Bearing Witness in Syria: A War Reporter’s Last Days – By TYLER HICKS
It was damp and cold as Anthony Shadid and I crossed in darkness over the barbed-wire fence that separated Turkey from Syria last month. We were also crossing from peace into war, into the bloodiest conflict of the Arab Spring, exploding just up the rocky and sparsely wooded mountain we had to climb once inside.
The smugglers waiting for us had horses, though we learned they were not for us. They were to carry ammunition and supplies to the Free Syrian Army. That is the armed opposition group, made up largely of defectors from President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal army, we had come to interview, photograph and try to understand.
The ammunition seemed evidence of the risk we were taking — a risk we did not shoulder lightly. Anthony, who passionately documented the eruptions in the Arab world from Iraq to Libya for The New York Times, felt it was essential that journalists get into Syria, where about 7,000 people have been killed, largely out of the world’s view. We had spent months planning to stay safe.
It turned out the real danger was not the weapons but possibly the horses. Anthony was allergic. He did not know how badly.
He had a terrible allergic attack that first night after we crossed over the barbed wire. He had another attack a week later, as horses led us out of Syria, just 45 minutes from safety. He died during that attack, at only 43, his wife and nearly 2-year-old son waiting for him in Turkey.
He did not write his articles from our eventful week of reporting and shooting pictures in Syria; his notes, taken obsessively, are barely decipherable. But he would have wanted a record of this final trip, some hint of the questions we sought to answer: Who were these fighters, and did they have any chance of beating the Syrian government? How were they armed and organized? Was the conflict, as in Iraq, worsening sectarian tensions? Just who supported whom?
Unlike Anthony, I do not speak Arabic. I’m a photographer who was most interested in capturing images from an expanding war zone. But I will do my best to convey a sense of what Syria, on edge, was like — in a week that invigorated Anthony as a reporter and witness. He could not wait to get back to write.
Getting the News
Syrian tanks blocked the roads leading in and out of the towns scattered across Idlib Province, a center for the insurgents, and we were surprised by how close we had to pass them on the drive into town. “This is really threading the needle,” Anthony said as we navigated a small, unguarded road that the insurgents considered safe. The men driving us described passable roads as “clean.”
Our journey in took us to a group of men who would be our guides in Syria. They call themselves activists, and unlike the fighters, they’re the civilian side of the revolution. They, too, are risking their lives to tell the world what is happening to their country.
Almost all of them have been jailed and tortured. One showed the marks on his legs where he had been tortured with electricity. Another had scars on his wrists from being tightly bound for so long in a cell. None have seen their families for months, and they routinely change where they sleep as a safety measure.
It was clear that they understood the importance of having Anthony there. Foreign journalists are valuable for getting news out of Syria and into a wider world that might be able to help them (though that wider world seems uncertain about how to do so). His Arabic allowed him to speak directly to people without the buffer of an interpreter. As always, he conveyed a genuine interest that made people open up to him; everyone was equal, no story insignificant.
Most fighters we met had recently defected from the Syrian Army, some just days earlier. I was surprised by how open they were. Only rarely would one cover his face or ask that I not take a picture. Most proudly displayed their military ID cards, holding them up like trophies. They said they defected because they refused to obey orders to kill their own people. Anthony and I talked often about what would happen if this struggle did not go their way. As defectors, capture would mean certain death.
There have been many reports of jihadis or other foreign fighters flowing into Syria, as if it were the next Afghanistan or Iraq. That is the story the Assad government has used as a justification for cracking down so violently. We saw no evidence of that in Idlib — only Syrians.
Anthony was not a thrill seeker, but he understood that the truth had to be found at the source. This is a war, and barracks interviews could not replace the firsthand accounts of battle. A battle came to us unexpectedly while making a routine stop at a base during an otherwise quiet day in Saraqib, in northwestern Syria.
Several dozen insurgent Free Syrian Army fighters rushed to gather all the weapons they could scrounge from their small compound. “They’re going on an attack,” Anthony told me. My reaction was mixed; I wanted the pictures to tell the story but felt uneasy about what was clearly going to be an uneven fight.
