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Inside Government-Controlled Syria

Joshua Hersh

While in Syria, I published a handful of stories for HuffPost.

Damascus, Syria. February 2014.

Damascus, Syria. February 2014.

'He Knew That Death Was Coming': Survivors Mourn After A Massacre By Syrian Rebels

March 10, 2014

OBEEN, Syria -- The rebel fighters arrived in the early hours of the night, moving swiftly and aggressively from village to village across the mountainous terrain 15 miles from the border with Turkey.

Issam Darwish, a 33-year-old farmer, was asleep in his small, ramshackle home when he heard the cries of warning from neighbors. Jumping out of bed, he roused his family, including his 90-year-old grandfather, and hastily shepherded them out onto the road, where some jumped into available pickup trucks and others ran away through the wooded valleys below.

But Darwish’s grandfather refused to leave.

“We tried so hard to make him get into the truck,” Darwish recalled recently, as he sat on a thin carpet on the floor of his drafty living room. “He said he liked his land, and if he was going to die, he wanted to die here. He knew that death was coming.”

Two weeks later, after the Syrian Army retook the villages in this remote corner of Latakia province -- a district whose residents largely belong to the same Alawite Shia sect as Syria’s president, Bashar Assad -- Darwish returned to look for his grandfather. He found his body buried in a shallow grave near the house, with a bullet-riddled photograph of Assad draped over it.

The rebel onslaught that left Darwish’s grandfather dead took place Aug. 4, 2013, and resulted in the killings of some 200 others, all of them Alawite civilians. Hundreds more are said to have been kidnapped. Last fall, Human Rights Watch investigated the claims of a massacre, visiting the charred homes and mass graves in Latakia province, and described the attacks as “war crimes.”

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At the border

Joshua Hersh

A quick trip to the border of Turkey and Syria.

Syria border post along Reyhanli-Antakya Highway. February, 2014.

Syria border post along Reyhanli-Antakya Highway. February, 2014.

The Syrian Regime's Bombardment of Aleppo is More Vicious Than You Think

The New Republic

February 13, 2014

A few days ago, as the number of refugees streaming out of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, began to escalate dramatically, I phoned an aid worker friend of mine who knows the city intimately. 

He was traveling in southern Turkey at the time, but when I got him on the line, he sounded frantic. "The bombing is unprecedented today," he said. (I promised not to identify him because he hopes to continue working inside Syria as soon as conditions allow it.) “In the past few weeks they have dropped so much fucking hardware on everything. Every part of Aleppo—marketplaces, vegetable stands, anywhere there's a big collection of civilians. It’s incredible."

The regime bombardment of the rebel-held, eastern part of Aleppo—much of it in the form of indiscriminate “barrel bombs,” which are little more than metal cylinders filled with explosives and rebar—has been ongoing for more than a month. But more recently, the aid worker and several exiles from the city told me, the cascade had grown much more intense, driving out even the most hardened holdouts. Upwards of a quarter-million people have fled the east for safe havens to the north or, in some cases, across town into regime-controlled quarters, according to official estimates. All of the infrastructure of rebel-controlled Syria has shut down: the local councils, which help run city administration; the various relief agencies; even the bakeries that, with international assistance, produce bread for the starving population. Almost no one has been left behind in some parts. “There’s been areas that are just completely emptied out—not a living soul,” the aid worker said. “It’s obvious that they're hoping to drive everyone out.”

What’s disturbing about the current round of bombings and evacuations is not simply that it’s a humanitarian disaster, but that it seems to fit a pattern of the Syrian government’s campaign to retake rebel-held parts of the north: destroy a city, empty it out. In November, the Syrian army recaptured the town of Safira, just outside of Aleppo, after a bombing campaign that lasted a month and reportedly forced the entire population to evacuate. When a neighborhood of Hama, another city in the north that has figured prominently in the revolution, appeared to harbor rebel fighters, the regime simply had it leveled — every single building. And before this week’s deliveries of food aid to besieged populations in rebel-controlled Homs, the regime argued vociferously that residents should be evacuated, rather than have food brought in to them. 

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Beirut's Explosive New Year

Joshua Hersh

A series of car bombs in Beirut made the New Year period an especially tense one. A few articles from then:

and, for The New Yorker:


At some point, many of the large windows on the lower floors of the Starco tower, in downtown Beirut, were replaced with shatterproof glass—the sort that crumbles instead of breaking into shards upon impact. On Friday morning, when a large bomb exploded on the street behind the Starco building, killing the former Lebanese finance minister Mohamad Chatah and five others, the specialized glass saved lives inside the office of a small aluminum-siding company on the building’s mezzanine level. An hour after the blast, a young saleswoman stood among the wreckage in her office, unhurt but stunned. She nodded when asked if everyone was all right, and then pointed to a colleague’s desk, which had been showered with fragments of glass and metal during the explosion. “Thank God he was out of the office today,” she said.

Most of the seventy people who were wounded in Friday’s attack, which authorities believe was aimed at Chatah—a vocal critic of Hezbollah and a close ally of the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Sunni political party, Future Movement—were hurt by flying shards of traditional glass. It was impossible to ascertain, in the hours after the blast, how long ago the shops and offices in Starco had switched to safety glass. Perhaps, in fact, it was the other way around: after several years of calm in Beirut’s newly-constructed upscale shopping district, the newer buildings may have bypassed shatterproof panes altogether. The Starco building, after all, is practically an antique: built in the nineteen-fifties, it is one of the few downtown landmarks to have survived the brutal civil war that ended in 1990—a daily reminder of the violent past that every Lebanese strives to forget, yet worries may be about to come roaring back.

This question, of Lebanon’s trajectory, was the one that seemed to preoccupy Beirut on Friday: Was this bombing a relic of past tensions, or a sign of the country’s ever-darkening present?

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The Syrian Humanitarian Disaster

Joshua Hersh

On my first trip to southern Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians now live as refugees, the humanitarian disaster unfolding across the region was impossible to ignore. And as bad as it was in southern Turkey, it was clearly worse inside Syria -- a place no aid worker or journalist could safely travel. Meanwhile, the first winter storm was fast approaching.

Here are some articles I wrote from that time:

The rise of extremism inside Syria was also getting worse -- not only preventing journalists and aid workers from traveling there, but in some cases starting to drive Syrian revolutionaries out as well.

Islamist Wave Is Driving Out Syria's Revolutionaries

GAZIANTEP, Turkey -- A couple of months ago, Noureddine al-Abdo started feeling increasingly trapped inside his own house.

A popular and well-known opposition activist and citizen journalist, al-Abdo once had free rein over the liberated countryside he called home, in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

"When the liberation happened, it was like a release -- we felt we were released," al-Abdo said recently. "The whole countryside of the north, from Homs to Aleppo to Bab al Hawa, I felt that it was mine."

There, for more than two years, he worked tirelessly to bring news about Syria's northern region to the world. He reported regularly to international media outlets, sometimes venturing out with armed brigades of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters. When foreign reporters came to the country, he ferried them through the back roads of Idlib, and into more treacherous terrain to the east and south.

That feeling of freedom made the campaign against the rule of President Bashar Assad -- the risks and sorrows, the friends and close family members lost to war -- feel worth it, he said.

But lately, something has changed. A different kind of revolutionary fighter flooded parts of the north where Assad's forces were already defeated. They have set up random checkpoints and demanded strict adherence to Islamic religious law, targeting not just Westerners, but Syrians, too.

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