Abandoned in Idlib

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.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced child Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

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.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

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.

‘There are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, displaced within Syria, the biggest internally displaced population in the World. The pace of displacement remains relentless. Well over 1.8 million people have been displaced in 2017, many for the second or third time’ UNHCR.

I wrote and published this back in 2013 but have decided to re-post since little has changed other than the recent arrival of COVID-19 to add insult to numerous injuries.

For further reading I have compiled a list of 14 great books on Syria ;

https://johnwreford.wordpress.com/2020/04/02/syrian-literary-list/

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Syrian Literary List

It was very pleasing to receive so many comments and messages encouraging me to post a reading list on Syria. So here we have my top 14 of the best books on Syria. I know that is quite a bold statement and one no doubt that will draw criticism, which is of course fine. The list is broad in nature and should appeal to a wide variety of tastes, they are all very readable books and even the political titles very accessible.The war in Syria has become a global issue not just another Middle East crisis, the lasting effects of migration and displaced refugees era defining. The news headlines tell us very little and our political parties just use the headlines to further their own agendas.

Click the image of the book for more information and to purchase from Amazon 

Brothers of The Gun    

Marwan Hisham & Molly Crabapple

Molly and Marwan are quite simply two of the most incredible people you are ever likely to meet. Molly is a writer, activist and artist, utterly unique and totally inspiring, her own biography makes compelling reading.

Marwan is a Syrian journalist and the book is his story of coming of age during the Syrian uprising and coming to terms with life under the ISIS occupation of Raqqa, yet this is no gore-fest of atrocities but a touching story of growing up in rural Syria, of family and relationships and the choices that have to be made when adversity arrives, written with both pathos and humor. What would you do when your town is over-run with religious zealots? Marwen opened an internet cafe.

The book is a creative collaboration written by both Molly and Marwan and illustrated with Molly’s beautiful art.

Assad or We Burn The Country 

Sam Dagher

I confess to not yet having read this book but I have followed Sams work closely over the years and its one I fully intend to read. The tittle alludes to the slogans spewed out and scrawled on walls by Syrian regime militia. With embedded sources and diligent journalism the provides an exceptional insight. His brave work between 2012 and 2014 landed him in one of Assads prisons before he was deported. 

Revolt in Syria, Eye Witness to The Uprising 

Stephen Starr 

Stephen is a friend and colleague, we worked on many stories together inside Syria and later in Turkey. His book is of crucial importance, he had already been living in Damascus a number of years when people took to the streets, he already had a good understanding of the complexities of Syrian society, something usually often missed in media accounts, more often referring to armchair academics with little or no contact with ordinary life in Syria. Its this ordinary life that forms the basis of this book; countess interviews with ordinary Syrians of all political, sectarian and economic persuasions. Much has changed and many have died since publication so its of great importance to remember where this all started. Stephen worked tirelessly on this book and after witnessing probably the earliest war crimes committed in the conflict he felt it time to leave.

The Struggle For Power in Syria  Nikolaos van Dam

Van Dam is a highly regarded academic and diplomat. The Struggle was first published in 1979 and has undergone several updates since then, I think the last was in 2014 but you may like to check that. Essential reading in understanding the political complexities of the Assad dynasty and their reign for half a century and so providing a valuable resource on modern Syrian history.

The Crossing  Samar Yazbek 

Since 2011 there are now many more books available in translation from wonderfully talented writers such as Samar Yazbek, a dissident writer forced to flee the country, in The Crossing she makes a courageous illicit journey back into the north of Syria to bring back heart wrenching accounts of ordinary Syrians plunged into a never ending nightmare.

My House in Damascus  Diana Darke

I first became aware of Diana as a guide book writer for Bradt travel guides. Bradt approached me for images for their Syria book, they have a well founded reputation for off the beaten track destinations, well written and skillfully researched and it was a pleasure to have one of my favorite Syria images on the cover.

Diana had bought and restored a 17th century Arabic house in the Old City of Damascus a few hundred meters from the house I bought, yet despite being neighbors and living in a community where almost everybody knows everybody else we didn’t meet until 2020 in London.