They were moving fast to get into place after learning that a column of tanks would be passing on the highway on their way to fortify the city of Idlib. We had to make a quick decision, and we agreed that we would go with them. The fighters were hugely outgunned for the battle ahead; firing an AK-47 rifle against an armored tank would amount to throwing a handful of stones at a Mack truck. They told Anthony that they would try to hit one of the tanks with a homemade bomb, their most effective weapon, already set in the road. Then they planned to attack the disabled convoy with their rifles.
The fighters, most in everyday clothes, some still wearing the uniforms that were issued to them in the Syrian Army before they had defected, waited hidden along a small street next to the highway. A single row of houses, some built from cinder block, others from stone, was the only concealment separating the fighters from the highway. A fighter warned us to stay behind the old stone houses because they would withstand a tank round better than cheap cinder block.
A small number of civilians trickled from their homes to discover the fighters preparing to launch an attack from their neighborhood. It was clear from their body language that they were not accustomed to seeing fighters there, but they took it as a sign to relocate to safer ground.
A distant rumble was the only sign that announced the approach of the tanks. Two tanks passed before the fighters detonated the bomb. The large explosion, missing its target, was the cue for the others to engage with their rifles, and the quiet neighborhood erupted into gunfire. The more cautious fired their rifles around the corners of houses, while others took turns to shoot more effectively from the exposed alleyways before retreating for cover.
A call went out to stop firing. The fighters said they received a message that a soldier from one of the tanks wanted to defect and join them. There had been stories of similar brazen, risky defections in the past, so the request was not out of the question. One fighter told Anthony that a tank had pointedly turned its gun away from the attack, and in a show of support, a soldier raised his hand from the turret to display the “victory” sign. More fighting interrupted the hope for spontaneous recruits, and three civilians were wounded when a bomb hit a house farther in town.
The attack ended as abruptly as it had begun, and when the fighters returned to their base, I drove with Anthony to a makeshift office that had been set up by the activists. The activists suggested that we keep a low profile because of how exposed we had been in town that day. Informants would be keeping an eye out for us, they said, and there was no reason to push it. We were offered dark Arabic coffee, and we accepted enthusiastically. Anthony not only loved his coffee, he also needed it.
Making a Connection
That evening I read a book while Anthony walked down the street to interview some fighters we had been with that day. A while later an activist returned to tell me that Anthony wanted me to follow him and to bring my cameras. I arrived back at the base where we had seen them prepare their weapons, and as is the custom I took off my shoes before entering. There I found a carpeted room full of the fighters, now familiar to us, singing and playing traditional music, some clapping as one sang.
Directly across from me, amid cigarette smoke and sitting among them, was Anthony with a huge smile on his face. This was exactly the kind of connection that made him most happy as a reporter; his great warmth and intelligence were part of what made him the most important journalist covering the Arab world.
He put his arms out and said gleefully, “Tyler, look at this!” I found a seat next to him. Always wanting to share the experience, he told me that when they started singing he immediately sent for me. They served a dessert of sweet cheese, doused in a sticky syrup. They ad-libbed to incorporate us into the lyrics of one of their songs, thanking us for coming to Syria to witness their struggle.
What did we learn? The Free Syrian Army is much more organized than the rebel fighters in Libya. Because of the growing number of defectors, there’s a stock of able, trained soldiers and officers mounting in Syria. As the attack on the tanks showed, they don’t yet have the weapons to put up a realistic fight.
Their strength lies inside the towns. The regular Syrian Army, which has proved to be unreliable and already stretched thin, is reluctant to storm the towns and consolidate control. What it can do, and what the population fears most, is indiscriminately shell the towns and cities — as has been happening fearsomely in Homs to the south. While effective, the tactic is increasing condemnation against the Assad government, which is accused of disregarding completely the lives of women, children and other noncombatants.
Life goes on in these towns despite the violence there. For most people, the only safe way to drive out of town is to use their knowledge of the area to traverse the back roads in the countryside. Free Syrian Army fighters claim to completely own those roads, but when pressed, they admit that no one really knows for certain where the Syrian Army is at a given time. Most shops in the towns are open, and people are on the street.
But the problems are deeper than those that first meet the eye. The hospitals and clinics are barely functioning and have almost no supplies. Some patients have to recover in homes and in secrecy. Power cuts are constant, and there is a serious shortage of fuel. The people living here will suffer more as time goes on.
