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.

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 (pt5)

A Syrian fighter jet screamed overhead, the roar of its engines unable to keep up with its speed, it turns into the sun, the light glinting off the fuselage, I imagine the pilot having to shade his eyes, the jet dives and dispatches its load, a plume of black smoke rises from the Damascus suburbs, the jet disappears but I know in a few minutes it will return, it’s a ritual, the circle of death.
I rarely sleep through the night, the sound of automatic gun fire disconcertingly close, the sound at night travels easily, it’s never as close as I think, then again sometimes it’s very close, usually rebels attacking checkpoints, often brief firefights but just enough to keep my senses too alert to go back to sleep-oddly though I can nap easily through the sound of daytime heavy shelling.
Most days my routine would be to walk through the Old City and out through Hamadiyya Souk, cross Merjeh Square and onto Pages Café in Shaalan, I would also have regular meetings with Wassem outside the immigration offices to check on progress, usually there wasn’t any, the weeks dragged on, on the days I didn’t go outside the Old City I missed car bombs, obviously it would be safer to stay at home but I refused to be bullied into being a prisoner in my own home although in effect I was already under house arrest, I could not really leave the confines of the city without permission anyway.
Once my laptop had died living without electricity became considerably more bearable, the cuts could be so regular you could set your watch by them and then sometimes the power would just go off and not come back for hours and hours. On one occasion I had been living without electricity for three days when I suddenly noticed my neighbors were enjoying TV, I stared up at their window, went outside to check my other neighbors and sure enough I was the only knob without electric, turns out the box had fused when the power had returned three days previously and I was oblivious.
Then the gas ran out.
Sometimes you just have to laugh at the absurdity of things, I often did, or as they say; you just cry. I didn’t cry, I made a conscious decision to stay when I had ample opportunity to leave, at no point had I underestimated the risks and consequences of my actions.
My usual buoyant sense of humor and oddly chipper mood though was shattered with a phone call from my bank in the UK, banks only ever call you when then want something and mine wanted my overdraft paid back that same day, I climbed to the roof to get a better reception, the noise from the shelling was intense and every sentence had to be repeated several times, yes they completely understood and sympathized with my predicament but business is business. Calling them back proved harder than you may imagine, I was sure having conversation with someone in my branch familiar with my account history etc would solve the issue; did I mention the absurdity of things just now? Try as I might the only people I managed to speak to using premium rate numbers were on the sub-continent, the war in Syria didn’t seem to register, the sound of bombing in the background didn’t seem out of place, I probably did lose my temper and may or may not have said things I may or may not now regret.

Merjeh Square Damascus Syria
Merjeh Square Damascus Syria

Damascus the Beginning of the End (pt1)

I walked away from the customs building to the waiting car with my passport stamped and precariously slipped into the back pocket of my jeans, the driver was waiting patiently smoking a cigarette, legs crossed and leaning against the bonnet of the taxi, mafi musklia he asked me tossing his cigarette away and getting in the car, mafi musklia I lied as I took my place in the back, the car pulled out and headed towards the Jordanian side of the Syrian border, the heart wrenching sound of war was a hundred kilometers behind me now but for some reason I didn’t feel any sense of relief.
The journey to the border had begun with the ground shuddering sound of heavy artillery, launched from a position behind us, the taxi drivers had grown accustomed to the sound but the waiting passengers would all flinch with each boom, we could all see the plumes of black smoke rising from the suburbs of Damascus below us, few people commented, four of us bundled into the car and we set off, a trip I had made many times before but now the landscape had changed, everything had changed, lives ripped apart by war, tanks wedged into narrow streets ,the wreckage and rubble of people’s homes lay all around, I had listened to the sounds of this carnage day after day and now faced with it I was consumed with sadness, nobody spoke in the car, everyone but me smoked.
The road to the border was just a series of checkpoints, for the most part only cursory checks and searches and for me no questions but two of the passengers didn’t make it passed the last checkpoint; they didn’t look very surprised as we left them standing at the side of the road their cheap black hold-all’s being searched by two Syrian army privates.
As the car sped through the monochrome landscape of Jordan I contemplated the problem I had not mentioned to the taxi driver, in my passport was a valid stamp that would allow me to return to Syria but the immigration police had retained my residency card, I had argued long and hard but they insisted new regulations meant they would send it to Damascus and I could collect it when I return.
After a year of war and no work I was heading to Jordan and Egypt to try and drum up some work, my financial situation was now serious and the trip was an investment, it was to prove more costly than I had anticipated.JON_9866

Diary from Damascus

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War in Syria Photographer John Wreford has lived in Syria for many years and still remains in his house in Damascus’ Old City. Here, he gives a very personal account of the last couple of weeks’ events.

A warm summer evening sitting in a central Damascus restaurant overlooking the city, the mountain of Qasyun lit like a Christmas tree, we were under no illusion all was well in Syria. But here in the capital life went on almost as usual. We discussed how things the last week or so had calmed down, then for a moment we paused for thought, the calm before the storm perhaps.

