A Trip Through Horror, Confusion And Contradictions In Syria

In a world of increasing conflict, one country stands out as a sad emblem of misery: Syria.

The country’s 6-year-old civil war has sent 11 million people — half the population — fleeing their homes. Some 5 million people have left the country altogether. Those who remain face a nightmare of bombings, artillery attacks and a reign of terror wrought by the militant group Islamic State after it established its self-declared caliphate across a broad swath of Iraq and Syria in 2014. It was headquartered in Raqqah, an ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River, 230 miles northeast of Damascus, that was once Syria’s sixth-largest city.

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Much of what’s going on in this land of ancient fortresses and once-bustling commerce is a mystery. The government generally prohibits U.S. reporters from entering the country, and those granted visas can travel only under close supervision. Venturing outside government-controlled areas carries the risk of kidnapping, or worse, by Islamic State militants or other extremists.

U.S.-backed forces on Monday announced that they have now largely recaptured Raqqah, yet it is hard to know how much of the hard-core Islamic State leadership is even there anymore. Other questions persist. What has happened to civilians during the battles? What about Syrian government troops — are they loyal to President Bashar Assad? What role is Iran playing on the ground?

We decided to try to find out. With special permission from Kurdish forces who control the gateways into eastern Syria from northern Iraq, I set out over the summer on my own — accompanied by a Kurdish interpreter, Kamiran Sadoun, and driver, Dijwar Ibrahim — on a trip across the Syrian countryside, traversing towns whose names of late were known mainly for the vicious battles that have unfolded there.

Loaded up with water bottles, bullet-proof vests, medical supplies, snack bars, extra batteries, a satellite telephone and a device that allowed my editors in Los Angeles to track my location, we crossed by boat into Syria from northern Iraq, and headed for Raqqah.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

The road trip would show the horror, confusion and contradictions that make up eastern Syria. But along with the sights and sounds of devastation there were moments of classic Middle Eastern hospitality — that much still survives — and kindness.

The terrain we crossed varied from barren desert to fields full of crops and massive, aquamarine lake in the Tabqa area. There were villages with sleepy central squares and mid-sized cities with bustling main streets full of open-air markets and shops selling Syrian kebab, spices and pastries.

We didn’t bother with hotels, usually located far from the front lines; we opted to stay closer to the action, in houses with Syrian workers and soldiers.

The weeklong journey was full of bizarre contrasts: troops billeted in lavish homes once seized by militants.

A suspected suicide bomber dressed like a woman.

American volunteers fighting not with the U.S. forces, but with Syrian militias.

Families living amid ruins.

A deserting Syrian soldier who tried to hitch a ride with us from the front line.

All along the way, we would be stopping to file stories — our way of helping the world understand what was unfolding across the Syrian border.

EAST SYRIAN BORDER ENTRY

FAYSH KHABUR

Source : http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-fg-syria-trip/

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