Journey into the Unknown

Waterford-born Jim Campbell is a member of the International Association of Press Photographers and on Wednesday evening, November 29th, he will deliver a 90-minute photo lecture at the Respond! John’s College campus from 7.15pm based on his assignments in Iraq and Syria, where he worked from under the guardianship of SOS, a French-based NGO. Son of Kathleen and Dermot (RIP), this is one of many stories Jim gathered from his latest three-month stint in the Middle East…

After spending two weeks in the Middle East in December last, one week in Iraq followed by another week in Syria I decided to return in March for a three-month period with a French NGO SOS Chretiens d’Orient as part of their communications team. First of all I would spend the first six weeks in Iraq visiting towns such as Bartella, Karemlesh, Batanya and Qaraqosh and then head to Syria for the final six weeks where I resided for five weeks in Aleppo and brief visits to Damascus and Homs. In December I had the opportunity of visiting Baghdad for 24 hours – for safety reasons we had to stay at Archbishop Abba’s residence in the Iraqi capital. We arrived in Baghdad around 8pm and were driven straight to the Archbishop’s residence where we had meal and an early night. The next morning I visited the Sayedat al-najat (“Our Lady of Salvation”) Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad where 58 worshipers, priests and policemen were killed by Jihadis in November 2010.
Today, a memorial outside the gates bear photographs of the deceased. The Church is also surrounded by a 12-foot wall with security guards on the gates checking all who enter the Church.
Beneath the Church are the tombs of all the dead a wall full of plaques with the two priests in the middle and surrounded by the worshipers. Also in the vicinity is a museum where all the blood stained clothing is on display along with any items the deceased had on them at the time of the attack which included coins, rosary beads, etc. Before departing from Baghdad I had the opportunity to meet the people in a refugee camp where 1,300 families reside. So many people cramped in such little space living in horrible conditions. Their homes were prefabs.

The extent of the Syrian people's suffering is difficult to contemplate from Ireland. To stand among them was to feel palpable grief. Relatives are pictured grieving during the funeral of five people described in Damascus as martyrs.			| Photos: Jim Campbell

The extent of the Syrian people's suffering is difficult to contemplate from Ireland. To stand among them was to feel palpable grief. Relatives are pictured grieving during the funeral of five people described in Damascus as martyrs. | Photos: Jim Campbell

What struck me on arrival was the staunch smell of sewerage, the worst I’ve ever experienced in my life. Security was tight at the camp and people were very friendly, some wanted to talk to me about their lives and had little hope for their future.
During my stay I had a great opportunity to see firsthand what the French NGO did in order to help the people suffering from the effects of the war against ISIS and hearing the horrific stories people told of their ‘great escape’ from the hands of such people as ISIS. People had to travel long distance in overloaded trucks and cars with the bare essentials with them. Some told of how they were out of Mosul for the day when they received phone calls from friends in Mosul telling them not to return as the city had been taken over by ISIS, this resulted in these families leaving everything in their home including what money they had. Christian people that remained in Mosul at that time were given three choices, one was to become Muslim, if they did not then they faced with a hefty anti-Muslim tax which even the business people found it hard to pay and if that failed the third and final choice was to face the inevitable, which could possibly mean death. This left them with no choice but to pack up and leave in fear of their lives.
Two days a week, SOS Chretiens d’Orient volunteers would visit the Yazidi camp, a Kurdish religious minority group said to be the most persecuted race in the world today – a camp full of tent-like houses built from wood and canvas. As we walked through the camp, children playing the usual games like football and hopscotch. Parents went about their business, mothers washing clothes and cooking.
Waterford-born and Enniscorthy-reared photographer Jim Campbell pictured with a tank in East Aleppo.

Waterford-born and Enniscorthy-reared photographer Jim Campbell pictured with a tank in East Aleppo.