No more than a few days later the storm well and truly blew into town. For months, the opposition and regime had been battling each other in the outer suburbs of Damascus. The sounds of shelling and artillery echoed across the city, peaceful protestors were still coming out in large numbers, more and more clashes could be heard, but by and large everything tended to take place in certain areas.

It was pretty well known that the Free Syrian Army had been moving into Damascus and was encamped in the more militant neighbourhoods such as Midan and Kfra Souseh. But many of us felt able to go about life as usual despite knowing that sooner or later things would change. From Sunday we felt that change. The war had been on the doorstep but was now passing over the threshold, more explosions, more shooting, the awful sounds moving closer and closer, the continuous drone of helicopters that had become a regular feature over recent weeks.

Where I live in the Old City between Bab Touma and Bab Salam, ancient houses in a warren of alleyways, things were calm, children playing in the streets and many preparing for Ramadan. I would sit on my roof early morning and in the evening, able to get more of a fix on where the sounds of gunfire may be coming from. I can see very little, four large satellite dishes prostrated toward Mecca have seen to that. Monday through Tuesday the fighting became more intense, my house shook as a helicopter was shot down in Qaboun and at one point a couple of stray bullets whizzed through the air above my head, the sound like an email being despatched from an iPhone. The explosions and gunfire continued all through the night.

I woke up on Wednesday to more of the same. I felt safe enough near my house but the thought of what was happening elsewhere in the city was stomach churning. How can we know what weapons are creating those sounds, what carnage they can be causing? Then a couple of very loud bangs, from some distance but I felt a shudder. A car bomb had exploded outside the law courts a couple of weeks earlier and it felt much the same, it seemed already I was learning the difference between car bomb and artillery. Soon the television news was reporting on the attack on the security meeting and possible deaths of government ministers. I left the house and as I arrived in Qamaria, near my home, the shopkeepers were excitedly rushing from shop to shop with updates on the unfolding events. Some were just staring at the screens in almost disbelief, the attack happening in one of the most secure areas of Damascus, a stone’s throw from the presidential office and American embassy.

The sounds continued, the crackle and pop of God knows what. Then while on the phone stressing that this little corner of the Old City was going about its business as usual, I watched two armed men climb onto the roof of a house a couple of streets away. I went downstairs and told the neighbours’ children to go inside. I walked around the alleys close to my house. I have always considered my immediate neighbours as loyal to the regime. They seemed ok with the gunmen on the roof, and the children were soon back playing in the street. It’s this last point that gives me cause not to trust their judgment.

Back in Qamaria people were closing their shops early, some had already preferred to stay the previous night in their shops. As the sun was setting I checked the roof again, the gunmen had made themselves comfortable and had hung flags to indicate they were from the regime. A little after dark a couple of loud explosions, some distance away, and then the electricity was cut. Suddenly several bursts of gunfire from somewhere in the neighbourhood, then quiet again, for the next couple of hours it was calm, the neighbours preferred to chat in the alley under the still working lamp. The power returned just before midnight, then at two am a whizz and explosion in one of the surrounding alleyways, then quiet again.

That Wednesday in Damascus, it seemed as though all hell had broken loose, so much happening in so many places. People were finding it difficult to process the overload of events, only pulling themselves away from the television news to answer the phone from a friend or relative, first trying to find out if everyone was safe then updating on the latest bulletin, with rumour and conspiracy as ever rife.

The dawn broke on Thursday with the familiar awful sounds of war, the hollow thud of what no doubt must be tank fire, somewhere east of the Old City, Qaboun maybe. Helicopters circling high above the city. Slowly people came back out onto the streets, not many, only locals, gathering in small groups discussing the night’s events. Very few shops opened, some shop owners preferring to stay the night in their shops rather than risk the journey home. Never have I seen the Old City like this, it’s the last Thursday before the holy month of Ramadan and the streets would normally be crowded with shoppers. Hushed tones and nervous expressions, glances to the sky as another explosion echoed. As the day passed the noise of fighting seemed less intense, the news coming from the outside suburbs though was horrific. Those who could find room elsewhere were trying their best to leave for safer areas, many extended family members had already moved in with others, my neighbour has all his relatives from Harasta now living with him. The small house must have a dozen or more living there now. Another neighbour borrowed bedding from me.

The rubbish was already piling up in the streets, the refuse collectors had not turned up at all and it doesn’t take long for the smell in the Damascus summer heat to become offensive. Late afternoon I visited the vegetable market on the other side of Straight Street. The usual thriving souk was deserted, little fruit or vegetables available, rumours of panic buying had already circulated around the wider city. Most likely the suppliers were simply unable to get through, or not willing to try. We know which areas are having the worst problems and we can call ahead to get details but the journey between is an unknown quantity, few people prepared to risk it. By six in the evening the few shops open were closing. In the year and a half of the on-going crisis the Old City has never felt this way. The only guest eating in the city’s most prestigious restaurant was the manager.

