Story by: Michael Shields Photograph by: Christopher Prosser
A journey into a war-torn city to bear witness to the truth……
“This is the only way into the city?” Mavi asked sarcastically, knowing all too well how lucky she was to find access into this war-torn region at all.
“Shhhh. We are almost there. Please, just hand signals from this point on,” said Adad.
They were slowly working their way through a four-foot high tunnel, a storm drain that reeked of feces and rot, which paralleled the main highway into town. Through it the group of five would have to edge through filth in a crouched position for two miles until the drain would open up within city limits. Around them explosions and gunfire were alarmingly audible, the vibrations increasing in intensity with each labored step they took. Through the grates in the storm drain Mavi watched, as battered old pickup trucks with mounted machine guns recklessly vaulted towards the city, firing at will.
“We shouldn’t be doing this. This is not a safe place.”
The voice came from along side Mavi and belonged to her faithful companion and cameraman, Christopher. He was a former soldier who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, and was a decade younger than Mavi. He wore a weathered brown windbreaker that had the word “reporter” written in silver gaffer tape on the back, in both English and Arabic. Christopher had been in many compromising situations in his time with the military and during the last half-decade working with war correspondents. But this was the first time he had a truly bad feeling about an assignment.
“We have to do this Chris,” Mavi said. “This is the only way to find out what is happening here, to get the real story. And besides, when have you and I been anywhere that could honestly be described as safe?”
Christopher flashed an extremely forced, worried smile. “I know.”
“Tell the truth, shame the devil – remember?” Mavi said assuredly.
Both Mavi and Chris were well aware that that the troops loyal to the government were ordered to kill any journalist they identified. This led to journalists fleeing from the country in droves. The ones that stayed were considered terrorists and hunted down with the same intensity as the rebel forces. Recently, the government issued a statement to media companies throughout the world that they are ”legally and morally responsible for anything that may result from what could happen to these journalists due to their accompaniment of terrorists.” The government wanted to fully control all information coming out of the country and was taking inhumane measures to accomplish that goal. The little information that was trickling out of these embattled cities was through grainy videos, taken by brave rebels, and uploaded onto Youtube.
Inside the city almost 30,000 people were surrounded by government troops. All supplies going into the city had been severed, and power cut off to all. A ruthless dictator was overwhelming a city that, reportedly, was left without food, clean water, and medical supplies after nearly three weeks of a violent government shelling campaign.
The tunnel thinned as the group progressed, and became so dark that that they could not see their hands even when immediately in front of their faces. Finally, light seeped into the tunnel as Adad removed a large cement block covering an opening in the wall.
“This way,” he whispered.
Mavi and Christopher poured out of the opening, resolutely following the three rebels that had promised them access to the city, and an up-close encounter with the horrors and crimes against humanity transpiring within. Adad replaced the cement block and made for a dimly lit dirt street littered in rubble. Mavi and Christopher, close on his heels, were led a half mile down the road and then through an open doorway, and up a set of stairs and into a room with a vaulted steel door which Adad immediately closed and locked behind them.
“We must stay here until dawn,” Adad said sternly. “The bombing will reduce in scale come morning, and then I can show you what you came here to see.”
“But…,” Mavi began, but then paused, reconciling herself with the situation. These men knew what they were doing. She had trusted them this far and they had delivered on their promises. There was no reason to doubt them now.
Christopher took the time to inspect his cameras for any damage that may have occurred while traversing the tunnel. Mavi sought out the corner of the vacant, soiled room furthest from the doorway and relaxed her body into it. She fumbled through her bag, past her blemished laptop, her phone, her lucky copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, countless pens, and a spiral notebook to find a photograph of her loved one that she held in her hand each evening, a link to her seldom-seen life back home. Flipping the photograph over she re-read the words that helped her through these difficult times. “Look at the world through the eyes of the weak and the vulnerable. I love you baby.”
They would wait until morning, attempting to rest as explosions tore the city apart, and set the sky ablaze.
Adad shook both Mavi and Christopher awake as dawn broke. They had both drifted to sleep for the past half hour in spite of the horrifying music of war about them.
“It is time,” he said.
