Tag Archives: Free Syrian Army

Let’s go back to the beginning… Syria.

18 Aug

I started going to Syria from the beginning of the revolution. Looking back, it was the beginning of me truly living. I could never put into words the enlightening feeling there is of being surrounded by such an abundance of love, strength and passion in life.

Mid 2011 – Early 2012: While it was the beginning of a horrendous continual spiral downwards for Syria, it was also a time of unity, love, welcoming and laughter; emotions I was blessed to be a part off; looking back at the Syria I enter now I truly appreciate every moment in the beginning with all I got to experience.

I entered the country through routes unimaginable, mountain terrains across Lebanon, tunnels, running for your life through land mine territories, along with the paths that felt like a walk in a park which were somehow more worrying to me that a war zone was a few footsteps away. The stories are endless but I know many Syrians can tell plentiful tales than I ever could this one, and tragically many did not live to tell the tales of these dangerous crossings.

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The early demonstrations in Syria

When I finally reached the other side, I would be greeted with smiles, hugs, kisses, pulled in every direction by the locals of whatever village I arrived to. It was a joyous time in many ways. I would walk through the streets with the locals learning all about their life, discovering everything with little worry of those surrounding me. The shabiha were very present but I felt at such ease and comfort always of the men of the newly formed Free Syrian Army. This was a time when there was true unity across Syria in opposition to the government forces.

There was a beautiful energy among the people, even with the murders & imprisonments happening across the country.

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The early demonstrations in Syria

The streets would be full of cheering in the newly liberated areas, children playing in the streets as they should be, and then there were the demonstrations. What a wondrous time that was. I am sure you know what I am talking about if you were there. You remember that energy, the songs, the dancing, the chanting, the children clapping and dancing with their parents, handmade flags whisking through the crowds, in the villages the dry rice would be falling over you as the women sang and threw it over the crowds in joy. When I would arrive I would be treated like royalty! The people had so much love to show me, the welcoming was incredible. Most of my footage was terribly shaky as I couldn’t stop myself from having a little dance as I waved my way through the crowds. The drums would beat all around me and the sound of freedom songs filled the air. My ribs would ache continually as I traveled for weeks and months across the country and the laughter would be never-ending. I wish I had all my hard drives with me right now to share so much more.

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An early demonstration in Syria

Most of my travel would be done on the back of a pick up truck or a motorcycle, and at times whatever makeshift means of travel could be put together. I could travel across open roads freely in many ways while in FSA territory. There was a great sense of freedom as I could feel the wind against me as we traveled and I could film at ease with the locals welcoming nature.
We feared shelling, warplanes and snipers loyal to the Assad regime, but looking back in comparison to what has become now, the escalation is absolutely shocking.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there was tremendous tragedy, pain across the country that will always haunt, human life lost with no just reasoning. While the demonstrations would take place, there would be those times when government loyal forces would storm the area and kill as many as they could in their path of terror. Indiscriminate bombings, civilians murdered continually, loved ones constantly disappearing. The FSA took care to protect the civilians demonstrating, that was their job and the origins of why they were formed.

I don’t wish to go into all of that however, not in this moment. I mention this just incase anyone reading this things it was some sort of fun party in Syria; it was far from it. The realities were ridiculously dangerous and the war crimes unbearable to recall as they continue to be.

My reasoning for writing this is simply because I have continued to work in Syria to this day I write this and I have witnessed every step of the revolution, and the now chaos the country has descended into. Things are very different as we all know, week by week things change fast on the ground. Sadly the atrocities continue; in vast numbers with many different groups committing crimes now. Sadly I am not free to roam the streets and talk with locals as I wish. Sadly I cannot be known as a journalist or even humanitarian upon working with my charity there, and each time I enter the country, only my eyes show knowing there are few I can trust. I get such an overwhelming sense of sadness in these moments I travel. A once ‘freedom’ in many ways, to now a need to stay invisible. I feel weighed down at times with sadness from what has become of Syria lately and sit in this moment and recall so many cherished memories and cherished souls I have encountered.

I share this because I miss that unity. I miss those days, although I wish those days never had to exist, but I miss the beauty and glow of the Syrian people.

