Who would have thought
Near Baghouz, Syria -- Who would have thought it would end like this, I wondered as I looked at the hundreds of captured suspected jihadist fighters sitting in rows in the desert. Eight years ago, it all started as just protests against Syria’s regime. No-one was even speaking about jihadists back then…
And now. A country destroyed.
More than 370,000 people killed. More than half of the population -- nearly 13 million people! -- displaced. The rise and fall of “Daesh,” the Islamic State extremists who spawned from the whirlpool of violence that swallowed that peaceful uprising.
They swept across the region, seizing large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq and declaring a “caliphate” that quickly attracted recruits the world over. At the height of their power, they controlled an area roughly the size of United Kingdom, ruling millions of people.
And now the last of them sat in rows in the desert, next to a camp that housed thousands of their black-clad wives and children, as well as civilians who were caught up in the Baghouz village where they made their last stand.
So many thoughts went through my mind as I covered “the end.” I started going to Syria to cover the uprising a year after it started, so I have witnessed it nearly from the beginning.
So many memories, so many emotions, so much misery witnessed, so much learned.
I started covering the uprising in February 2012, in the city of Idlib. It was my first war experience. The peaceful protests that began a year earlier in Damascus were brutally suppressed by the security forces, eventually leading to the formation of the Free Syrian Army that fought against the regime. Throughout the country, these rebels staged guerrilla attacks and regime forces would defect to them here and there. By the time I got to Idlib, parts of the province and much of the city were controlled by the opposition. Government snipers fired in the city regularly, but there had been no major military operation there.
The demonstration began as most of them do. People gathered in the city center. There were big flags of Egypt and Libya, countries that had witnessed revolutions during the Arab Spring. People were chanting.
Suddenly you heard the snap, snap, snap of snipers. People began to scatter. Then came the shelling. People fled.
It was the first time I got caught up in such a thing, a peaceful demonstration that turns into an attack. I was so scared. People were running everywhere. I ran with them. I didn’t know where to go, so I followed. The shells were just raining down. I took cover with some civilians.
Right in front of me I saw a teenager collapse. Someone told me he was 15 years old. How is this possible, I thought to myself. How can they attack their own citizens. The shelling was so heavy and kicked up a smoke so thick it seemed a black blanket had covered the city.
Over the next few months, I went in and out of Syria. I never felt threatened by the rebel fighters. They were very good with the journalists. The ones I saw at the time were mostly secular. “We’re fighting for our freedom,” they would tell me.
Then jihadists began to appear in the opposition ranks. But they were ok in the beginning. I went to one jihadist camp in August 2012 and they were fine. They let us take pictures in the camp, they weren’t threatening.
But things began to change soon after that. I would see foreigners in the villages. Some spoke French, some American. You just had a feeling that things were changing. One morning I saw some guys jogging with their guns. That image just stuck out at me. Something is changing, I thought. They are preparing something.
Soon after, I was told that I would no longer be able to go into Syria because it was becoming too dangerous for journalists. A little while after that, journalists began to be kidnapped in the country. One of the people who disappeared was James Foley, a friend of mine whom I had met at the border a few months earlier. I couldn’t believe that he had been taken. That was in November, 2012. Later we would learn that he was snatched by a local gang and eventually ended up in the hands of Daesh. (The group has been known by a string of names, including ISIL, ISIS, the Islamic State or IS, but in my mind the name Daesh, the Arabic acronym, has always stuck).
Barely a few weeks later, a Turkish friend of mine, Bunyamin Aygun, told me that he was going to go into Syria to do one last story. “You’re crazy,” I told him. “It’s too dangerous, they’re kidnapping people.” I begged him not to go, but he assured me he would be careful. “Just one last story,” he said. He was snatched soon after he went in. In early January, Turkish intelligence brought him out, after some 40 days in captivity.
By then some 30 journalists were estimated to have been abducted or detained by jihadists in Syria. During the months that followed, some of them were released. And then came August 19, 2014.
I woke up in the middle of the night and went online to check something. I don’t even remember what it was. Instead, I read something that made me freeze in horror. Daesh had uploaded a video in which it beheaded James Foley, my friend. A shiver went down my spine. It can’t be, I kept thinking. That could just as easily have been me, I thought -- something that I later learned flashed through the minds of all journalists who had been to Syria. I could never bring myself to watch the video. I wanted to remember James as he was.
We won’t be able to go back into Syria for years, I was convinced at the time. I remembered all the people whom I had met in 2012 who had warned me that the parts of Syria controlled by the opposition were quickly attracting extremists and that the area was becoming a Mad Max world. Jihadists will soon come and take control, they warned. I didn’t believe them. Turned out they were right.
I remembered one guy I met in Aleppo in August 2012. Because of the heavy shelling by government troops, we were sleeping in the basement of a mosque along with fighters and first responders. There was this one jihadi guy who was particularly unpleasant. He used to sit next to the air conditioner, reading the Koran. He slept next to me for two nights, always pushing me, demanding my blanket. He was an Iraqi from the Netherlands. Once I shot a picture of him. Later on, he began appearing in gory Daesh pictures (in the most notorious one, he stood in front of severed heads spiked on the fence).
