A Syrian witness to war: 'Something inside me broke'
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.