I have had a very busy year to date, but mostly have been away from social media as I just have not had the time to check in on it, but also at times because it saddens me deeply too. If I take a quick scroll through my news feeds on accounts I see so much hate, I just feel further sadness. There is enough destruction happening physically without now using social media as a method to spread hate too.

I do also have so much love, and you know who you are across the world who take their time to think of me and show me love frequently. That is never forgotten.

Smiles in Syria!

Smiles in Syria!

Stop and think, please. What has hate ever done for our world? What has hate ever done for you personally? What is that going to do for the chaos that has become Syria? I know a lot of it comes from places of anger and emotions, but focus those emotions towards love, towards sharing peace. That is how you can make a difference for Syria, for humanity.

Don’t waste time fighting over political movements in the country, the endless list of groups fighting across the country and the ever so complex who is who amidst this. Take your time on something in which you can and will make a difference, humanity. Remember that energy in the beginning, the love true Syrians have, that energy that was there in the beginning, it is still there in many, the people are weak in spirit but you can give them strength across the world to hold on to that love they had.

I still believe in Syria. I still believe in the people of Syria and I have ever reason to. My safety is in their hands to this day, to this day Syrians across the country protect me, give their lives to care for me. I will never be able to return the favour of what the people of Syria do for me, and I know the spirit of those who I have loved who has passed on are always surrounding and protecting me.

We all want to walk the streets of Syria freely once again, we all want to smell the sweet jasmine in the gentle evening breeze once again, and globally we need to be a part of the change.

There is no question hate is spreading across our world, the illness as I refer to it as called racism and religious intolerance from lack of understanding is on the rise. We have very sick people in our world who live by prejudice, and the only way to fight this is through a peaceful means. Through education, patience, and sharing peace and love in every step of our life we can teach those less educated about our world so much.

A wall in Kafranbel, Idlib, Syria

A wall in Kafranbel, Idlib, Syria

Weapons whether physical or verbal bring us pain and take us all to a dark place. Our world is big enough for us all to share. Our world has beautiful experiences we should all be able to share and I may be a dreamer, but our dreams are as alive as we make them, and I would prefer to journey through this life focusing on the love and sharing those experiences.

We are all humans, remember that. We are all part of the destruction across our world and we are all responsible for change. We all can be better, more loving souls every day and we need to work on that progression. Syrians taught me how to love, how to have inner peace, how to become a better person. Syrians showed me what love truly meant in this world with their kindness towards me, a strange to them in the beginning. Syrians deserve our love, and they deserve us to be showing the human face of the country much more.

With that I shall close on another note, from October I will no longer be working for mainstream media, I will be truly freelance again as I was in the beginning. I have always stayed freelance, but been drifting to too many contracts that do not give me satisfaction in what I do. I will no longer play a part in the role of the media giving minimal time with no care for the human story. I know that what the public want to see more, yet mainstream media continues to lack behind the public calling.

I will continue what I do but I will do so for anyone who wishes to take the time to see a human side of a story and I shall only be sharing human, civilian only stories from now on. If mainstream media wishes to take my stories they can do so as it is without editing my stories in any form; not that I have ever allowed anything from me be distorted to become a lie. I need to get back to human only stories as I began. These are the stories that matter in our world, the people deserve a voice. I ask you to do the same and together let’s keep peace and love spreading in our world and let’s keep the face of humanity alive.

Thank you for reading this if you have got this far… Truly thank you.

Peace and Love always…

Yasmin x

4 years later in Syria.

16 Mar

As I spend another anniversary in the country I decided this year to spend it with those who matter the most. The civilians. The displaced families internally.

Amidst the ruin of Syria I sit with Abo Omar & his wife Marwa while their 2 boys rummage around the room they have taken shelter in. They lost their home and eldest son Hamoud nearly 2 years ago when a government mortar hit their civilian populated area. Marwa was badly injured and has since recovered. This is the 5th building they have had to move to within Syria in the past 2 years, a sad trend that many can relate to within the country.

I first met Abo Omar over 3 years ago. Laughter was plentiful, his children chanted & danced among the crowds pulling me in to join them in dance with the joyous excitement of what they saw as a festival atmosphere. Vibrancy gleamed within the crowds, drums echoed through the streets with song that was haunting, the re-established flag to represent a Free Syria weaved within the people with a unity that many saw as unbreakable.

‘I was proud to be Syrian before, but not today. Look at what we have done to our country.’ As Abo Omar titters he proceeds to opening his Facebook on the cracked screen of his aged mobile. ‘Look, we even fight over what day the revolution began.’ he shows me the talks many have been indulging online about the date and origins of the revolution.

Abo Omar spent close to a year with the then Free Syrian Army, his commander and once friend from 10 years prior was whom he pledged his allegiance. They fought fierce battles to free Homs together, they wept together over their lost brothers in battle, and celebrated together over few minor victories they would achieve back then with what little weaponry they had.

‘I could not agree with him on many decisions, the first was when he wanted us to torture and kill prisoners we had from the army. I did not join the Free Syrian Army for this. I joined to protect my children, my country.’ Abo Omar had then decided that this would not be the continued path for him.

Abo Omar started working with others to help bring in medical supplies, food and other items urgently needed in the besieged city of Homs through dangerous smuggling routes across from Lebanon that was extremely limiting to what they could bring.

His then commander has gone on to become a Jabhat Al Nusra leader, now fronting battles for greater land and power.

The family depend on what little handouts they receive through locals working to help with food and clothing. They live on minimal water they share with 5 other families in the large home that was long abandoned with its true owners unknown. Families have each taken a room and made it their home as they wait; they do not even know what they are waiting for.

Marwa, Abo Omar’s wife, once a school teacher now spends her time trying to interest her children in education to occupy their minds. The boys do not go outside and do not attend the local mosque or schools that have been arranged by some which have been known to entice recruitment &a rather extremist teaching of Islam.
‘It is not safe for our children to go outside. They like to take boys their age and teach them very bad things. God willing something will happen soon so we can live in peace again.’ Marwa continues to tidy their small room as we talk to form a sense of normality in the discomfort of her obvious despair.

They do not hold passports, one of the biggest problems facing the people of Syria making it extremely difficult for them to travel, leaving them little opportunity. Abo Omar paid $3500 to obtain passports selling what little belongings they had after losing their eldest along with their home; part of that money was their wedding rings they sold; however like many from Syria they never saw these passports nor the people who they arranged the deal with.

‘What can we do? Beg on the streets of Turkey or Lebanon? What can we do? If I had the money I would even try to send my wife and children on the boat to Greece.’ Abo Omar pauses to sip his coffee to mask his shaky voice from the depth of emotion.
‘I had a small shop. Children would come after school and buy sweets. I was able to feed my own family, now look at us.’

4 years later and a country left predominantly in rubble. Millions of civilians are left with little to no voice; a voice veiled by the armed struggle in the country.

While this story is a simple one on some levels within the complexities of this war; it is however the largest story of the country, it is the story that vast numbers echo.

The voice of millions of civilians who are left displaced and with the branding of refugee is the voice that is off the true Syria and I give my life on it that this voice is a beautiful one of care, a kindness that cannot be found across the globe with ease, and it is a voice that deserves our human affection across the world.

Untold emotions in Syria…

29 May

“Now there is only blood and murder.” – the poignant words delicately spoken by Mohammad in Syria as he recalls his memories before the troubles of Syria. “My days were so beautiful with my friends, studying and working, we laughed so much.” ; reminiscing yet unable to evoke a smile with such thoughts.

Mohammad had joined the revolution from the beginning and has battled in some of the fiercest battles in the country. He also helps at a police station trying to bring order and a policing system to be respected by all in the region; a gruelling task amidst the chaos of the country.

Protest in early 2012 in Syria.

A different energy; a protest in early 2012 in Syria.

I first met Mohammad over 2 years ago, and have watched the deterioration to his personality and mind frame. A young man in his early 20’s with boyish charms, full of energy, laughter, and joking often; he now carries a colossal weight of overwhelming emotions he can only hold internally. His smile forgotten and health taking a rapid deterioration with a diet of cigarettes and coffee in excess with little else; like many of the men in Syria now.

As the crisis in Syria rages on, the focus is all too often on the horrors of the war lacking anything in-depth on the emotions being suffered within the people of Syria living through this nightmare. Young men like Mohammad seem forgotten in all of this, and are only allowed to be strong men, fighters, warriors of their country; they suffer through torture, violence, scenes of devastation more than anyone in Syria, at times they are subject to sexual violence within their torture suffering severe humiliation, when they are not in suffering they have an abundance of pressures placed upon their shoulders; caring for their family, providing food for them, shelter for them, being the figure of strength is all that is expected of them with the cultural pressures, only now there is the added pressure of the most devastating crisis in our world.

Countless people have lost their lives in this war in Syria. Countless men have lost their lives fighting for their country in what was a revolution that began over 3 years ago. A branding of ‘Jihadi’ as an umbrella term is the perception they know is given to them forbidden to hold any emotion. These same men who first picked up arms done it to defend their area, to protect their family, yet the progression of this crisis in Syria has escalated past anything they imagined changing their lives into a never-ending horror story; that is for the few who are left from the beginning in 2011.

It is no longer a battle against a regime for them, it is also a battle against an ever-increasing list of armed groups, extremists and their fellow country men who even once fought by their side. Battles they never envisioned with the unity that was once so strong against the regime in the beginning. Many have lost their lives, left the country to try to have a life seeing no future in Syria for now, or turned to extremist groups.

These men once had lives the that echo globally; nights with friends full of laughter & memories to be recounted again and again, tales of love; flirting with girls in university, exchanging love notes with girlfriends in private, dancing through the night at their friends weddings, celebrating their holy holidays with grand family gathers, and all the typical things that young men do in their life across the globe. Many would have no clue of how to use a gun, let alone be able to name the many kinds of weapons as they do now in Syria. While these are all relatively simple things I speak off in day-to-day life, these also have serious repercussions on the mental state of these men with all the pressures they face today.

It is not uncommon now for many to wish for death to come knocking on their door now with different reasons; naturally the extremists are often speaking of death to come their way, as do all fighters as a general in the culture being ready to die proudly for the fight they choose, I am sure terms such as ‘Allahu Akbar’ with videos of beheadings will sadly come to the minds of people who may read this uneducated in the culture to understand my point in what I am trying to convey. There is however a much more serious reason and that is from PTSD, depression, exhaustion and all the stress that they have to endure, stresses that have also been the product of some suicides in men from Syria, with suicide being something far from common in the culture.

The extreme exhaustion of the tragedy they are witnessing daily is simply too much for them, sleepless years have now gone by, never-ending trauma in their beloved country, and those far distant memories of the joyous life they can just about recount now are all simply too much to bear.

Through all of this Mohammad holds a kindness in his heart, an innocence and a deep care for the people in his country. He has not turned to corruption or any criminal activities. He asks me to please see a family he knows who really have nothing and shares just how awful it is for them as there is no man left in the family and they struggle too much, “Is there a way to help them?” he pleads to me.

Mohammad is a young man suffering terribly through this. Determined to help his country, yet at a loss now on what the future shall be, far too grown beyond his age with pains that will never leave him, knowing that his future is in turmoil whether the fighting ends tomorrow or not.

If friends have not been killed, they have left, changed to extremist thinking breaking bonds that once existed, some friendships unravelled earlier in the revolution with the pressures of choosing legions to the regime or a free Syria.

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Another day, another death. His close friend of many years, from before the revolution has been killed.

“I just wish to die to not feel anymore pain.” expressed in a state of sheer exhaustion as Mohammad leaves to his friends burial.

 

(Real name has been changed to be Mohammad in this blog)

 

Syria : Male Anguish

16 Jun

As it is Father’s day, I wanted to focus on a few issues the Syrian men are facing. While none of this is new, it is just not spoken about as much as I believe it should be.

Photography - Yasmin Al Tellawy - Syria

Syria – Men in Syria laugh and joke together, humour being something Syrians are well-known for.

Today thousands of children are without their father’s. Today thousands of children from Syria are not only without their father’s, but many have been witness to graphic visions of their father’s and loved ones deaths.

