Up close and personal with the Syrian rebels


by Miguel Medina



AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

ALEPPO, Syria - In Aleppo, fighting between the rebels and Syrian army happens mostly at night, after sundown. When the sun rises, journalists go to the city’s main hospital to count the night's casualties. Doctors keep a record of the deaths -- seen here, covered in bloody fingerprints.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

There are not enough beds in the hospital, so corpses are sometimes laid out in the street until their relatives or loved ones come and pick them up. In the top photo, the young man is waiting for people to come help him transport the three bodies on the pavement.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

When we arrived in the Aleppo hospital on September 21, we stumbled onto two children who had been injured by a sniper. The one in the photo above survived. But the child in the picture below was not so lucky: he died soon after we saw him, despite the doctors' relentless attempts to revive him.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

You have to be careful not to take photos of the doctors in this hospital: many cross front lines and checkpoints held by the army to come to work. They could get into serious trouble if they were seen treating rebels. My job is to capture the barbarity of this war in a shot, without being voyeuristic, while trying not to be overcome by the horror of watching a child die. It's hard to find the right balance.

The man being comforted in the photo below has just lost his friend, who died in combat.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

All in all, I spent 16 days in the north of Syria. It was my first assignment in a war zone, although I covered the protests and violence on Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011. I'm Colombian and grew up at the heart of a conflict, so I know a bit about violence. But I had never been that close to bullets and shells. Syria is an extremely tough conflict.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

After having crossed over the Turkish border, my first report was on a school of fighters belonging to the Amr Ibn al-Aas brigade, in Azaz. Children aged 15 to 18 -- many of them wearing sandals -- learn how to use weapons. They are obviously completely inexperienced. It’s as if they have joined the rebellion because they saw the conflict on TV and want to get involved, without really knowing what it's really about, and how high the stakes are.


SYRIA-CONFLICT
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

Apart from the Salafist groups -- who avoid the media -- the rebels are generally friendly with journalists. When you visit them, they offer you tea. I took the photo below at a rebel checkpoint in the Amariya district of Aleppo. While I was waiting, I noticed this fighter with his face partially hidden fixing me with an intense stare.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

The man in the picture below – the one with a gun on his belt who is taking a picture – serves as a kind of liaison officer between rebels and journalists. The fighter in front of him is in the process of throwing a Molotov cocktail on army soldiers who are just a few metres away, in the street on the left.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

This particular fight took place on September 30 in the old town of Aleppo. It was dangerous, everything happened very quickly, I was sweating under my helmet and bullet-proof vest and everyone was shooting everywhere. The streets where the rebels and armed forces fight each other are very narrow, there is not much room for manoeuvre. It's not easy to take good shots – photo shots -- in these conditions. In the picture below, I was able to position myself well, but taking more than five to 10 photos in a row of the same scene is nearly impossible.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

My colleagues and I were only able to stay on the scene for a few minutes before it got too dangerous and we had to leave. We later learned that regime forces had tried to surround the rebels we were with, but the rebels managed to break through the circle after two-and-a-half hours of fierce fighting.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

Sometimes, you have no option but to risk it and cross roads in full view of army snipers. You run while the rebels cover you by shooting at the enemy. In those moments, you feel your heart exploding in your chest.

To do this type of work, you have to trust your instinct. You must never stop asking yourself crucial questions. Is it worth staying? What is one other photo really worth? A prestigious prize? Your life? It is a mistake to go in search of glory at whatever cost. So when you know you have enough good shots, you stop, you step back and you leave.

I took the photos below on September 27 in a school in the Izaa district. The rebels were just about to launch a major offensive on northern Aleppo. While we were there, the armed forces -- who were positioned just 50 metres away -- started firing mortar bombs on our building. Once again, we had to leave. We later learned that the battle had left 20 dead. That was perhaps the most dangerous moment of the assignment.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

Rebels and regime forces fight only several metres apart. The two camps occupy buildings and carve out slits in the wall to shoot at the enemy on the other side of the road. Occasionally, one of the two sides tries to storm the building opposite. Then it's close quarter combat. That's how the front line advances or retreats.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

I took the photo below through one of the holes dug out of a wall by rebels, in a building held by a dozen or so members of the opposition. It's the decomposed corpse of a rebel. It had been there for weeks. There was no way to retrieve it without being shot at by the armed forces opposite.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina

Amid the fighting, life continues. I took this photo in Azaz in the north of Syria, nicknamed the "tank cemetery" because the rebels managed to destroy 17 armoured vehicles there that belonged to the army. On a square in front of a mosque, one mother was taking a photo with her mobile phone of her child, who had clambered onto the remains of the tank -- just as she would have done if he was playing on a swing.


AFP Photo / Miguel Medina
AFP Photo / Miguel Medina