Water tanks provided the overcrowded camp with water and sewerage wasn’t the best here as in most camps in Iraq. Volunteers would spend two or three hours here playing games with the kids and bringing supplies of wool to the mothers. Christian Churches in Karemlesh, Qaraqosh and Bartella were completely destroyed.
At first when ISIS arrived at the Churches they first destroyed the bell towers, then before entering the religious site they destroy the Crucifix, the symbol of Christianity. Finally after destroying most of the Church they behead the statues. No matter religion one practice, you would have to feel sad that human beings could do this to a house of God. For the month of April in Qaraqosh, courts were held for those people arrested in Mosul for alleged membership of ISIS and the crimes they caused in the Northern Iraqi conflict areas. We visited Qaraqosh during this time to see the streets around the courthouse completely full with families and friends of the accused as well as a heavy security presence. As we walked through these streets we could feel the tensions and nervousness of the people as they heading in and out of the courthouse. As Europeans we stood out a bit and received many a stare as we made our way through the city.
Jim discovered that most of Aleppo, contrary to many western media reports had not been completely destroyed.

Jim discovered that most of Aleppo, contrary to many western media reports had not been completely destroyed.

On Palm Sunday in Qaraqosh we witnessed thousands of Christians returning to their city for the Palm Sunday Procession, the first to be had there for five years. It was the third Mass in the Church since the liberation of the city late last year.
A huge cross was erected on the entrance into the town, a symbol of the return of Christianity in Qaraqosh, a city completely destroyed. Cemeteries were also a target by jihadi groups with many of them badly damaged some beyond repair. It was now time for me to head to Syria, with the hope of getting to Aleppo.
Unlike my trip to Iraq, getting to Syria proved a different proposition. With no airports open in Syria, I had to fly to Beirut and then be driven to Damascus, one of the most dangerous routes why and I was there and what I was doing with all the camera gear. Being a photographer is never is easy when travelling with so much camera equipment. My driver, waiting impatiently, as I was late getting through security at the airport, following our greeting we wasted no time in getting to the car in the car park. The driver, a Syrian national with very little English language skills paid the car park fees as we went on our way. He advised me in broken English that we had a four hour journey ahead of us depending on security checks along the way. In between many checkpoints the driver wasted no time driving mostly at 140kph, this was for safety reasons that drivers drove this fast along the roads. Also it was always safe to drive in the dark rather than the daylight.

At the border checkpoint we spent 70 minutes been interviewed by police officer before finally getting through and after paying 85 dollars. I asked for a receipt knowing full well that That wasn’t going to happen. I was right. It didn’t.
On my arrival to Damascus, I was greeted by a second driver who drove me 10 minutes away to the SOS safe house where I arrived just shortly before midnight enough time for a quick cuppa and a small bite to eat before retiring to my bed, bottom bunk in a room with three bunk beds. The following morning we heading for the funerals of five martyrs who were kidnapped three years ago and were found dead with their throats slashed a few days before I arrived in April. Five coffins were carried through the street of Damascus on route to the Church for 12 o’clock Mass. After 50 mins the coffins were carried back through the streets of Damascus. Emotional scenes throughout the attendance with outbursts of angry followed by gunshots into the air. Thousands lined the streets with many in tears. After an hour the coffins were put into Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances to be taken for burial in Maaloula, 60 kilometres from Damascus. On arrival at Maaloula at 4pm the coffins were again paraded through the streets of the whole town followed by hundreds of people under a heavy security presence. Gun shots fired into the air along with cries of anger were clearly heard throughout the town. Relatives in tears clinging to photographs of the deceased and at time pulling uncontrollably to the coffins as they were carried shoulder high through the streets. The five martyrs were finally laid to rest at the cemetery at 8pm. Thursday, my third day in Syria, and it was time for me to head to Aleppo. My driver arrived at the safe house in Damascus at 6am. When people are travelling to Aleppo from Damascus it has to be an early start at when they pass Homs they arrive in the conflict area of Idleb before arriving in Aleppo. So it is important to arrive there as early as possible.

Iraqi Military protect the Christians during the Palm Sunday procession in Qaraqosh.

Iraqi Military protect the Christians during the Palm Sunday procession in Qaraqosh.

Again the driver drove at 140kph most of the way, we passed through many checkpoints and the closer we got to Aleppo the more checkpoints. We arrived in the safe house in Aleppo shortly before lunch. Aleppo wasn’t what I expected. Despite what I’d heard about Aleppo being completely destroyed, that didn’t prove the case. The city of Aleppo is about 20 per cent destroyed, 15 to 20 per cent damaged and 60 per cent undamaged. Unlike Iraq, Christians and Muslims do mix in the streets of Aleppo. Much of my time was spent walking through the destroyed streets of East Aleppo interviewing people trying to access the damage and move back into what was left of their homes. A few were lucky to find that their homes were undamaged during the attack. As you walk through the streets you can the strong smell of burning even though it is a few months since the liberation of Aleppo. A meeting with a journalist in a back room of a café in Aleppo one evening lead me on early morning visit the following day to what remained of the headquarters of the White Helmets . This visit left me stunned to find that the White Helmets shared a building with the Free Syrian Army with Jihadi slogans on the walls inside, medicine and medical equipment scattered all over three rooms. I would estimate in the region of thousands of dollars worth. Security was still very tight around the Citadel of Aleppo, it was in the citadel that many believe is where the war will be won and lost.

The citadel only open to the military and their families, I was the first person to be allowed inside the citadel since the war in Aleppo. That was mainly because I was Irish, I spoke with senior officers at my request, having been refused entry first time around. The superior officer questioned me and I explained that I was Irish and he requested one of the soldiers to escort myself and my translator around the citadel. That wasn’t the only time my ‘Irish citizenship’ assisted me. I can recall being in a taxi in Aleppo with three French volunteers. When stopped at one of the checkpoints in East Aleppo the soldier asked were we all French. Francois was sitting in the front passenger seat and was in conversation with the soldiers. He replied no, one is from Ireland.

One of the soldiers requested my passport. On examining it he handed it back, smiled at the French guys and said “You are welcome”. He then turned to me and said: “You are very welcome.”
During my stay in Aleppo, I was told a story about a six-year-old boy called Mahmoud who was born armless and lost his two legs in a landmine. In trying to trace his family, the doctor who performed the operation explained to me that the young man had left the country for three months to have artificial legs fitted and rehabilitation. Another victim of the war is Fernand, who lost her husband in a missile attack as he went to work. About six months later, Fernand herself was injured in another missile attack as she walked through the streets. Fernand lost her right eye and has severe arm and leg injuries. She explained to me what happened and the effects is has had on her and her young son. She told me if it wasn’t for her son she would have died. Her son Jacob is finding it hard to cope with the ordeal psychologically.

Another family I interviewed were the Banna family. One night about 10.30pm, Sobhy and his wife Gina were watching TV. Their son and daughter were studying for exams. Their daughter Rosalie decided to go to her aunts to study while her brother Fouda studied at home. A bomb struck the house and Gina lost both her eyes, Sobhy received facial injuries and their son Fouda was killed. Their daughter Rosalie studying in her aunts house read about the attack on Facebook. I heard another story from a 23-year-old student called Vahan who wrote poems while he listened to the shooting and bombing that was happening in his neighbourhood. He told me that every time the bombing started he would start writing his poems. He was written 18 poems during the war in Aleppo. It reminded me of Anne Frank writing her diaries during World War II.

The suffering goes on in Aleppo, as people try to rebuild their lives. Anytime I spoke to the people in Iraq and Syria I told them that the Irish people were thinking and praying for them. This meant a great deal to these people knowing that the Irish people were thinking about them. The people of Syria and Iraq need help from the whole world if they are to rebuild their lives.

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