Thursday night passed with relative calm, probably for many the first chance of some sleep, but just before 7.30 on Friday morning the drum-like sound of artillery shakes me literally from my sleep, a few minutes later another salvo of several blasts, then quiet again. I tried to convince myself that the neighbourhoods where the shells must be landing would now be empty of its inhabitants and the battle was between two warring armies, in my mind those horrific images from wars past, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Chechnya.

The next 24 hours would see the start of Ramadan, in Syria such an important and happy time, the time for families to come together, more about the food than the fast. Syria is overwhelmingly Muslim but moderate, Ramadan is more a cultural celebration, more like Christmas in Europe. For many it’s the only time they go to the Mosque, that is until the beginning of the revolution when the mosque became the only place a crowd were able to gather. The fast is more often than not followed by a feast with visiting family and friends all through the night, going out to restaurants for the pre dawn meal of Suhur. By the time Abu Tableh comes around banging his drum in the early hours most have not even gone to bed.

This year was always going to be different, food prices have risen and the cost of cooking gas has trebled. There were little sign of any preparation. The pounding of suburbs east of the city continued on and off all day, several large explosions too.

The Old City was almost completely deserted, a few grocery shops open, a few shopkeepers who had not been home in days. The only people about were local residents. Generally things were calmer around most of the city, the rubbish that had not been collected for a couple of days and was beginning to reek was being cleared. Raslan, Osama and Hasan – the kids in my alley – were using wheelbarrows to cart it off elsewhere. As night fell there were still echoes of what was going on further away, a gun battle that sounded quite close only lasted a few minutes, then very little.

The rest of the week passed relatively peacefully. We can still hear the sound of clashes and explosions from time to time but for the most part things feel better, for how long we do not know.

So many Syrians are suffering now, so many are scared, so many would like to leave but have no option but to stay. For now I will also stay, as long as I can. My heart goes out to every single Syrian who has been effected by this terrible conflict, and so many have.

Ramadan is underway and people are determined to carry on regardless, the mood is sombre and not one of celebration as it should be. More people are out and about, the rubbish is being collected, the markets have food. But still people are afraid, everyone knows there is more to come, many are leaving. Most are just praying for peace.

Original article published in Your Middle East:

http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/diary-from-damascus_8417

Damascus – life interrupted

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War in Syria Syrian based photojournalist John Wreford provides another unique, personal reflection from inside Damascus.

The image of washing blowing in the breeze is as universal an image as you will find anywhere in the world, an image of the everyday, domesticity, perhaps an indication of the less well off or working class, a sign of daily life, of family, his overalls, the kids school uniform.

Syria is not so different, in the villages you see the colours flapping in the wind although not so much in the city, maybe on the roof or in the courtyard but more often than not hanging on the balcony hidden from view by a curtain, modesty dictates underwear is not supposed to be on public display. I am not sure why the subject gets my attention other than my natural inquisitiveness of the human condition, I like to photograph people, I like to understand how they live, for sure it’s not a fetish, the souk of al Hamadiyya would surely satisfy that with its gaudy penchant for titillation, risqué lingerie juxtaposed alongside hijab.

Wandering the streets of Damascus without my camera doesn’t stop my eye from being drawn to the subjects that interest me most: its people and their lives. They are going about their business as best they can, some would have us believe as normal, well for the most part shop and office are open and the streets are busy but we all know it’s not normal and that in fact it’s quite terrible, on a good day the sound of the traffic and its incessant honking will drown out the sound of the helicopter gunships or the shelling in the suburbs, the checkpoints tend to fade away in many places during the day, we all know terrorists only come out after dark, the devil though is said to be in the details and it’s the washing that catches my eye.

The balcony of a cheap hotel with long term guests, the courtyard of a mosque, a condemned building, hanging from office windows, signs of life or signs of life interrupted? A building under construction, it could of course just be the night watchman, at least it could if things were normal. I keep having to remind myself as to how things were before this tragedy, my path from the Old City to the modern part often takes me through souk al Haramia, the Thieves market. It’s a dirty mess of a place that was earmarked for regeneration, now the informal street sellers have taken over and the area has become an outdoor second-hand furniture market, the furniture sellers were there before but now they have expanded, where did all that furniture come from; the usual I am sure; house clearance, selling that old sofa for something a little more funky, who knows, but the rumour is that it’s all looted.

Over the road to Merjeh Square, the regeneration started here a while ago, once home to brothels and a bird market, who knows if it was two ministerial orders or one that signed off but they have almost all gone. The vegetable market was also cleared and much needed green space allocated, it was a valiant but failed attempt to clean up what was once a postcard image of Damascus. It was here that I passed the other evening, the streets quiet, the vendors at home, a makeshift cardboard camp of a checkpoint, a stranded cat on the roof of a chicken shop. But it was the washing that caught my attention, hanging from the fence around the much needed green space, dozens of families rolled up in blankets sleeping on a rare patch of parched grass, a sad enough sight without the rat that was nosing its way around Syria’s dispossessed, life continues in Damascus but a different kind of life, one interrupted.

Original article published in Your Middle East

http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/damascus-life-interrupted_9955