tells me. Do I know Haas she asks, I tell her I don’t but wish I did, she asks me my name and I tell her, I tell her I am English and that until very recently I lived in Damascus. Does she know Damascus, I ask, she doesn’t, Hass is a long way from Damascus we both agree.

A day later driving through the Idlib countryside we pass through the small town of Haas. It’s almost deserted, bullet riddled, bombed and buckled, this is the Syria we are familiar with now, war torn and devastated. I think of Mariam and her family, in which street did they live, which house. It would have been a typical Syrian town, I imagine her and her friends heading off to school with their pink backpacks. I can’t really imagine what Mariam has already had to endure, living in a muddy field surviving on hand-outs is the best the world has to offer her just now, the crisis in Syria is complicated we are often reminded and protocol has to be followed.

Almost a quarter of Syria’s population is now internally displaced and without the political will of the power brokers to bring a satisfactory resolution of the crisis the suffering will only continue. Abandoned on the side of a hill amongst the olive groves of Idlib in a country that has seen a 100,000 die and no end in sight.

Besiktas Carsi’s leader: Alen Markaryan

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Besiktas Carsi’s leader: Alen Markaryan

Meeting Besiktas Carsi’s leader, Alen Markaryan, is a daunting prospect. The scene at his kebab restaurant in Besiktas on a recent September evening could be a set from The Sopranos: a dozen men sit around a table deep in heated conversation about football. No one else sits within earshot. They are the elite of the Besitkas Carsi leadership; dangerous men with violent pasts. Markaryan, dressed all in black, has a stare to match and is clearly someone not to be messed with. He is a revered figure among many Besiktas supporters, but crucially, hasn’t attended a game in months.
Markaryan has been criticised by some Carsi members for an article he wrote perceived as supportive of Erdogan’s government. For him, politics and football shouldn’t mix.
“The idea that Carsi was part of the Gezi protests was overdone. If you went to the park during the protests, you would have seen no Carsi group, no flags,” he said.
“All messages in our stadium are social messages – there is no place for politics in the stands.”
Further probing about the link between football and politics elicits only anger.
He takes my pen and draws a line across a page in my notebook. “I thought you came here to ask me about football? No more politics!” He gets up and returns to the table of dons.
Yet in Istanbul, football and politics are impossible to separate.

Stephen Starr for the National

Damascus The Sky is Black

Damascus The Sky is Black

The Sky is black again, another morning of explosions, nothing new, I woke to the sound of a fighter jet screaming through the sky, the usual sounds now, some days better than others, today is fine, accept really it’s not fine, it’s quite terrible but now we have learned to live this way and we have learned there are worse days, I go to my terrace to sit and drink my coffee, a morning routine I am determined to continue despite the vulnerability of the high position, the Spring sky of Damascus should be blue but it’s not, its black, the sky seems to say it all.