His name turned out to be Khaled Khudarhim and he became the group’s star executioner. At some point, he called a friend of mine, complaining about that picture that I took of him in August 2012 because it flagged him up to the Dutch authorities and now he couldn’t return to the Netherlands. He is thought to have been killed in 2016, though as far as I know, that was never confirmed.
After that, most of my work focused on the refugees fleeing Syria because of the conflict. The Syrian war has touched off one of the largest displacement of populations since World War II. Some 6.2 million Syrians are currently displaced within the country, according to the UN refugee agency, with another 5.6 million refugees scattered in the region.
I photographed the refugee crisis on and off since the beginning.
I’ve taken pictures of them as they squeezed and passed children through tiny openings cut in fences into Turkey as Kurdish forces battled Islamic State in border towns.
I’ve photographed them as they massed on the border again, this time fleeing a Russian and Syrian government offensive on Aleppo. I’ve photographed them getting ever more desperate as they camped out on the Greek-North Macedonian border, or clambering out of boats on the Greek island of Lesbos after terrifying crossings at sea. I’ve even photographed them going back into Syria, after their border villages were freed from Islamic State control.
I’ve captured so much human emotion during those years of exodus from Syria -- fear, desperation, hope, resignation, exhaustion, terror. But what probably made the strongest impression on me were the refugees arriving in Lesbos. Many of them had never even seen the sea. And here they had go for miles on small boats. Their faces when they stepped on land were like they were reborn.
There were lots of elderly among them. That really shocked me as well -- imagine being 70 or 80 and you have to flee your home and go to a new country where you don’t know the language or anything else. Image being in such a situation.
After all those years of coverage, I made sure that I would be there for “the end,” which came in February and March in the dusty village of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border. The US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces had set up a camp outside of Baghouz for civilians and Daesh women and children. Before getting there, people were brought to a screening center 10-15 kilometers away.
Our AFP team insisted to SDF people for days on end that they needed to let us into the center to document what was happening. They finally relented.
It was a surreal experience.
As I looked out at the rows of men sitting before me, I thought of what the group that they were suspected of belonging to had done over the years. Daesh fighters have been among the most efficient killers in the world. They had killed so many people. Journalists, Civilians. They had raped. They hadtortured. They had cut off people’s heads. They had done such terrible things. Images of their attacks in Ankara and Istanbul flashed through my mind.
And now they were kneeling in front of me. Hundreds of them. I wondered how many of them would have killed me if they were to catch me somewhere else. How many of them would have tortured me. From the looks I got and the feeling I had, it would have been quite a few.
But at the same time, they had now surrendered, so they had rights like other human beings. Some of the journalists were questioning them. And the prisoners didn’t want to speak. But the journalists kept pushing and pushing. I wasn’t ok with that. If he doesn’t want to speak, you can’t force him. He’s still a human being. There were plenty of them whom I asked questions, but they didn’t answer and I left them alone.
You looked at some of them and you got the feeling that the caliphate had collapsed. But with lots of others, you got a completely different feeling. There were thousands of women dressed in black, it was like a black army.
Many of them were really supportive of what the jihadists did. They were proud of the caliphate. Sometimes if someone talked to me, someone else would ask why are you talking to the enemy?
It was the same with many of the fighters. They were proud of what they did. I wasn’t sure if they had lost or if they were just preparing for something else. There was one blond guy. He didn’t want to talk, he just kept smiling. I asked him why he was smiling, but he didn’t answer, he just kept smiling. Maybe he was smiling because he was still alive, I don’t know.
Once I saw a group of children at the site. There were about 12 of them, from age 8 to 14. It was heartbreaking to look at them. You just don’t know what they did to these children. Did they make them fight and kill? These boys will go back to their homes. What kind of a reality will they face? It must be so heavy for them.
After I went back to Turkey, the images of the Daesh fighters sitting in the desert wouldn’t leave my mind. I checked archives and was struck at how similar the pictures that I took looked to the ones of German soldiers surrendering after World War II. They could have been the same pictures.
Extremism is like a natural disaster. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. I saw how it started in Syria and how it evolved. Extremism can happen anywhere.
The foreign fighters were really interesting to me. I saw a French guy, an Azeri, a Russian, I met people from different countries. And I really don’t understand why they would do this. I can’t understand that mentality. Why would an educated French guy come and join them. It’s just so strange to me. I can’t wrap my head around it.
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that this is the end. From what I saw, the system is still alive. They are still organized. They are going to wait for their chance to come back.
These people have done so many bad things in the world. Not just in Syria. In Kobane, in Ankara, in Istanbul, in Paris. You have done so many bad things, I thought as I looked at them. In the Middle East, but also in Europe.
They will search for any opening to rise up again. It can be in Libya, in Egypt, anywhere they can. Even in this area, I’m sure they still have support from some in the population. If they find support from the people, they’ll come back.
If there is one thing the Syrian conflict taught me is that you can’t make a decision about a situation quickly. Ideas change. Things change. I know that going forward I’m not going to quickly make up my mind about how situations will turn out. Because now I know just how much things can change and how quickly they can do so. You don’t know if something is going to turn out well. Eight years ago, we never thought this is how it would all end.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris