Benjamin Hall writes for Vice, with photographs by Rick Findler:
There’s something about the words “behind enemy lines” that sounds cool and glamorous. Perhaps it’s because of the film of the same name where, against all the odds, Owen Wilson saves the day, gets the girl, and looks good doing it, but I can assure you that in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth.
I realized this after spending four days with Syrian rebels in the Northern province of Idlib; escaping from the dreaded, pro-regime Shabiha death squads, getting shot at from rooftops, crawling around enemy emplacements, sleeping in a cave and finally finding myself on my knees at gunpoint.
Photographer Rick Findler and I were on assignment to look at how the Free Syrian Army were getting on in the North, and to catalogue the atrocities in the besieged city of Idlib, where no Western journalists had been for three weeks at the time of our departure. Having covered conflict throughout the Middle East, both of us thought we were well prepared and embarked with our usual bravado.
It wasn’t long, however, until we realized this was a very different situation, and as we crouched under a bush at the Syrian border at midnight, only 20 feet away from Shabiha, who had been tipped off about our arrival, and with explosions echoing across the valley, it crossed my mind to turn back. Two hours later they had stopped searching for us, but soon afterwards three naked men wearing only Kalashnikovs and tight red pants appeared from nowhere and ordered us to take off our clothes.
“What the fuck does he mean,” I whispered to Rick, who looked back at me blankly. It all felt rather surreal.
The FSA lieutenant we were with seemed to think this was normal though, so we undressed and followed the naked men into Syria. The next thing we knew, we were up to our necks in freezing water; our clothes, cameras, and body armor over our heads, fording through a river.
On the other side, and without a moment to think, we got dressed and ran a couple of kilometers through the olive groves. Then we bundled into the back of a waiting car and set off at 90 mph. It was incredibly tense, and as we travelled from safe house to safe house, from car to car, while huddled under blankets in trucks and on the backs of motorbikes surrounded by armed rebels, it dawned on us that we were now deep in enemy territory and there was no turning back.
There are large parts of Syria's northern region that are under tentative rebel control. The army does not patrol these areas very often, as Assad's men dislike leaving the safety of their armored vehicles. This means that the rebels have been able to set up checkpoints, which allow them to monitor the movement of people in the region and, more importantly, to travel with a vague degree of freedom. But this goes wrong constantly, and on many days cars leave without ever coming back, having been shot up at random. The great fear, however, remain the Shabiha; gangs of pro-Assad thugs who can appear at any time looking to cave your skull in.
Most of them come from Bashar al-Assads’ Allawite sect, and know that they are fighting for their lives. If Assad falls, then so do they, and after decades of occupying positions of power in Syrian society, they will do whatever they can to maintain the status quo.
As such, they are his henchmen; they move around like marauding gangs, in civilian cars armed to the teeth and are liable to open fire at any point. The FSA play a constant game of cat and mouse with them, distracting them on one road, sometimes with homemade dynamite, thereby allowing them to move down another. At times, when there is no other option, the FSA will engage them and try to take one alive for information.
On that first night we avoided them, but only because the rebels know the landscape and can travel cross-country through the olive groves. In this sense, the Free Syrian Army are a veritable insurgency that can melt into the countryside, and if they had more weapons, they would be able to do much more damage.
It was 5 AM when we eventually made it to our stop-off, a cave high in the hills that the FSA use as an operations center. Walking in, we were hit by a cloud of shisha smoke, and there, in a circle, danced a dozen heavily armed, bearded men, clapping and singing like this was the hottest new club in the region. There were some ratty gilded sofas in one corner, RPGs and grenades lying around randomly, and a little television showing a sort of mash-up of the atrocities that had been committed that day. As we entered, we became the latest attraction.
Having finished all our hugs, kisses, and introductions, we went to sleep, huddled among all of them on blankets on the ground. Or rather, we tried to, as the cacophony of snores that echoed in the small cave came close to resembling the rumbling of a heavy caliber machine gun.
The next day we moved around the region, as carefully as we did the previous night. We entered towns that had been hit, and, creeping towards government emplacements, saw how they tried to hide their tanks under tarpaulins. As part of the UN-backed ceasefire, tanks, and armored vehicles are supposed to have been removed from villages, but nothing like this has happened, and they remain everywhere.
We travelled to villages that had been bombed. Not just by tanks or shells, but in some cases, by dynamite, helicopters, tanks, and bulldozers—all at once. Families left destitute lived in tents next to the flattened remains of their homes, and in many cases we met old farmers, young children, and women who had been mercilessly attacked. It was indiscriminate, and if ever there was a sign that a regime cares not for its people, this was it. Wherever we went we stayed for only ten minutes, such is the fear of Assad spies. We discovered this for ourselves just the following day.
We knew that most attacks took place on Friday after prayers, so we disguised ourselves as best as we could and took part in one of the protests. Rick is famous for his streak of red hair, and in preparation he tried to dye it brown. Unfortunately, the only thing he managed to dye brown was his sickly white skin. We wrapped him in a scarf and tried to forget about it.
Two hundred men and children shouted anti-Assad chants, drums beat loudly, and people lifted their arms, swayed and waved flags and banners. Suddenly, a hail of bullets flew from the rooftops. The crowd scattered and chaos ensued. FSA fighters charged towards the bullets, returning fire, and we followed close on their heels. As the two sides exchanged fire, we found ourselves in the middle of a terribly one-sided gun battle.
As with all these engagements, the FSA's strategy is to return a bit of fire and then pull back; There is little they can do against the vastly superior weapons of the army.
We had retreated to our hideout when suddenly a group of flustered men ran in. The army had been tipped off that western journalists were in the country and that we had filmed them opening fire onto the protests. They had left their base and were making a move to capture us.