heavy artillery

A Syrian witness to war – Something inside me broke

Mohammed Abdullah (Artino) joined the 2011 protests, was arrested, tortured, and later witnessed the chemical attack on Ghouta.

Assad Torture civilians protestor

Like many others, Mohammed Abdullah – Artino – lost a lot of weight after the siege took hold in Ghouta in May 2014 (Photo courtesy of Artino)

Mohammed Abdullah (Artino) spoke to Middle East Eye about his experiences since joining the Syrian protests in 2011, later becoming a war photographer who witnessed the Ghouta chemical attack.

I joined the protest movement in March 2011. It was a decision that cost me many friends and changed the course of all our lives. Those were heady, exciting days. There were so many of us. We really thought our peaceful protest could beat the system. When the older generation joined the movement we felt invincible.

I am an Alawite, like the al-Assad family and much of the military establishment. I had grown up seeing how people used and abused their influence and hated the corruption that was so rife in all parts of Syria. I wanted to live in a country where everyone could be seen as equal.

Assad prison torture peaceful protestors

Artino (left) at a protest in Zabadani (Feb 2012) (Photo courtesy of Artino)

After just a few weeks, I was filmed attending a funeral and arrested. I was taken to the notorious prison of the Mukhabarat, the Syrian secret police, where I was placed in solitary confinement, blindfolded and strapped to a chair. One guard was particularly bad. He must have been a big guy because I could feel his huge hands when he smashed me with his fists.

One day I fought back. “What have I done? Uncuff me, take off this mask! Why won’t you show me your face, are you a coward? Why can’t we talk man to man?” He went crazy, picked up the chair, and threw me against the wall.

I was also subjected to the infamous flying carpet where the prisoner is strapped down to a hinged board and the ends are brought together. The aim is to bend the spine and inflict maximum pain. The prison experience still haunts me. When I came out, I felt so unclean that I would spend hours in the shower.

Because my father was in the military, he was able to secure my release after a week, on payment of 60,000 Syrian Lira. He was an intelligence officer in the Syrian Air Force, part of the Mukhabarat no less. Both my parents were from Golan. My mother was Circassian, and a Sunni. She died while giving birth to me, her third son, so I was brought up by my maternal uncle and his wife.

I found out that the authorities were after me, so I escaped to Ghouta, a rural area to the east of the city where my adopted parents had a house. Soldiers regularly searched the area, and anyone deemed a rebel or traitor would be arrested or shot. So my mother dressed me in a khemar, traditionally worn by local women. Anyone who meets me can see I am hardly the most feminine of men, but there I stood swathed in layer upon layer of black cotton. Whenever we heard government forces were close-by, I would be told to go and sit with the women.

Barely getting out alive

As the protest movement developed into a full-scale war, I met the famous Serbian photographer, Goran Tomasevic. He took me on as his fixer, and I would organise his schedule and carry equipment.

Every day we would go up to the frontline and take pictures of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). I would wake at 4am and wait for one of the rebel soldiers to call. They would tell us where the fighting was likely to be. It was risky work and frightening seeing death and killing so close up.

Goran was crazy, he did not seem to feel fear. One January morning a sniper’s bullet missed my head by millimetres, he just turned to me and laughed: “Luckily you are so f**** short.”

Syria Assad regime kill prisoners

Another photojournalist snaps Artino lying down to take a shot (Jobar, Sept 2013) (Photo courtesy of Artino)

Another day we were waiting in an empty building when two or three grenades came whistling through the air, followed by heavy artillery barrage. The rebels fired back. Bullets were flying everywhere. For 30 minutes there was no let-up. Very slowly we inched into a cupboard in one of the back rooms. I cannot believe we got out of there alive.

Being an amateur photographer before the war, Goran became my teacher. He introduced me to Reuters so I started my career as a photojournalist. When my photos began to appear on the front pages of major international newspapers, I felt happy and proud. I am just a civilian. I am not a soldier. I am not a fighter. Neither of us expected this to be our job, but when our countries were burning we picked up a camera.

On my way to shoot a local brigade, I was hit by a shell. One moment I was walking down the street, the next I was in the air. When I came round I knew it was bad. My knee, thigh, shoulder, hand, the complete right side of my body was badly damaged. I was put in an old ambulance where all the glass had been blown out. As it careered along, I leaned out the window directing the driver away from pot-holes.

I was confined to my bed for two months. I was in pain – there were no painkillers – but also bored from being housebound. I pestered my friends to take me out. Reluctantly they would push me towards the frontline in my wheelchair so I could continue taking pictures.

Witnessing Ghouta

In August 2013, I witnessed the now infamous chemical attack in Ghouta. I was woken in the middle of the night with news of a gas attack. The next morning, despite several warnings not to go, I went to investigate myself. Nothing prepared me for what I saw: children, babies lying on the floor in their pajamas, so still and calm with no visible signs of injury. They looked like they were sleeping but all around was mayhem: everyone was screaming and crying, but the children were so still and other-worldly. I noticed their strange complexions; they had fluid coming out of their mouths and eyes. They were all dead. They say more than 400 children were killed.

I was paralysed. I could not move, let alone take a picture. As the feeling of nausea ebbed away, I found a doctor and I asked him: “How can you be sure this is chemical and not a normal death?” He himself was in shock, his colleague had died after inhaling the sarin gas. He carefully showed me the dark blue colour on their skin; the foam and vomit around their mouths were the signs of asphyxiation.

The bodies were laid out in schools and mosques, rows upon rows of them. I wandered from one building to the other taking photos. Something inside me broke: so many victims, survivors hallucinating and gasping for breath. Hell came to Eastern Gouta that day. Barack Obama said that if Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people there would be no other option but to intervene. We are still waiting.

I persuaded my parents to leave Ghouta because the whole area was besieged by government forces. The siege was getting tighter and the food we had stored would not last long. None of us choose to abandon our homes, but sometimes we just run out of options. My parents are in their fifties and living in a warzone is a huge burden.

Improve your body, improve your mind

Left alone for two months with a broken knee, I had to fend for myself as best as I could. I would crawl across the floor just to reach the bathroom. It was tough and humiliating but more than that I was fed up. I began reading avidly, finishing a novel each day and researching survival techniques on the internet. But it was not enough. I was powerless and my body was not mine anymore.

Then it hit me. I would start working out. If I could improve my body it would have a positive impact on my mental state. What 30-year-old guy does not want a six-pack? Did it matter that I was living under siege, in a country at war – no. As I posted the photos on Facebook, my friends commented wildly. They had seen too much blood and bullets, this was different, funny even, my quest for a beautiful body. Bit by bit, I started to gain strength and move again. I was proud of my developing abs. Perhaps they were not perfectly sculpted because I lacked the protein and fat necessary to build the muscle. It may seem strange that while my neighbours were scrambling to find enough food to feed their children, I worried about how I looked. This is what extreme situations do to you.

The calcium in my knee was decomposing, and the only long-term option was a knee transplant, something impossible in Ghouta. Every time I went to the field hospital to get my screws fixed, I could see my case was not a priority; people with life-threatening conditions could not get enough medicine. Hobbling around on a stick, I taught photography to children but I could not walk more than a few metres. The pain was unbearable.

Syria revolution

When he wasn’t taking photos himself Artino would teach children how to use a camera (Lebanon October 2014) (Photo courtesy of Artino)

Who can you trust?

I paid a smuggler $4,000 to provide me with a fake Syrian ID and take me to Lebanon. Before the war this journey was less than two hours, but it took us the best part of a month. I could not move fast due to the injury and there was fighting on all sides. You are moved from safe house to safe house, passed from group to group; sometimes it is the FSA and sometimes individuals who could be best described as gunrunners or bandits. It is a terrifying process, your heart is constantly in your mouth, you jump at any noise. Can you trust the smugglers or will they betray you to the government forces? We had to dodge the different armed groups, sleeping in bombed out buildings or sometimes outside.

After the bombs, the cold and hunger, I felt surrounded by luxury in Lebanon. When I asked my friend for a glass of water, I expected him to go over to the sink, but as he opened the fridge and the light flicked on, I broke down and wept. I was so overwhelmed and exhausted.

As I tried to establish my life there, I found I was forgetting small things: names and appointments. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I still had not been able to get my injuries fixed. I then learned of another option, resettlement.

‘I am just a regular metalhead’

I arrived in Europe towards the end of last year. People are astonished when I tell them I am from Syria. They have this image that we are all jihadis living in the desert with the camels. I have only seen one camel in my life. I am just a regular metalhead with a loud laugh and a few tattoos.

I learned my half-brother was killed in action earlier this year. He was a pro-government fighter, and died defending what he believed in. I have not spoken to that side of the family since the start of the uprising. My older brother is also in the army. We always had a difficult relationship, he would taunt me when I was a kid and blamed me for killing his mother. He texted me to say that I was a disgrace to my family and if he ever found me, he would kill me. He is so loyal that I feel for sure he would kill me if he could.

My real father died in 2014. While he still backed the government of Bashar al-Assad, he had accepted our differences. When he secured my release back at the start of all this, he told me that he was proud of me. “Your uncle has done a good job, he has ensured you a good education and you have inherited his good nature.” My father pleaded me to give it up, but knew I probably would not. He told me he was able to save me once, but if I got caught again there would be no more strings to be pulled.

Two weeks ago I underwent surgery, three years after my knee was first damaged by the shell. When I am physically fit I will go back home.

I miss home. Of course I miss home.

