An American photojournalist describes what he saw during the month he spent in a Syrian village under siege.
- By Robert King<p> Photojournalist Robert King has reported from Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, and Iraq. He returned from Syria earlier this month. As told to FP's Christian Caryl. </p>
We crossed over from Lebanon at night in an SUV. We traveled down a dirt road through the mountains, skirting Lebanese checkpoints. Our car was part of a small convoy bringing supplies to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). My vehicle was bringing in medical supplies, bandages, mostly. Some of the others brought military supplies: mostly ammunition, plus a few rocket-propelled grenades. I don’t know who paid for them. It wasn’t much.
We had to wait a while before being brought into Al Qusayr. When I arrived in the town I registered with the media center. They didn’t know who I was, so I had to give them my CV and my background info. The activists who got me in there knew who I was, but not the people in Al Qusayr. So they vetted me, and everything was cool. So then I started to do some work.
Not much was going on when I arrived, aside from the Friday demonstrations against the government. It was pretty quiet. I was close to the field hospital, so I started spending time there. It wasn’t a real hospital, of course — just a bombed-out house. They converted a couple of bedrooms. When they fill up, the bodies go into the courtyard.
It’s run by Dr. Qasim, a gastroenterologist. He used to run a hospital in one of the other towns in Homs province. When the war started the army took over his hospital, so he went to Al Qusayr, and has been working there ever since, running the field hospital for the past 18 months. He’s the only game in town. Whenever the Syrian army finds out where it is, they shell it. I don’t know how many times it’s been moved. They shelled it twice while I was there, killing two patients and wounding two or three of the medical personnel.
When I arrived it was quiet at first, but then the fighting started to pick up again in Homs. They started to shell the surrounding areas: mortars, rockets, tanks. The wounded started coming in. It just kept going on and on, and the wounded kept piling up. Government troops had taken over the state hospital in the center of town and the mayor’s building and used them as sniper posts. The Syrian army would try to push their checkpoints forward into the city, and the FSA would try to repulse their advance. This went on for a few days at a time.
The FSA soldiers aren’t well-trained. They have small arms, and that’s pretty much it. They have homemade bombs, percussion grenades they’ve made with black powder and duct tape and a fuse they have to light. They have almost no basic training, and there’s very little coordination. When I went with them they’d get pinned down. They’d bunch up in the doorways. The Syrian Army has helicopters, heavy artillery, even drones. There are surveillance drones overhead all the time, looking down at the rebels.
There were rumors that Hezbollah fighters were coming in from Lebanon to support the Syrian government troops. (I can’t verify that, but everyone certainly believed it.) What’s definitely true is that the fighting intensified about then, and even more wounded started coming in. The doctors in the field hospital can sew up your guts and put them back in, but there’s a lot they can’t do. They can’t really crack your sternum. They can’t treat severe head injury. They can’t remove a bullet from your heart or lung. So they’d evacuate the people with wounds like that to Lebanon, carrying them out over the border. I don’t know how many of the wounded survived or died. I’m sure there were lots of problems with infections.
The field hospital was treating 120 to 200 patients a day — not only for combat wounds, but also for illness, heart problems, stress-related illnesses. Whenever there’s a free space, a new body fills it up. The outlying FSA triage tents — they’ll wrap up the wounded and send them to Al Qusayr. They’re short of everything: plasma, bandages, drugs. They use a desk lamp to illuminate the operating room. They have a tool that they plug into the wall. It heats up and they use it to cut through skin. The electricity’s always going off, and then they have to run it on a generator. As for combat injuries, we’d be seeing three to five on a slow day. On a bad day it would be 25 to 40.
I’ve covered my share of wars, but I’ve never seen one where so many kids are getting hit. There were infants who were hit, and they’re changing their diapers on the operating table. I’ve never seen anything like this. I took that picture of a little girl with her intestines spilling out of her tummy. There was one kid, a six-year-old, who got hit by one of the snipers based in the town hospital. He was shot in two places, near the heart and the lungs. But he survived. I don’t think I can go hunting anymore, back home. When you hunt deer, you aim for the heart and lung. As the doctor said, "They’re shooting to kill."