My House in Damascus is an incredible narrative, from the challenges of buying an Ottoman era property in a city with more history than any other, with a depth of understanding rare among foreigners, nuanced layers of the lives of her neighbors, of heritage and the undeniable charm of the Old City, to the inevitable catastrophe of war which along with the bullets and bombs also brought profiteers and thieves. In the midst of the onslaught Diana went back to Damascus to reclaim her property after thugs had mistakenly assumed would be easy pickings. This worthy book is hard to categorize other than encompassing all that is Syria.

Cleopatra’s Wedding Present -Travels Through Syria  Robert Tewdwr Moss 

This is a uniquely fascinating, flawed and beautiful book, very much the authors personal journey more than an insight into Syria. For anyone who has spent extended amounts of time in Syria there is indeed lots that is familiar despite the decent into flowery Orientalism, with lashings of angst and wit this book ranks highly as classic travel literature.

The writers back story is as intriguing as the book; Tewdwr Moss was found murdered in his London flat and his computer with the almost completed manuscript missing.

I first read the book before having lived in Syria so would be very keen to see how my perspective has changed. In Aleppo I met some of the characters depicted and has lead me on occasion to to describe Aleppo Souk as the gayest in the Middle East.

The Pigeon Wars of Damascus  Marius Kociejowski 

 Marius is the kind of poet you only ever meet in the souks of the middle east. I was introduced to him after being contacted by CNN Traveler magazine who wanted some images to showcase an extract of his next book, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, I had already read his previous book on Syria so was very happy for the opportunity, it also opened up the incredibly fascinating word of pigeon keeping in Syria, a subject I have mentioned many times.

Marius has a unique gift for story telling and his books will take you on a magical journey.

Mirror to Damascus    Colin Thubron

 

Its now a very long time since I read this, my overriding memory is one of brilliantly descriptive travel writing, a timeless classic that inspires wanderlust, the beautiful combination of history and humour, anecdote and adventure. Thubron is highly placed in the Pantheon of travel writers but he did make a bit of a tit of himself by returning to Syria on the books 50th anniversary, involving himself in issues he had no knowledge of, fortunately much of his meddling has since been retracted from the websites that published it.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey In The Shadow of Byzantium

William Dalrymple

 

This is not strictly a Syria book but a classic non the less and considered de-rigueur for anyone heading in that direction. It is a heady mix of all the Middle East has to offer with the occasional hermit thrown in for good measure. Dalrymple follows in the sandal steps of a couple of byzantine hipster Monks a journey from mount Athos in Greece,through Turkey and Syria into Egypt and the un-Holy land.

Ballots Or Bullets? : Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant     Carsten Weiland  

 
Carsten was my next door neighbor when I first moved to Damascus, he managed to rope me into an acting role on a Syrian TV series, something to this day amuses many and haunts me! 

It was many years later I chanced upon the book he had been writing, the war was by now well underway and I somehow felt his book would seem dated, but it was not only far from dated it was actually prophetic. Intelligent and essential reading in understanding of Syrian social political history. Its highly recommended as is the follow up book; Syria A Decade of Lost Chances 

Burning Country; Syrians in Revolution and War  Robin Yassin-Kassab & Leila Al-Shami

I first met Robin in the summer of 2013 in a refugee camp on the Turkish/Syrian border, it had only been a couple of weeks since I had managed to extract myself from Syria and here I was again, I wrote a previous bog post from that time HERE and anyone interested in reading Robins account of that Syrian interlude then I will be happy to pass it on via email-just ask.

One of the things that struck me about Robin at that time was his genuine interest in every Syrian he spoke with, patiently listening to every opinion and personal account, you may be surprised how few journalists take such time and effort.

As the Syrian conflict morphed into a Geo political cluster-fuck its important to understand the genuine Syrian resistance movement, this book gives voice to the ingenuity and creativity of grass roots activism and discusses the rise of the Islamist and sectarian violence that has become rampant. 

The Dark Side of Love    Rafik Schami 

An epic Syrian novel, this is the ultimate literary souk, you enter, you get lost and don’t care, you just keep searching and the last ting you want is to find your way out. A beautiful box set of a book. The only novel in the list, oddly, still, one that Syrian exile Schami will expose a side of Syrian culture rarely explored, a binge of a book, of poetry, politics and people. Could we compare Rafic Schami to Orhan Pamuk I wonder. 


I do hope you are all coping with these strange times we are facing, stay home, stay healthy and wash your hands.

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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.

2016-08-02-07_21_16-BOMBSHELL_-Wikileaks-Releases-MORE-Hillary-Secrets-She-Accepted-Donations-From.

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.

BnHFF-kCQAAZFKE.jpg large
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 ( 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

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 (pt3)

Crossing borders always makes me nervous, no matter if my paper work is in order as it (almost) is this time, not surprisingly there is no queue at the foreigners desk, neither is there an officer, just an empty chair beside the nicotine colored computer, I give a friendly wave to an officer who glanced up from his mobile phone, he calls another, I slip my passport under the glass, I adopt my innocent nonchalant persona and survey the scene with casual interest, behind the glass there’s sudden activity, an officer takes a set of handcuffs from cupboard on the wall, I notice the chair is empty again, my heart skips a couple of beats, the officer returns and thumps the stamp onto the page and slips my passport back under the glass, I thank him and at the same time noticing the detained man being cuffed and led away.
The check points were pretty straightforward and before long I was bouncing my suitcase over the cobbled stones of the alley leading to my house, my neighborhood has its own militia and they take a little convincing I actually live there until Hassan a teenage neighbor assures them and they let me pass.
I settle back into life; the buzz of helicopters, the constant bombing, intermittent power, shocking price increases, I visit friends and catch up on news, who has been arrested, who has been released, who has been killed, stories of kidnapping, my friends seemed somewhat surprised to see me back assuming I had more sense to stay away, I was just as surprised at how Syrians were able to deal with the awfulness of the situation.
It was time I go and visit the nice guys at the immigration department and see what had happened to my residence permit, a shambolic institution worthy of Kafka, I had been a regular visitor for ten years and was on first name terms with a couple of the officers although only crumpled 100 lira bills made anything easier.
No your Iqama is not here and why on earth did I hand it over in the first place they told me; why? Why? Because the officer took it from me, what was I supposed to do-fight him for it! Needless to say I had been expecting this since I left Syria, so I cheered myself up with some sarcasm and left accepting the advice to return another time in the highly unlikely event the card had been sent from the border.
After several return visits and time ticking slowly by I had to accept it was not going to arrive, no official could offer any explanation and if I wanted to leave the country I would need to resolve the situation, I would not be give permission to leave without it.
I had shot plenty of images on my trip around Jordan and Egypt but so far had not sold anything, apart from a few stock images sales I had not earned anything since the beginning of hostilities in Syria, I was now living on my overdraft agreement-I could only access the cash by travelling out of the country since international sanctions had cut access to ATM machines and accessing my bank on-line, I wonder how inconvenient this was for the regime?
The Syrian government had refused permission for me to work on humanitarian issues with the UN but now I was being offered a commission in Egypt to cover the refugee crisis there, I would need to resolve the residency issue quickly to allow me to leave for a couple of weeks work.
My resident permit is regarded as lost, I didn’t lose it but this still means I have to report it to the police, this did not sound like an appetizing prospect given the current situation, I offered one of the officers a sizeable incentive to help, about 1 000 Syrian Lira created a human dynamo of efficiency, I collected the bits and bobs of the usual paperwork and pictures and he ran around the building getting stamps, weeks of hand wringing and head shaking seemed to finally be coming to an end, all that was now needed was to enter my details in the computer; I could see from the expressions on the two officers faces the problem was serious, I was not really sure what was happening but we headed upstairs to another computer in another office, I had not realized this was some kind of security department and now various officers were taking over from the soft one helping me, they wanted to detain me but the soft one pulled me to his side away from them, I was told I was under investigation, I needed to visit the notorious Palestine Branch 235 but before that I had to visit another security officer in Merjeh Square.
My first thought was simply that they had decided to kick me out of the country, usually people are detained a day or two and put on a flight out, not the scariest of scenarios and one I had often imagined happening, I felt sick as I left the building promising to go visit the security officer in Merjeh Square, as I walked from Baramke to Merjeh I contemplated the situation, the Palestine branch was infamous, I consoled myself with the thought that if they considered me such a threat they would have come for me and not waited for me to turn up at immigration, a drink was in order so I didn’t do as I was told I went home instead.
I sat in my courtyard with a glass of whiskey and listen to a helicopter circle like a vulture overheard, despite the seriousness of things I remained calm and pragmatic JW1_2667

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

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.

They Blew up The House: Damascus Syria Diary April 2012

They Blew up The House: Damascus Syria Diary April 2012

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.
April 2012