There are mixed emotions among the civilians living in these towns. Most say they favor the revolution and want Mr. Assad out of power. While hundreds of people gather daily to protest in some towns, with Friday gatherings for prayers swelling into the thousands, their rally to the cause is bittersweet. People know that the fighters, and the revolt, will draw the army to them, and some are not shy about saying they do not want to invite a crisis to their doorstep. They know what happened in Homs. The images on Arabic news channels are a constant stream of bloody scenes. They also know that they are probably next on the list as the Syrian Army tries to crush the rebellion.
The Road Home
Anthony was eager to get back to Turkey. Our work was done, and there was no need to prolong the risk. But there were at least two more worries before we could feel safe. The first was reaching the top of the mountain that led back to Turkey.
The more direct route, which we had taken on the way in, was no longer safe because the Shabeeha, armed thugs loyal to the Assad government, had set up a checkpoint there. We had to take a much longer patchwork of back roads that were not entirely familiar to the men driving us. They told us that without us they might be able to talk their way out of an encounter, but with foreigners in the car we would be in serious trouble. I could feel Anthony’s tension, which I shared, when our car stopped and turned around to find a different road.
“This is the worst,” I said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over these checkpoints,” Anthony replied, referring to our capture at a checkpoint in Libya 11 months earlier. A gunfight had erupted then, killing our 21-year-old driver and ending with four Times journalists held for nearly a week by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces.
We felt huge relief when we finally reached the mountain. In an hour we would be across, and soon after that, celebrating a successful reporting trip back across the border.
But there was the second worry: Because of Anthony’s bad allergic reaction to the horses on the way in, we had often discussed whether there should be horses on the way out — and what we would do if there were. And now two smugglers were waiting for us, again with their horses.
Anthony’s health had been good during the week and he prepared himself for the trip down with antihistamines and a supply of inhalers. He had a black and white kaffiyeh covering his face to filter the air, the same one he had worn around his neck throughout the assignment. He told the young men he wouldn’t ride a horse and to walk ahead with them at a distance.
“Should we walk in front of the horses?” I asked Anthony.
“No, they need to guide us,” he said.
The pace down was faster and easier than coming up a week earlier, and this time our bags were carried by horses instead of on our backs. But then I could hear that Anthony’s breathing became strained, and within a mile he was asking to rest. He will get through this as he did on the much more strenuous hike in, I thought, and with one of my arms around his waist, and the other holding his forearm, we continued to walk.
Soon after, Anthony stopped and leaned against a large boulder, and unlike the first time, when he had merely labored for breath, now he collapsed onto the ground. I called out his name, but he was already unconscious and his breathing had stopped completely. I performed CPR for half an hour while begging the smugglers to find a doctor. I hoped for a miracle. Turkey was now out of the question, and backtracking would only return us to a remote border village. Finally, a small covered truck drove quietly within sight of us and we carried Anthony, whose death I could still not come to terms with, into the back, where I climbed in with him.
I urged the driver to hurry and we finally arrived in a small town at what looked like a medical clinic. I rushed inside and found a doctor. He checked Anthony’s vital signs and confirmed that he was dead. He said he was sorry.
The doctor spoke to me in English. “I’ve taken a huge risk helping you already,” he told me. I understood. Since the beginning of the conflict, many doctors have been arrested, tortured and killed for helping wounded fighters or opponents of the Assad government, and a foreign journalist was not an exception. I thanked him for his help, and then left with Anthony’s body and the smugglers.
They took me to a farmhouse on a dirt road. Negotiation and money finally got us back to the mountain where we had started. Anthony was secured to one of the same horses for the journey down. I walked in front of him, in shock, as we neared the Turkish border.
We carried Anthony’s body from the horse, back across the same barbed wire, and passed him to another group of men waiting hidden on the other side. Now inside Turkey, we joined more men who took us to a fire department where the Turkish police were called. Anthony’s body was out of Syria, but the sadness for his family, friends and colleagues had only begun.
Just a few hours before he died, some activists asked to videotape an interview with him. Those are now the last images of him. In Arabic, he cheerfully commented on how busy the activists against the Assad government were in all walks of life — public services, media and, of course, security.
“Do you expect the regime will fall?” the interviewer asked him.
“I think it will,” he said. “But I think it will take a long time.”