My Three Syrian Years: Aleksandr Kharchenko

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Photograph: Kirill Radchenko

Russian journalist Aleksandr Kharchenko gives a compelling and moving account of his work at the front lines in the Syrian Arab Army’s fight against NATO and Gulf state backed terrorism:

Syria is a nice Middle Eastern country. The Middle East is always a fairy tale. We have heard a lot about this state, but it was always hard to tell something certain. Even after a million reports on the central channels, I ask my friends what is the country which have a Mediterranean shore and locate between Turkey and Palestine? I don’t always get the right answer. Many rested in Turkey, and Palestine is not difficult to get into, but between these countries lies the real terra incognita.

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Photograph: Kirill Radchenko

I confess that before the war, my notions about Syria consisted of some facts: Damascus, Euphrates, and endless wars with Israel. Everything changed in 2014, when Sergey Shilov and I first flew to Damascus and spent 7 days on the blessed lands of Sham. Then there was 2015 and our trip to Palmyra and Zabadani, after it we released the film “Eclipse of the Khalifa” :

Yes, it was an interesting trip, but we weren’t immersed so deep in this problem. This is of course very convenient when you are taken by guides to the location for the footages and they tell you what happened here and what you can shoot, but in the depth of our souls we understood that this is not real journalism. The correspondent first needs a burning heart and untied hands, that is why I came to ANNA-News. According to reviews of those who have already worked in this agency, it became clear to me that the training system they have is very simple. They give you an amateur camera, the necessary contacts, they bring you to the place, and then you have to help yourself. If you want to know how to shoot and edit – open the Internet and learn. As it was said in one famous Russian film – there are no obstacles for patriots!

On July 6, 2016, I quit my legal career, and on July 8, I landed in Syria. Honestly, the day was not the best. That time the Russian helicopter was shot down near Palmyra, in which the hero of the Russian Federation, Colonel Ryabagat Khabibullin, and Lieutenant Yevgeny Dolgin were killed. Moreover In Aleppo, the terrorists made a real massacre. They hit a student hostel with missiles. Then more than 30 people were killed… 

However, all these events were just a prologue to the real job. I consider the date of commencement of my work in Syria on July 17, 2016. Since then 3 years have passed.

We worked in Aleppo. In the evening, our phone rang, and the Syrians said that there would be an attack in the morning, if you want – come. It was supposed to start at 6 am. At 5.00 am an alarm clock rang, I opened my eyes. I was lying on the floor, but it was not a consequence of yesterday’s fun. At that time, the terrorists heavily bombardment civilians areas, especially at night. Moreover, just the day before I shot the consequence of a direct hit in an apartment.

The owner turned out to be an elderly man; a 82mm mortar hit stright through the window, but he was just shocked. How is it possible? Everything is very simple. Grandfather did not sleep in the bed; he slept on the mattress in the corridor. All the splinters hit the walls of the room, and he escaped injury. A good lifehack I thought. However, I did not have a corridor, so I just took the mattress from the bed, dragged him away from the window and there I set up there a sleeping place. I must say that this act gave a reasons for grins, not only for the Syrian fatalists, even for Russians, who at that time came to our room.

Igor Orzhentsov, who was the head of our group, was sleeping in the next room. I was laying with my eyes open for about five minutes. I still didn’t hear him, and I decided that he most likely had overslept, and I didn’t have any desire to go anywhere that time, so I quietly closed my eyes. Igor burst into my room in about twenty minutes.

– Sanya! get up, we overslept. Thirty minutes left before the start. We must have time!

I had no choice … I got dressed, collected my minds and we went to the front line. Along the way, we picked up our translator Fadel, we raced through the deserted Arab streets, scaring lonely janitors.

We were late approximately, about 15 minutes. Nevertheless, all our efforts were in vain, because that morning the Syrians changed their mind to attack. Postponing important matters for tomorrow or even better for the day after tomorrow is a good Syrian tradition, so we were not very upset.

However, we were hurt that we came here so early, so getting some footages was a matter of honor for us. Syrian officers told us that the positions of terrorists are clearly visible from the upper floors of the next high-rise building, and if we are lucky, we can shoot their movements on a zoom … well … if they invite you, you should to go. The road to the top was not easy, I was wearing a bulletproof vest, helmet, tripods, camera and a whole backpack of useful things. It is clear that elevators didn’t work, so when we got to the Syrian observation post, we didn’t want to look for a more convenient place in the neighboring buildings.

I must say a few words about this place. It was located on the penultimate floor of a high-rise building. The wall, facing the enemy, collapsed long ago, and instead of it the Syrians put three barrels with sand. To the right of them was a fighter with a mobile radar (to be honest, this was the first and last time I met on the Syrian positions the radar, perhaps our Iranian partners try out their technologies). I looked round and realized that the place is very dangerous. I shared my thoughts with the Syrians, but they assured me that the enemy has no snipers here and we have nothing to fear … I thought strangely … we are 300 meters away from the terrorist position, and there are no snipers … Well, okay…

We set up several tripods and started our work. To be honest, there was nothing to shoot there. Artillery and aircrafts did not work. Only occasionally did we manage to catch the rush of a couple of people from one building to another. I soon got bored with this kind of work, so I put the camera on the record and sat on the floor exactly behind the barrel. My eyes closed.

But I could not sleep. A round of SPG-9 exploded just above our floor. We were covered with plaster and dust, and I was a little stunned. Now looking back, I can’t understand why the militants have not shot before. Just imagine that three people appeared in front of you almost in an open position, prepared some kind of equipment. It is simply impossible to think of a better goal. That time we were very lucky. If terrorists had a bit more accurate, I would definitely not write this article now…

As soon as the dust dispelled a little, we grabbed our equipment and ran out into the corridor. All the Syrians on our floor immediately woke up. DShK started to shoot. A man in a white T-shirt with a civilian rifle with a sight appeared from nowhere. He called himself a sniper and said that now they figured out a place from where terrorists fired at us and they would certainly destroyed it.

What are the brave guys I thought, even under fire, they manage to respond. In those days, I still confused courage with fatalism … Shaking my head off the plaster, I suggested to Igor get out as soon as possible … they shoot … but my commander noticed reasonably that if the Syrians remained at their position, then our duty was to see our job through.

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Photograph: Kirill Radchenko

Needless to say that the second round struck our position so soon. This time they hit closer … Igor, well, let’s finally get out of here, I asked, but they said something like: “We have to shoot to the last frame.” DShK continued to shoot somewhere in the direction of the enemy, and the Syrian sniper still tried to adjust his sight.

I moved back a little, knocked at the wall and realized that it was monolithic. A good shelter, I thought. In front of me stood our translator Fadel, and several Syrian officers were located closer to the DShK. Igor grabbed the camera and ran to shoot a sniper. And just at that moment the third round flew into the room where the DShK shoot. The corridor was filled with smoke, dust and screams. I did not understand what to do in such situations and I was even a little confused. Igor’s voice brought me out of my stupor. – Get the wounded out! He commanded. I ran to the side where the machine gun was.

The soldier lay beside him and did not move. He was dead I thought … But as soon as I camo closer, our “sadik” jumped to his feet and ran, shouting toward the stairs. I remember exactly that blood was flowing from his ears … I thought strangely, it seemed that they had hit him directly, and he was alive. Only then, looking at the wall, I realized that the machine gunner was incredibly lucky, because he was standing in the middle of a large room, and the round flew past and detonated behind his back. That is why our “sadik” got a heavy contusion and practically wasn’t hit by shrapnel, which is not the case for the Syrians who were standing in the corridor between me and the DShK.

They were all hit by shrapnel and concrete crumb. The closer a man stood to a machine gun, the more he was injured. I was the farthest away, and in front of me stood our translator. His legs took the last pieces that flew in my direction. At that moment, I thought that this incident was a very successful allegory of what is happening in Syria. The Syrians take the shrapnel of the explosion in the Middle East, while Russians can observe everything from a safe distance.

As a result Igor, the sniper, and I got off injuries. All other soldiers and officers received various injuries.

I raised my eyes to Igor and looked intently. Well… he said just did not hurry, let’s help the wounded. I remember how we slowly descended the stairs, supporting our translator; we put him in the car. Then was a hospital and a month of rest for Fadel.

That day I spoke a little, I tried to put my thoughts together. Igor approached me and said I congratulated you on your baptism of fire! I just smiled a little… Video version of this incident:

After this incident, my attitude towards military journalism has changed a lot. I realized the difference between a soldier and a journalist. The fighter must defend his position to the last breath. The correspondent should to act completely different. If it gets too hot on the front line, then there is nothing wrong with retreat a little from the front line. Of course, many will disagree with me, but believe that no one exclusive footage shot is worth human life.

Have you watched the footage when the cameraman receives a fatal wound? I have seen a lot of them, and I tell you it doesn’t worth it. Therefore, we have developed a rule in Syria – if it becomes quite hot, then it is better to stop shooting. This postulate has already saved our lives more than once.

And in conclusion, I want to answer one question. We are often asked if we are not scared during filming. I will answer for myself. Yes, I’m scared. And scary constantly. A person with a healthy psyche should soberly assess the situation. Fear motivates you to seek better shelter, and does not allow you to commit stupid acts. Believe that the feeling of fear on the front line is much more useful than the feeling of carelessness, because, as one my friend said: in Ukraine, all the reeds are filled up with fearless.

Photographs below by Kirill Radchenko

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Originally published (Aleksandr Kharchenko Facebook)

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