_____________________________________________________________

Henrietta McMicking
Tuesday 19 April 2016 10:14 UTC

– See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/i-am-alawite-and-i-miss-home-918192142#sthash.EVZOLqik.dpuf

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Syrian Boy Brutally Beating by Assad Soldier – 1


Published on June 22, 2015

First UN report on children in Syria’s civil war paints picture of ‘unspeakable’ horrors

4 February 2014 – Syrian children have been subjected to “unspeakable” suffering in the nearly three years of civil war, with the Government and allied militia responsible for countless killings, maiming and torture, and the opposition for recruiting youngsters for combat and using terror tactics in civilian areas, according to the first United Nations report on the issue.

“Violations must come to an end now,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says in the report, which was released yesterday to the Security Council. “I therefore urge all parties to the conflict to take, without delay, all measures to protect and uphold the rights of all children in Syria.”

The report, covering the period from 1 March 2011 to 15 November 2013, lists a raft of horrors that Syria’s children have suffered since the opposition first sought to oust President Bashar al-Assad, ranging from direct commission of abuse, including sexual violence, to more general violation of their rights from school closures and denial of access to humanitarian aid.

“The present report highlights that use of weaponry and military tactics that are disproportionate and indiscriminate by Government forces and associated militias has resulted in countless killings and the maiming of children, and has obstructed children’s access to education and health services,” Mr. Ban writes.

Government forces have also been responsible for the arrest, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of children. Armed opposition groups have been responsible for the recruitment and use of children both in combat and support roles, as well as for conducting military operations, including using terror tactics, in civilian-populated areas, leading to civilian casualties, including children.”

The report spotlights the disappearance of many children, notes that all parties to the conflict have seriously hampered the delivery of humanitarian assistance in areas most affected by the fighting, and warns that children have experienced a high level of distress as a result of witnessing the killing and injuring of members of their families and peers, or of being separated from their family and/or displaced.

Detailing the detention of children as young as 11 years old for alleged association with armed groups by Government forces in large-scale arrest campaigns, the reports says they were ill-treated and tortured to extract confessions or humiliate them or pressure a relative to surrender or confess.

“Ill treatment and acts tantamount to torture reportedly included beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shock, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives,” the report says.

“Reports indicate that children were also suspended from walls or ceilings by their wrists or other limbs, were forced to put their head, neck and legs through a tire while being beaten, and were tied to a board and beaten.

The report cites a 16-year-old boy as saying he witnessed his 14-year-old male friend being sexually assaulted and then killed, and notes other allegations that boys and in a few instances girls were raped. The 16-year-old said children and adults were beaten with metal bars, their fingernails pulled out, their fingers cut. “Or they were beaten with a hammer in the back, sometimes until death,” he added.

Allegations of sexual violence by opposition groups were also received, but the UN was unable to further investigate them due to lack of access, the report says.

It adds that opposition forces recruited and used both in support roles and for combat, while Government forces used children as human shields. It notes that during the first two years of the conflict, most killings and maiming of children were attributed to Government forces, but mainly due to increased access to heavy weapons and the use of terror tactics opposition groups increasingly engaged in such acts in 2013.

“Armed opposition groups also engaged in the summary execution of children,” it says, reporting that lack of access, including for security reasons, prevented the UN from systematic documentation.

Schools and hospitals have been disproportionally targeted by all parties, with indications that Government forces were the main perpetrators of attacks against hospitals and other health-care infrastructure, mainly opposition-run makeshift health facilities and of threats and attacks against medical personnel, according to the report.

“Injured opposition fighters and civilians, including children, admitted to Government hospitals in perceived pro-opposition areas in Aleppo, Dar’a, Homs and Idlib governorates were reportedly exposed to arrest, detention, ill treatment and acts tantamount to torture by civilian doctors, and/or elements of Government forces,” it says.

The UN also received reports on instances where opposition groups denied medical treatment to injured pro-Government fighters, or misused ambulances, including to cross Government checkpoints.

In his list of recommendations, Mr. Ban calls on all sides to stop all grave violations against children cited in the report, end all indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian areas, including terror tactics, airstrikes, chemical weapons and heavy artillery, allow unimpeded humanitarian access, and immediately release abducted women and children.

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47077#.VbjwM_kYHb4

Assad Bashar Syria torture Syrian children

Assad Bashar Syria regime torture Syrian children

Crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian government

1) Use of artillery fire against unarmed civilians
2) Door-to-door arrest campaigns
3) Shooting of medical personnel who attempt to aid the wounded
4) Raids against hospitals, clinics and mosques and the purposeful destruction of medical supplies and arrest of medical personnel
5) Denied access to international monitors, humanitarian groups and human rights organizations
6) Shutting off local social media communications
7) Crimes against humanity had been committed by military and security forces including: sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detention and murder
8) Targeted large-scale killings
9) Use of torture in 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies
10) Use chemical weapons against civilians
11) Evidence of a clear chain of command responsibility for atrocities committed all the way up to high-level Syrian officials

Assad regime committed war crimes, crime against humanity

Article from: Syria in Crisis
http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/crisis-in-syria