While we are all aware many men who have lost their lives to the conflict in Syria have been soldiers, giving their lives to fight for their country, fighting for what they see as protecting their family; there are thousands of men who have lost their lives while trying to just stay alive and not partaking in any activity of the war.

Photographer-Yasmin Al Tellawy  - Syria (3)   Photography - Yasmin Al Tellawy - Syria (1)
Syria – Some of the young men in Syria

Countless numbers of men are currently under arrest in Syria, their fate unknown, suffering horrendous torture that is unspeakable off for the majority of men should they survive. Some men have disclosed details of their ordeals of diminishing humiliation  in prisons in Syria with me, shocking accounts of crimes past any form of comprehension.

When I am with men in Syria, I am yet to hear someone not wish for death instead of being arrested and tortured because they know just how bad it is. As I am sure most of you know, many will always say they keep a bullet for themselves; I even met one man of the Free Syrian Army who shot his best friend as he was being dragged away by a government militia known as the shabiha, telling me that his best friend would have done this for him also – to take your own life, or that of a loved ones just to escape torture is a small glimpse into just how much suffering these men undergo.

Not only are these men tortured to extremes that no-one will comprehend unless they have experienced such a horrendous ordeal, they are subject to sexual violence. This is something that few men will ever speak off feeling such shame, but it is used rather commonly within torture in Syria. While it is no secret that men are subject to such violence, it is just spoken off rarely. Many men in Syria share with me that they even believe that men are raped as much as women in the war if not more.

Men lack the support to deal with such abuses, men are to be seen as strong humans especially in the Middle East so support networks are lacking for men who have suffered such horrific crimes.

Some men have been known to committed suicide since the violence in Syria, mainly due to the fact that they are unable to provide for their wife and children anymore. Unable to help them, unable to find work, unable to protect them.

Men of Syria are extremely determined unlike most cultures, Market Street of Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan being a prime example of the entrepreneurship skills of the Syrian men, however opportunities are lacking.

Photographer-YasminAlTellawy (61) Photographer-YasminAlTellawy (60)
Market street, Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

The men of Syria are not only subject to severe torture and sexual violence they also bear all the pressures of providing for their families. The young men are also facing pressures for choosing to not fight in Syria. Many men do not wish to fight in Syria, but many are increasing finding a problem with this telling them they should be in Syria fighting for their country.

I remember close to the beginning of the war in Syria being with young men who had joined the Free Syrian Army, watching them as they chanted songs of revolution on their way to frontline battles, but I could see their fear underneath it all, I could see these young men’s worries behind their eyes. Now I meet the same young men, few off whom are still alive, if not severely injured, and they are hardened soldiers, a natural progression of any war of course, but I do wonder what their future shall be if they are lucky enough to stay alive to see the end of the war in Syria; A country steeped in deep history and culture.

Photographer-Yasmin Al Tellawy  - Syria

Syria – Brothers in war. Both suffered serious injuries while fighting for the Free Syrian Army.

The long list of issues facing men, women and children of Syria is ever-increasing.

A generation of children are to grown up without fathers, mothers, and without both parents in many cases. A generation of children who will never know their fathers past tales of war and tragedy.

Syria is a human tragedy. These are human beings, fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, friends, loved ones, people just like you and I in this world. People whom once had lives like you and I, jobs, homes, everything just as you and I can have an opportunity off. Syrians seem to have become numbers, daily figures of death, injured and tragedy. One life is too much to be lost in war, but in Syria there are a minimum of 93,000 (according to official UN numbers) killed, which is most definitely much less than the actual death count to date, never mind those missing, under torture, and of course the millions homeless and having fled the country.

Photographer-Yasmin Al Tellawy  - Syria

Syria – Once a university student, turned Free Syrian Army soldier shot in the neck, now paralysed from the neck down with some movement in one arm only


Talk of weapons, politics and all that is without questions extremely crucial to discuss is pushed to the top of the priority list with humanizing the war in Syria secondary. These are lives that are being destroyed and lost every day. These are lives of human beings, each soul has a name, a story just as important as the other in this world.

Photographer-YasminAlTellawy

Children of Syria in Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan