Syria. In Situ In dialogue with Mircea BARBU
Islamic State and terrorism, nearby coffee with cardamom, urban noise, social contrasts and “empowered” women – are just a few very known aspects concerning Syria and Middle East that the journalist Mircea Barbu revealed, both from theory and practical experience. The interview took place April 1st 2016 and published in Romanian on the website www.ir-report.ro.
Mihaela Simina: When was the last time you went to Syria?
Mircea Barbu: Last time I left Romania so that I can go to Syria was on November 20th 2015 with a scholarship from CRPE, for the broadcasting of În Premieră. In that summer I wrote a piece for Adevărul, which presented the lives of two Romanians fighting for the Kurds against the Islamic State. I realized this was a tremendous story, but there I also found a subject which I felt was special: the story of the Kurds from Syria and how they strove for their own district, such as a federal entity, a semi-autonomous region, where women are part of the army and part of society and where Christians, Arabs and Kurds work together. It seems illusory as it is not how we perceive Middle East. The stakes were too high and I came back to learn more. I wanted to find out who fights against the Islamic State and I discovered some individuals with sneakers and cheap weapons, but with strong confidence and motivation to defend their territory. I stayed there for two weeks.
MS: Where have you been, more exactly?
MB: In the North-East of Syria. I entered through Iraq and I went into Rojava Disctrict, a Kurdish territory from Syria. There were several towns – Qamishli, Kobane, Tell Abyad – at the Turkish border and nearby. I have been on the front line, at the outpost with the Islamic State.
MS: What problems did you face on the road and also at the destination?
MB: At that point, in November, 2015, I had no problems. The issues were during the summer, when I met the two Romanians fighting against Islamic State. At that time Turkey and Syria had closed their borders. It was not possible to pass. One of my options was to travel through Iraq, but this was too dangerous as I would have travelled very close to Mosul. I did not feel comfortable to go there as I lacked the necessary contacts. So I went to Turkey hoping that I will have success and I will enter. I stayed in a Turkish village one week, at a hotel from where I was able to see Syria from my window. I tried to pass legally in several places as I did the year before. It was impossible. Access was not allowed. After one week in that hotel, frustration got the better of me and I had to choose between passing illegally during the night with some Kurd guides or going through Iraq. I decided to do it illegally. I made some contacts among the Kurds and they sent some people to help me. They showed me the route, during one night, through a field of maize. They stopped and they said this was it. They couldn’t go further. There were only 500 metres and I continued to walk through the maize alone. Being dark, I did not see a barbed wire and I stumbled. I believe I triggered an alarm as I continued to walk but after 100 metres I was surrounded by 10 armed guys. I was practically 20 minutes away from the story and at one moment I lost my patience… suddenly ten armed guys appeared around me. They were screaming in Turkish. I realized that was the army.
MS: Did they arrest you?
MB: Yes. They took me to the military base and after 12 hours of interrogations they set me free. Their secret services were there, too. This is the procedure. Their biggest concern was that a European was going to join the Islamic State. I was talking to one officer in English, then to another one in French. They were very cosmopolitan. They did not let me continue on the road towards Syria, so I came back to Bucharest. One week later I went through Iraq. I realized that was the only way. Indeed, unsafe, but the only one. I travelled near Mosul and the ISIS outpost. This was the second time when the Kurds helped me.
“It is not a dislocated problem over there, anymore. It is here. The interest is visibly rising, but it is still few informed. I believe it is not about rational level right now, but emotional.”
MS: How did you know that you could trust the Kurds? How did you find them?
MB: You meet them during the preparation phase. For example, if you intend to travel to Syria, you go to the Syrian community from Romania and you receive some contacts. I knew people from the Kurdish community because I have been pursuing this Syrian subject for years. I knew the man that recruits strangers for fighting against ISIS. He, on the other hand, had relations in Iraq. Trust is difficult. For example, when I entered Syria in 2013 I went to the media centre and they gave me a fixer and a driver. I went to Aleppo and so on. Two months later, at the same media centre, with the same fixer, James Foley entered and… he disappeared. You cannot have 100% trust because people can be blackmailed. Usually, in the Middle East, honour and trust are very important, but there are many risks. Another example, when travelling to Afghanistan, people come to you and touch your chest right where your heart is. This marks you as under their protection while you stay there. It means you are welcome. It is the moral duty of the host to protect you. On the other hand, when you exit from his property it is possible to have your throat cut by the first child you meet.
MS: People consider that what happens in Middle East is somehow far from them and they cannot be affected. How would you describe this situation for Romanians so that they can understand what is happening?
MB: First, there are Romanians fighting in Syria. Second, we still have almost 10 000 Romanians that live in Syria. Most of them are women and children. This means we have a direct involvement. We have refugees that pass near our borders and even through our territory. So, the problem is here. We have a vast community of Syrian people in Romania. We have always had it.
On the other side, everything that happens in Middle East is linked to European Politics. I believe that we are not as proactive as we should in the decision making process, hoping to stay apart from it all – refugee quotas, negotiated budgets etc. The problem is no longer contained over there, anymore. It is here. The interest is visibly rising, only a few are well informed. I believe it is not about rational thinking right now, but emotional.
“You go down from your hotel room, drink your coffee with powerful cardamom or black tea, you eat flat loaf of bread, cheese, you go to market to test the atmosphere, you try to find people available for interviews, you have meetings with all kind of individuals, it is a noise…”
MS: What does a day in the life of a journalist in Syria look like?
MB: The days are not very different. Everyone imagines conflict zones as a continuous adrenaline rush. Actually, you have so much free time between fights, that you start to get bored. It sounds really strange to say it, but Syria, most of the time, is boring during the day. It is nevertheless a country of contrasts. If you go there for the first time, you cannot be bored as you see so many new things and you have new experiences. But the second, third, fourth journey things generate familiarity. A day in Syria starts in the morning with vibrations. At 4-5 AM in the morning the sun appears and streets start to overcrowd. It is a specific noise. You go down from your hotel room, drink your coffee with powerful cardamom or black tea, you eat a flat loaf of bread, cheese, you go to the market to test the atmosphere, you try to find people willing to be interviewed, and you have meetings with all kind of individuals. There is a noise, as I said, a place from where you can extract your energy, but also where you can exhaust yourself. A day on the battlefield can be extremely boring or extremely dangerous. Syria is a society of contrasts. It is unbalanced and people can be found at the extremeness. Every normal day is a day of contrasts.
MS: What are the Syrians saying about the situation in their country?
MB: The Syrians are very young – before the war, 60% were under 25 years old. Being very young, they have great ambitions and they intend to connect more with the rhythm of the world. They are thirsty and they feel the need of knowledge. They want to assimilate European values. For the moment, Syria is an explosion of changing generations, mentalities, infusion of cultures. All this brought violence, too. Practically, Assad started by opposing the people protesting for more access to information. The violence started exactly from this contrast. People wanted a change. So, if you ask people from Syria how they see the problem, they will express shock. When they went out on the street five years ago they did not expect such a situation.
“Talking to women that were extremely confident, very ‘in power’, was a pleasant shock for me and I believe that was the most stunning thing experience for me.”
MS: Did you discover any things that you never though you would find there?
MB: Every day. First, I never went to a place with expectations in my mind. I tried to be a person without stereotypes and biases. I believe the most shocking trial for me was discovering the Kurds and how in their society you find secular women with governmental positions – key positions or high social positions with educated women that did not wear a shawl. The status of women in the Middle East always fascinated me. Talking to women who were extremely confident, very “empowered”, was a pleasant shock for me and I believe that was the most stunning experience for me.
MS: Is the growth of the terrorist offensive in Europe a consequence of ISIS losing ground in the Middle East?
MB: They are probably connected in some ways. They lose ground and they try to compensate through attacks that have a high emotional impact, but at the same time we should not forget that such attacks are not the product of short term planning. I believe it is an exercise in building an image. I mean ISIS is an organization that does not impress with its physical presence. Their strong point is the image that they have created. It is the first terrorist organization that took maximum advantage of technology and knew how to disseminate the terroristic ideology into the online medium. Now people have the feeling that they are everywhere.
“Everyone from everywhere can affiliate SI. How can be this stopped?”
MS: So the terrorist organization has pretty good “PR”…?
MB: Yes. The jihadist generation that works for the Islamic State nowadays is represented by young people recruited from the online medium. They feel very comfortable online and most of them were raised in Europe – we have to face the first generation of European jihadists. The fact that information can be spread everywhere across Europe is a powerful factor. In addition, it works like a franchise. Let’s study the Boko-Haram example affiliated somehow naturally to this ideology. Everyone from everywhere can affiliate SI. How can be this stopped?
MS: And they seem to have a lot of money. What are the primary financial sources for ISIS?
MB: As far as I know from public sources, since documenting it directly is very hard, their main sources are: kidnappings, not just regarding journalists but also kidnappings from Syria, the economies from central areas controlled by ISIS, oil smuggling, bank robberies, for example Mosul Bank from where they took half a billion dollars. Those are somehow internal sources. Then, there are private sponsors, especially from the Gulf countries that support this movement of Sunni against the Shiite people. So, on one hand we have the internal sources of self-financing. On the other hand, there are sponsorships from different entities that seek to control the game in Syria.