Whenever the media is accused of fabricating or exaggerating stories about bombs over Syria, as well as Yemen and Gaza for that matter, it reminds me of a man I met in Azaz, during the summer of 2014. I was reporting with an American friend, we drove up to a little street with our fixers. The block had been smashed in half by an airstrike no more than a day earlier. As we got out of the car we could see a middle-aged man sobbing in front of the rubble of his home, as a younger friend or relative picked through the dust.
Our translators talked to the man, soon it became clear he had lost more than one of his family members. At some point one of the fixers asked if we could take a photo of the site. The man’s sadness quickly turned to blind rage. He started screaming(I’m paraphrasing from a combination of what we could make out and what was translated) “My family was one of the first to join the revolution. Journalists just want money! FUCK OFF!”
The man didn’t want us to take a photo of his destroyed house, he wasn’t afraid of the people we were with, he didn’t want anyone to use his tragedy to fit any agenda. His heart must have been full of more hatred for the government that had blown his home to smithereens than anything we can imagine, yet he just wanted us to leave him alone so he could sob and come to terms with the loss of whoever had died in that rubble. Was it his wife? His children maybe? We never got to ask the question, he was screaming at us so we tried to apologize and left. There were no other western journalists in Azaz that day. There was no “Mainstream Media” rushing in to pay for footage of tragedy in Syria anyways. In the mind of Cockburn or Max Blumenthal there would have been “think tanks” and “Zionists” and “Saudis” all lined up to give me a bunch of cash for photos, to prop up the illusion that the people hate their government. Instead it was a man alone in the universe sobbing over his dead family.
It’s encounters like this one especially that make me hate people like Patrick Cockburn, people who write articles that rely on innuendo and false assumptions to minimize human suffering. The implication of Cockburn’s latest article “This is Why Everything You’ve Read About the Wars in Syria and Iraq Could Be Wrong,” is that there is no way of knowing what is actually happening on the ground in Syria because reporting on the cataclysm fits into an opposition narrative. In his piece Cockburn suggests that there are no surviving journalists who witnessed the atrocities of the regime. Cockburn also suggests that the crimes of the opposition, which are numerous and documented by many of the same organizations he criticizes somehow invalidate the reality of civilians dying under regime bombs and sieges.
“Unsurprisingly, foreign journalists covering developments in east Aleppo and rebel-held areas of Syria overwhelmingly do so from Lebanon or Turkey. A number of intrepid correspondents who tried to do eyewitness reporting from rebel-held areas swiftly found themselves tipped into the boots of cars or otherwise incarcerated.”
The audacity it takes to sit comfortably in the west, while calling into question the reality of what’s happening on the ground is astonishing. Pretending no one has actually reported from the ground is shameful. The fact is that hundreds of reporters have born witness to the unfiltered horror. Yet somehow both Max Blumenthal and Patrick Cockburn have accused us of being “spoon-fed” information about the horrors of this war, a war in which all sides, Government, ISIS, Nusra, YPG, FSA and countless others have deliberately committed war crimes. God forbid I would ever accuse a medic in West Aleppo of playing politics by photographing a child killed in rebel shelling, god forbid I would pretend away the videos of FSA fighters executing YPG envoys from Kurdish-held areas. This is a reality that has never escaped us yet somehow we are supposed to remain silent any time the main perpetrator slaughters innocents. Somehow a photo of a child wounded by a bomb is a political statement if the government is the perpetrator. Somehow the suffering of a child with shrapnel in their body is measured against the opinions of a corrupt Gulf Sheikh who may happen to hate the regime for purely sectarian reasons, instead of human reasons. Somehow, in the minds of Max Blumenthal and Patrick Cockburn, the suffering of Aleppo’s children has something to do with the opinions of Saudi Arabia’s illegitimate regime, a regime that is killing Yemen’s children with cluster bombs every day. A regime that fights a war of extermination that mirrors the Assad regime’s in almost every way imaginable.
Footage from February 2013, FSA Gunners vs Regime Jets over Aleppo
Freelancers covering Syria always knew there were evil people in the opposition, we always knew Jabhat Nusra and countless other extremist groups were bound to gain momentum in the hatred that desperation creates, that shells would eventually be dropped by rebels on Kurdish neighborhoods out of petty sectarianism. We always knew we could be betrayed, sold, kidnapped and tortured by opposition members, in fact this fear has consumed freelance war correspondents for years while Cockburn and others complained about the “Mainstream Media” and urged us to ignore the endless videos and photos of incidents we saw first hand. How should any of the very real evil, done by any side, make the things we saw less real? How on earth was there a “mainstream media” bias to my encounter with a grieving man who had no message for the outside world and wouldn’t let us photograph his tragedy, a man who cursed and snarled at our fixers to fuck off? Accusing all opposition of being kidnappers who will sell you out is a disgusting insult to all the brave fixers who have protected so many of us, those of us who have actually reported from inside rebel-held Syria unlike Patrick Cockburn.
A Tent in Bab Salama Burned in a Heating Accident in February 2015
Cockburn likes to pretend freelancers who covered Syria don’t exist. I think he wants to erase the reality that reporters have covered this war all along, maybe so he doesn’t have to look at the kill-storm against civilians that he is minimizing. Cockburn and his ilk accuse the people who count casualties of all sorts of nefarious things, of being only one guy who relies on hundreds of sources, or of having a too big a staff who is funded by someone you somehow don’t like. Cockburn divides reporters between those who were kidnapped by the rebels, those who report from the outside and those who believe his crap. The sheer volume of video and photographic proof that mass murder has been systematically committed by the regime, more than any other party, for five years and counting, is so large that the 24 hour news cycle couldn’t cover all of it, even if it ran all day every day, only covering Syria.
At the Site of a Barrel Impact with the White Helmets in Aleppo in June 2014
Like I said, that day in Azaz, I didn’t even have time to ask how many children the man had lost. He refused to let us photograph his tragedy, but we did end up getting a picture of the scene, not a picture that could be sold to the “MSM” or a think tank. One of our translators took a tiny photo with his mobile camera as we were leaving. Later he emailed the low resolution image to my friend, just so we could prove it happened when someone like Patrick Cockburn or Max Blumenthal decided to pipe in.