At one point a father and son were both killed as they were driving up to a checkpoint. They were both buried in the martyrs’ cemetery. The official town cemetery is controlled by the Syrian army, so they can’t use that. The martyrs’ cemetery is maybe half an acre – about the half the size of a football field. It used to be the town park. When I left they had space for just ten more bodies, but that got filled up the day I left. There’s some adjacent land but that’s not public land. The Local Coordination Committee, the ad hoc government in the village, is actually trying to find the owner of the land so they can get permission to bury their dead there. But he fled somewhere and no one can find him. Can you imagine? In the meantime they keep the bodies of the martyrs in a walk-in refrigerator that used to be used for the town’s produce.
What was most shocking was the indiscriminate shelling. This is not a major city like Sarajevo. With Al Qusayr we’re talking about a village. We’re talking maybe 20,000 people, with another 40,000 or so in the outlying areas. This is a small town, but it represents what’s taking place all over Syria.
Yes, there are some Islamists around. I can’t really say who they were or offer a deeper analysis. Sometimes you find yourself talking to kids who were eight years old when the war in Iraq started, so during their formative years America was the devil. But I think a bigger factor is that Assad has been trampling on their religion. Their mosques have been blown up. Soldiers force them to kiss posters of Assad and to proclaim him to be their god and to bow down to him. Then they put the footage on YouTube. So there’s going to be a reaction, one way or the other.
If the West isn’t going to intervene, someone else is going to. Someone’s going to promise them weapons — and they’re going to take them. In my view, the best option is to show them that we care. They’d say, "We love America. Where is Obama? Where is Hillary? Where are the bombs?" They’d say, "We don’t want your soldiers, we want your weapons." The least we can do is help them to establish a safe corridor, help them to flee. I asked the doctor, "Can’t they go to the state hospital?" And he said, "They’ll kill the wounded. They stop them at the checkpoints." Because they’re viewed as terrorists. You’re living in enemy territory so you’re the enemy.
At one point we went past a village where Alawites are living. They said, "We aren’t going to kill them." But I think there will be bloodletting whether NATO intervenes or not. I’m not sure there’s much the outside world can do about that, considering what’s happened. But that shouldn’t hinder us from setting up humanitarian corridor so that people can flee and evacuate their wounded — maybe near Idlib on the Turkish border. Create a no-fly zone so that the Syrians can’t move weaponry into it.
The UN monitors came twice. The first time they came, the Free Syrian Army took them around the town, showed them where the Syrian army positions were. The second time they came, all they did was apologize: "Our security’s at risk, they can’t guarantee our safety, we get shot at." As near as I can tell, all they did in the end was list the cities where massacres took place.
I knew so many people who died. I’d do a story on someone and he’d end up dead. I did a piece on this artist, and then he died. Another guy who worked at the media center was killed. The cameraman was killed. All in just a few days. That’s how small the village is. So much grief. The cameraman was killed, and I go to their house to pay my respects. Then a few days later his brother gets hit. He was standing in the doorway and he caught shrapnel in the leg. The mortar hit thirty, forty yards away. I’ve never seen such a continuity of horror on such a large scale. I wasn’t there that long. Even the guy who sings for the martyrs buried his own brother.
"When I die, who’s going to sing for me?" That’s how close it is, that’s how small it is.
All the people have to eat is canned food, from Lebanon. Sometimes bread. We drank water from the tap. But the fruit trees were in bloom: cherries, apricots. You can see snow on the mountains in Lebanon.
When I left they were bombing the heck out of Al Qusayr. The army was shelling the town, rocketing it. The helicopters were around, outside. The field hospital filled up way past capacity. Some wounded people had to get out. So when we came out, we brought a lot of wounded with us, carrying the wounded on stretchers. There was heavy fighting on the border, but this one road was calm for some reason. The two sides made a deal apparently, and it held. It was crazy.