Happy New Year!
I have not been posting for a while. So I decided to share some pictures of places I have seen and people I met during this past year.
Last month I travelled with photographer Joey L. in Iraq and Syria. In the first part of the journey we worked with Oxfam around Mosul area. It was an amazing reporting experience, especially in Qayyara where the burning oil wells, set on fire by ISIS while retreating. The scene is almost apocalyptic. Oxfam is doing an amazing job on the ground. I have seen first-hand.
The Sunday Times Magazine published Joey’s amazing pictures and my article with the title: “The Day the Sun Never Rose.” Below you will find the longer version of it.
QAYYARA (Iraq) – A haze of thick black smoke obscured the view of the sky. The only source of illumination was a wall of flames at least three-stories high. A constant humming drone came from boiling oil which looked like lava ready to spill out from a volcano. Suddenly a small pin prick of light revealed itself through the thick, noxious clouds- a reminder that it was actually the middle of the day.
On Wednesday morning Syrians citizens received on their mobile phones two “absurd” text messages from the regime. They were addressing civilians and rebels in east Aleppo, asking them to participate to a football match on Thursday at noon, “a goodwill gesture on the road to national reconciliation.”
“Rebels in the neighborhoods of east Aleppo, anyone who wants to attend or participate in the football match should come to Hamdaniyeh Stadium on Thursday 11/24 at 12:00 pm through the passageways announced previously”
“Rebels in the neighborhoods of east Aleppo, the governorate of Aleppo invites you to attend and participate in a football match, as a gesture of goodwill on the way to achieving national reconciliation”
It has been described as unpredictable, sometime violent but the Shia militia Hashd Al Shaabi, also known as Popular Mobilization Front, is gaining momentum in Iraq.
Hashd al Shaabi, was formed in 2014 as the Iraqi Army was defeated by the Islamic State in several areas of the country. In September 2015 the Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared at the UN General Security Council they were part of the official state forces. Hashd Al Shaabi takes order directly from Baghdad.
Qayyarah, Iraq – Ayad leans against the black wall of a partially destroyed home, gripping an AK-47 in his hands.
He takes a deep breath and sprints across the road, between puddles of spilled oil, towards another house that he imagines is full of fighters. Ayad is followed by five fellow soldiers. Ahead of them, tongues of fire lick upwards from burning oil wells. The scene is apocalyptic.
Suddenly, a worker shouts towards Ayad and his group: “Get away from there, kids – it’s dangerous.”
Between February and March the Mosul Dam, Iraq, captured media attention. At the height of the emergency it seemed the dam was about to break, but an Italian company was awarded $300 million to take care of it. After reading some articles and talking to some people I started to see a pattern of contradictions. What is going on here? The opinions on how bad it was started to change dramatically. Is the Mosul Dam in danger or not?
Short answer: It depends who you talk to.
Particularly revealing were calls in Italy. Details of the story would change from one source to another. Often when asked for official comments it would become another version or no answers at all. Nobody really wanted to talk about it in depth.
After a couple of months investigating the issue, I wrote an article for War is Boring. Please read and tell me what you think.
While the drums of war are all over the internet, we should keep calm. Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State, is not happening anytime soon. “The current battle is only to liberate the area north of Raqqa. Currently there is no preparation … to liberate Raqqa, unless as part of a campaign which will come after this campaign has finished,” says Talal Silo, spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance to Reuters.
In other words, SDF is marching around the city, and most probably trying to cut off all the supply routes.
On Tuesday afternoon most of the media around the world announced the operation. Pictures of YPG and YPJ preparing for the battle circulated widely. Morale was hyped up in every front. Finally the US could formally announce what the Obama administration was eager to accomplish in the war against ISIS. Many believes that the US president wants the two major ISIS cities (Raqqa and Mosul) to fall before he leaves office, and that is no easy task.
When in 2006 US Navy engineers started thinking where they should place the four ground stations for their bright new communications system, in their minds Italy was one of the best spots. Sicily, where the US military has a strong presence, is closer to Tunis than Rome. The MUOS would cover not just the Middle East but also Africa where the lacking of communications coverage made AFRICOM particularly vulnerable in that sector.
At the time, Italy was a also one of the US greatest ally. The close relationship between George W. Bush and the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi made everything easier, smoother, as described in the Wikileaks cables. So the two governments signed a Memorandum to build the fourth ground station in Niscemi, where the US Navy had already a base. The then Ministry of Defense, Ignazio La Russa, acted as guarantor for the deal, although now he refuses to talk publicly about MUOS.
The US and Italian government didn’t expect such a fierce opposition. NO MUOS activists they first stopped the work at the station and then started suing the government for a breach in the Italian laws.
I wrote about it for Quartz. And this is the link. Enjoy
While the civil war continues with no possible solution ahead, the Syrian government has scheduled parliamentary election for April 13. I found it pretty surreal. Citizens are asked to choose 250 members of the People’s Council from 15 multi-member constituencies but nearly half of those are not under the government control.
As we well know Raqqa is occupied by the Islamic State which recently partly lost control of Deir ez-Zor. Homs is completely destroyed, and in Aleppo the ongoing fight makes it almost impossible to vote. Latakia is also partly controlled by the Syrian Army. The Kurds who established an autonomous region, known as Rojava, will not hold the elections.
Marlin was 15 years-old when she decided to travel to Syria last May. She grew up in Boras, Sweden. She wanted to join the Islamic State with her boyfriend and be part of the jihad. According to Swedish press, when she traveled to the Islamic State, she was also pregnant. Allegedly she got “mislead” by an ISIS recruiter in Sweden who convinced her to make the journey.
On February 17 she got rescued by Kurdish anti-terrorist force, CTD, during a raid in Mosul. The girl, who is now 16, is in Kurdistan and she will be hand over to Swedish authority. Her boyfriend, most probably at this point husband, got killed by a Russian airstrike. It is unclear what the girl was doing in Mosul, and why she was moved there.
A statement from the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) said the family was informed of the human rescue mission.
Most of the articles that have been published so far emphasis the “misleading” part, treating this girl as a victim. There is a sense of pity around them, as if we are unable to process their choice, so we tend to believe someone else forced them into the jihad. Some girls maybe so, but not all of them.