Here’s an extract from my latest project from Syria that should be ready for publication within the next two months.
Broken Boy Soldiers
A dark, starless night wraps its arms around us. We are floating in its deep, black nothingness and only the white reflective lines on the asphalt road caught in the one surviving headlight reveals our movement. We are rapidly being absorbed into the Syrian night, removing our self with increasing speed from the relative normality that comes with the Turkish border.
It’s been a while since we last passed the burning oil drums marking the start and end of cities, all revealing bearded faces of city elders that peer out of the darkness, the red warmth of the fire reflecting in their eyes. They stop us: Who are we? Or more importantly, who are we not? The two people in the front seats are well known faces on these roads so we continue onwards.
Momen and Yahoo are members of the Tawheed Brigade and fights for the revolution. Yahoo is 21 years old and experienced. He used to be a fighter, but due to his technologic abilities, he is now in charge of media and communication. Yahoo is driving the car. Moomen is 16 and carrying the Kalasnikhow. They are best friends.
A few hours earlier, walking down the main street of the Turkish border town Reyhanli, I stopped at a street stall selling army fatigues and belts for ammunition. I had recognized a black nylon vest with pockets on the front and back large enough to hold AK47 magazines and grenades.
This type of vest is the highest fashion among the rebels along with the black headscarves that carry the Shahaada (Muslim declaration of faith) in white writing.
A couple of men come up and look at the headscarves. With their long white robes and full-grown beards they are as foreign as me. They smile and I smile back. They are here to join the rebels and crossing over the border today. They ask me to come with them, but to their disappointment I politely decline and explain that I already have made arrangements. We wish each other safe travels and as I turn the corner I find my Syrian contact waiting for me.
As we approach the border barrier on foot I see a sea of faces through the metal bars marking the end of Turkey. A policeman stands blocking a small opening in the gate, not letting anybody in. We sneak behind a truck and walk up to the guard with our heads down. My friend grabs my arm and starts to press through the opening. The officer barely notices us. He’s too busy keeping the many Syrians out of Turkey to notice anybody trying to get in. Why would he?
This is the first time I’ve been smuggled over a border and I can feel the adrenalin pumping. The contrast of this other territory hits me immediately when we enter…
Stay tuned for the publication of the full story shortly.
In light of the recent protests spreading from Istanbul and through other major cities in Turkey I found it fitting to re-post this blog entry from my latest visit in December. Reading through this story again, this time seen in the light of the recent unrest, gives me a new understanding of my experiences back then.
I hope that you will have the same experience. Here goes…
Istanbul is a Feeling, an Impression and a Steppingstone
The first time I was here I was 12. Memories of smog, crowds, kebab and an incomprehensible wait for the telephone to connect to my mom in Denmark are left behind and 19 years later it’s a different city. The calls for prayer and the scent of apple tobacco are still the same but now they float through streets occupied by men in cravats and women with and without hijabs lunching at trendy cafes next to designer shops and photo galleries showcasing the latest from the international art scene.
As the plane approaches the airport it is increasingly clear to me that this is a metropolis with a responsibility. A responsibility to keep two parts of the world together so they don’t drift too far from each other, but also a responsibility to keep them separate so we still can tell them from us and us them.
Bosphorus is the name of the strait that cuts through the giant. With a head in one part of the world and a body in another the strait is like an aorta that pumps life into the Turkish economy as well as to the oil market in Europe via tankers full of the black Russian gold.
Also for the individual Bosphorus is a vein of life. All along the many kilometers of coastline couples promenade while local fishermen sells their catch of the day. Tivoli’s offer entertainment while small ferries sail back and forth non-stop, working as needle and thread tying these two continents together.
While the empty bottles on the table in front of me goes from one to two, ships slowly drift by in the night. Across the strait thousands of lights waver and then disappear one by one as we pass midnight. A new day is coming and one thing is for sure. Istanbul is neither Asian nor European, Istanbul is it’s own.
I’ve been back in Syria since Saturday, doing a so-called ‘NGO-run’ with a Danish charity. We’ve been at a few refugee camps and also visited a string of hospitals. Mostly we’ve been in meetings trying to arrange the next batch of emergency relief.
Now I’m back in the country, this time on my own. I am travelling the Idlib province with a group of rebels called the Tawheed Brigade. I am gathering photos as we go along and working on a range of different projects but as I’ve been feeling a little like a photojournalistic cliché lately (that not necessarily meant as a bad thing) I’ve decided to do an old school black and white series for the first blog.
Hope to have some more time soon to get the different pieces together, but right now it’s all loose strings tying them selves together here and there and not always in the right order, so bear with me while I find myself in this mess of a conflict…
I’m back in Turkey. Hotel. Bed. Facebook. A friend request pops up, name written in Arabic. It turns out it’s a captain in the Free Syrian Army that I met earlier in the day. He’s stationed in Aleppo but has one night off to see his wife and four kids that are in Gaziatep, a large city just 20 kilometers from Kilis, Turkey.
He tells me that I should get to the Syrian city of Azaz tomorrow by 8 a.m. as there should be a funeral for an FSA soldier.
At 6 a.m. I wake up the receptionist to check out of my hotel and at 7 I wake up the Turkish border official to check out of Turkey.
Inside Syria I decide to go straight through the border area and find a car that can take me to town. I negotiate a price of 10 Turkish Lira (£3) and am about to jump in the car as a man in army fatigues carrying a Kalashnikov stops me. I need permission to leave the area and there’s no way around the media center.
While we wait for the media center to wake up the soldiers manning the control post invite me in for breakfast consisting of flat bread with spicy pickles and hot Arab tea cooked on a large gas burner standing between the two beds and a television that frames the room. The sweet tea cheers us all up and I start feeling less grumpy about being withheld. They don’t speak any English and I’ve soon used up my one Arabic word saying “Shukran” (thank you) every time I can get away with it. We still have a good time though and after a while I start playing around with my camera to see what reaction that will bring. As I hoped it doesn’t take long before they are posing and I’m snapping away freely.
It starts to pour. Again. It has been raining almost every single day since I arrived at the border. I curse my suede shoes for the tenth time on this trip, and stop. Realizing that all my worries have a warm bed, a bankcard, wireless Internet and a Christmas full of food and presents waiting just a few hours away. In the meantime a large queue has gathered outside in the rain. Men, women and children are getting drenched as they wait for the weekly handout of diapers…
I meet with my media “escort” from the day before and he tells me that the body of the captain is still in Turkey. They don’t know when he’ll be buried as his mother is on her way to the hospital to say her final goodbyes. Not much to argue about there, so I fold out my umbrella and go exploring in the camp.
I spend the day organizing. First of all I need to change hotels. The one I’ve been staying in for the last two nights costs 90 Turkish Lira, about £30. My previous one was only £13. I’m here on my own budget so money matters every single step of the way.
People here are always offering to take me to Aleppo. I’m tempted but at a price of 300 American dollars each way for the 40km drive, it’s simply not possible for me. The steep price also indicates the level of danger. I met an Italian photographer that had been there. While I share a beer with Michele he tells me of his eight hours trip. The way that he grasps his head and looks down while he explains how a bomb landed just two blocks away says it all. It’s not worth going. From his eyes I can see that he is right.
After changing hotels I work for a few hours. The organizational side of things takes up a lot of my time and with the sun setting around four I have to be economical with the hours. When done I grab my camera and head out to locate a NGO run medical clinic for Syrians injured by the war.
On my way there I collect imagery not directly connected to the Syrian conflict. These pictures are meant for another project in my diary build on a scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Arab Felix’ that was sent by Danish king Frederick V in 1776 to explore the Arabian Peninsula.
I come across sheepherders and men blowing out the engines on their Yahama 4-gears. For these people this is just everyday life. But for me as a foreigner this is something absolutely stunning. It’s the power of looking, catching a glimpse and trying to comprehend.
A man in an impeccable suit stops on his motorbike. He talks to me in Turkish. I smile and say ‘hospital’ and he gestures me to get on. He speeds up and the wind in my face feels great.
We get to a three-storage house looking stranded. The wall is crumbling and Syrian number plates identify the cars parked outside. Inside is another world. Four small rooms are packed with hospital beds. In each bed lies someone wounded in one way or the other by the Syrian conflict. Some are FSA soldiers, some aren’t. Some are civilians and others are not. One thing that almost all of them share is that they’re just kids…
While I talk to patients that have lost arms and legs in the constant Aleppo bombing, a guy sees me and starts to yell. He’s angry and aggressive. I’m guessing that he is not Syrian, as he looks different from everybody else here. He shakes one of his crutches at me and I walk away.
“Don’t mind him, he’s just al-Qaeda” the other patients explains.
It’s clear that they don’t like him much. I ask if there are many al-Qaeda warriors in Syria and they tell me that there’s quite a few. Right now they are all fighting Bashar al-Assad, so it’s okay. But when the fighting is over and the winner has to be found they will become a problem.
“I’m Syrian and a Muslim and I am scared of them” one of the wounded tells me.
About 30.000 Syrian refugees are believed to have made their way across the Turkish border into the city of Kilis. Most of them have arrived within the last four months. Basic necessities such as shoes and coats are in demand as winter approaches and already now the temperature reaches zero.
After a 19 hours bus ride I finally reach Kilis. It’s 12am and the sun is shining. It’s warm in that special way where you can tell that winter’s coming. With 90.000 inhabitants this is considered a small town. Through history Kilis has belonged to the Ottoman district of Aleppo. The newly established Republic of Turkey led by famed first president Atatürk took over the city after World War I. The Syrian border is only five kilometers from the city center and an hours drive after that lies Aleppo where some of the fiercest battles between government forces and the rebels are taking place as I write this.
My contact Hamza, that works for IHH (the Turkish NGO that VIOMIS cooperates with) picks me up at the station. We drive to the small headquarter on the outskirts of town and while I’m served kebab and sweet Turkish tea the daily activities start to increase.
Outside in the small courtyard, white plastic bags carrying the IHH logo are being filled with potatoes and unions. Large boxes of plastic wrapped foam mattresses as well as blankets and donated clothing are being loaded on to a small truck. One of the many daily loads of emergency relief is on its way to the many Syrian refugees that live scattered across town.
I’m introduced to Omar and Mahmoud that are both Syrian refugees themselves and now works for IHH, helping others in the same situation. These two are in charge of today’s distribution, so I leave my bags behind, grab my camera and jump in the car with them.
Every day the relief is distributed in a new area of the town. To find the many Syrian families they have to work closely with the areas Mokhtar. A Mokhtar is the head of an area within the city. There’s about 30 Mokhtars in Kilis, and it’s their responsibility too keep track of people and resolve disputes within their designated area.
On our way through the city we share stories about ourselves to break the ice. Omar finds it hard to believe that I am neither Christian nor Muslim and while his smiling eyes starts to glow he tells me of the many glories of Islam.
“Insha’Allah (god willing) Anders, maybe when you see the work we do here you will also become Muslim, Insha’Allah” he says.
Soon we come across the first Syrian refugees and with much heartache I see that they lack even the most basic remedies. Clothing, shoes and food are highly in demand. It’s cold here in Kilis, down to three Celsius, and children as adults are in sandals. It’s hard to be here, eye to eye with people in such distress. Suddenly reality becomes real and far removed from television images and newspaper articles. They are right here, these people that had to leave everything behind and are now facing a harsh winter and an uncertain future.