The group gathered their belongings with haste and retreated down the same hallway and stairs from the night before. Adad led with muted confidence, and gripping the walls of the city buildings they snaked through town. Gunshots rang out in the distance, but at intervals far less frequent than when they had arrived in town under the cover of night. They made their way through a mud soaked alley adorned with clotheslines still gripping onto half-tattered apparel that appeared to be from generations past. Finally, they entered a clearing amidst the sea of buildings, a courtyard about a quarter acre in size. The courtyard consisted of loose soil and rocks, with the occasional cinder block thrown about. The soil looked freshly turned, darker than its surroundings, like it had been recently tilled. Adad came to a halt, and slowly turned to Mavi and Christopher.
“We are here.”
Adad sent his two companions to scout the perimeter of the lot. He would not allow Mavi and Christopher into the clearing until he was positive it was safe to do so. After a few minutes the duo returned, and with a head nod Adad ushered the foreign reporter and her cameraman into the courtyard.
“What is this?” Mavi asked.
Adad did not answer.
Slowly they crept forward until Mavi jumped back, letting out a muted shriek. Composing herself she knelt down. Protruding from the soil was the tip of a child’s rubber sandal. With care Mavi began to brush back the surrounding soil from around the sandal and as she suspected she unearthed the foot of a young girl. Christopher joined her and began to sift cautiously through the dirt.
Here and there, an appendage or fabric of clothing was discernible. Digging just an iota more Mavi located a face, the eyes covered with a blindfold. The more she excavated the more shockingly obvious it became to her. This was a mass grave of murdered children.
Christopher stepped back to begin to photograph the horrors as the two soldiers with Adad helped Mavi further expose the atrocity.
“Chris, use all the film you have,” Mavi said. Her raspy voice muted to a whisper. All forty-eight years of life had not prepared her for this moment.
Christopher, without answering, continued to snap away. Mavi stood and backtracked to allow herself a moment of thought, to soak in what had happened here. Adad saddled up next to her.
“There are more, I can take you to them as well. They are all over the city. They are all over every city throughout the country,” he said.
“How many children have been killed here?” Mavi asked.
“Hundreds in this city alone.”
“I have heard – the reason I came here – is that it is been reported to us that the death toll throughout the country is well over 30,000 people?” Mavi inquired, staring blankly at the verification of such horrors before her.
“The number is actually much closer to 60,000,” said a voice from behind them.
Startled, Mavi turned to find a man with a thick dark beard walking towards them. He had an AK-47 resting against his right shoulder and a half finished apple in his left hand. He was wearing military fatigues with an Adidas warm-up jacket over top. Mavi immediately noticed the homemade grenades strapped to his vest, unstable explosives that he wore without apprehension. Adad was not startled. The visitor was expected.
“The rest of the world is naïve to the authentic human toll of this conflict, and what the government is doing here,” he continued. “This conflict has gone from a civil war to a genocide, and things are only getting worse.”
Adad stepped forward to shake the man’s hand, and then introduced him to Mavi.
“Mavi, this is Jamal Mehana. He is our Commander. I told him we were escorting you here today, and he and his men are responsible for clearing the area so that you can witness what you see here free from danger.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you.” Mavi earnestly said.
“Thank you for your bravery Mavi.” Commander Mehana offered in near perfect English. “Most journalists have scattered like roaches, yet I do not blame them. What you see here, as Adad has surely told you, is happening throughout our entire country. It is not just the rebel forces that are being targeted, but civilians too, women and children.”
The shutter snaps from Christopher’s camera rang out around them as the group stood in silence. Mavi turned to Commander Mehana, looking directly into his hollow eyes.
“I want to assure you that I will do all in my power to share what I see here today. The people of my country will know of this, as will our government.”
Commander Mehana smiled, genuinely touched by the sentiment.
“I sincerely appreciate that. Whatever you can do is helpful,” he said and then paused to take a bite of his apple. With a full mouth he continued, while slowly walking away.
“But the disturbing truth is, we have it on good authority that your government knows exactly what is occurring here, as does the United Nations. And they have known for some time.”
**Dedicated to the 978 journalist killed in war-torn regions over the last 20 years, 13 alone this year. Genuine heroes who risk their lives daily, aspiring to uncover and share the truth**