Al Bab Actual, Syria
(Excerpt from a letter)
I'm in central Al Bab, in what used to be a three story home I'm afforded a room on the third floor with cousins of one of the boys overlooking the main road out. There are very few tarps and canvases here. People seem to be in better spirits and are beginning to rebuild their homes, slowly.
Perhaps these things you mention ought to be alarming and hard to imagine and stomach to more people-- we may see less of war if more people thought twice before signing on to another armchair warrior's war. Loss and sorrow the scale of which renders even someone as verbose as me silent. All I'm able to do is raise my camera to my eye and press the shutter. Loss which I can only bear to witness this way, it's madness, it's the absence of reason, it's absence of hope (hell was described to me this way once-- I believe in this hell). How can I rationalise watching a child as he's crushed under rubble falling from a struck building? A man carrying his injured father to hospital cut down by gun fire? What am I supposed to do when I watch one of the boys I've grown close to die in front of me, others injured? how can I explain the fear on a mother's face as she clutches her son while bombs and rockets drop around us? I can't do anything, I can't stop anything, I can't change any minds, so, I record.
I came to here not only to bear witness once again, but to say goodbye to my friend and his family, I feel a sense of guilt for them which I'll probably never rid myself of. I could've done more. At least, they won't suffer any longer nor will they see another day of war. Their graves are still fresh, no one has time or resources for proper large headstones and the sort even though the dead don't care. Still, it weighs on me, so I paid one of the boys to have proper stones made for them in turkey and bring them in the next time they're making a run across in turkey. So, I carry on. It's for the living to remember those that aren't, right?
Idlib was the most intense fighting I've seen so far, street to street, block to block, house to house; felt the same adrenaline, narrowness of purpose and focus as I used to from Kosovo to Iraq... This time, it wore me out, I wasn't itching for more, I am getting older. From the moment you and I lost touch and we turned right off the main trunk road into Idlib's outskirts until the moment we left, bombardments, gun fire, rockets, RPGs... We got in as the sun was rising, and it was behind us thankfully as mortars were hitting nearby and so were bullets but the sun may have made it harder. Getting into the FSA held sector I gathered where I could wander and where I was on my own. I headed as far east in the city blocks as half a kilometre before three phosphorous rounds struck nearby, I saw their bright sparks and shrapnel of ignited phosphorus spread, turning back the way I came I sought cover; no more landed in the area but I heard contact further away... When you're surrounded by buildings, it's hard to pinpoint direction because, you see, sound echoes. So, I backtracked and went slightly north but still west. Smoke was rising from buildings struck, white helmets doing what they had to do. I feel I walked a circle around the city ducking when I had to and goose-ing when I didn't (ha, ha, ha), I made my way up a few roof tops exchanging fire and felt the old familiar snaps of bullets near me, made the photos I felt I needed, the last roof top had water, I asked for some and the fighters were generous enough to give it as long as I got their good sides in the photos they joked... This was the case until I got near the hospital - I saw a man run by me, I was unaware of him until I saw him by my shoulder and smelled that familiar smell of copper, blood... He was carrying a girl with golden hair, I could see that and her legs, one mangled, I ran behind him to catch up... I did. The man, her father, shirtless, covered in her blood, eyes wild with grief, pain and anger I cannot describe nor do I wish to. She was in shock, her eyes open and darting, breathing, but as we got near the steps of the hospital she convulsed and began coughing, her father stopped me almost running into him I was close enough to get splatter of blood on me, my camera by my side, I couldn't move my arms, I couldn't... she took a breath, and there were no more breaths. Her father never took his eyes off her and ran into the hospital, I stayed behind; In my bewilderment, in my inability, in my own head, in my own inability to pick up my camera and be a goddamned photographer... Her mother ran by me as well in the meantime, her state no better than the fathers, her eyes, I couldnt see the pupils there was so much water in them, she was injured too, but I don't think she cared. I made my way to a wall still trying to move past that moment but the girls father came back out this time sunken into himself, he fell to a car next to him with is back, head in his hands screaming and crying...
THIS. IS. MADNESS. THIS. IS. HELL.
I did muster the ability to photograph this. Why?
Deciding to stick around the hospital so I could photograph the doctors, the injured, and the white helmets, I spent the rest of the day at the hospital until the 3 missiles struck the hospitals far wing. I was walking from an operating theatre to a hallway when I felt the blast... the old familiar sledgehammer like thud one feels in their bones when a round goes off close as I was lifted off my feet and slammed into and through the plaster wall, it takes a bit to stop ones deafness and the head to stop spinning... I looked down, my right ring finger is bent at an angle I haven't seen it bent before, my shirt is torn, and one of my cameras is smashed but I was lucky, three doctors and many more patients (I can't get a number, I will when I return) didn't make it. I made my way out, trying to remember the way I came, somehow I made it back to the FSA base. Everyone staring at me... I didn't know I was covered in white dust and where I was cut there was scabbing blood. One of the men gave me a once over and splinted my finger. I spent what time I had left at the base, the shelling and rockets had picked up pace to the west. We left as the sun set.
Al Bab Actual, Syria