Global Odyssey: Dangerous Dining

Our friend Eric Hill has a mission: “To visit all 194 U.N. recognized countries in world record time and film and document the exciting journey to show that awesome exists in EVERY country, especially with the people.” Eric’s journey will be one of full cultural immersion, while simultaneously raising funds and awareness in partnership with a variety of charity organizations. CBK will be reporting on his progress as he moves along. Check in next time for another tale from a great adventure.

Story by Eric Hill - gowitheric.com Photos by Icarus Blake and Eric Hill
Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Icarus Blake

Source: Eric Hill www.gowitheric.com

I woke up at six am and met our fixer at a café in Kilis around eight o’ clock for last minute instructions, warnings and plans. I was reminded just how serious the situation in Syria was. This was no joke, heading into such an active war zone. From all accounts, including those from very experienced war-zone journalists, this was the craziest, most unpredictable conflict area anyone had ever witnessed. Was I sure I wanted to follow through with this? I had to reconfirm that I was one hundred percent sure before I left for A’zaz, my destination in Syria. I had to see for myself to begin to understand, and I had to see if happiness could exist amid the chaos and destruction.

I got a taxi to the border then walked across the free zone to the Syrian border, putting on my level IV body armor as I walked. The body armor was somewhat useless because the danger of death and harm wasn’t from bullets, but from missiles, bombs and kidnapping—none of which a bulletproof vest would do anything about. But I wore it anyway, just in case.

We rendezvoused with our driver on the other side. At the border, it was business as usual, but more third world than the old Syria: kids in dirty tattered clothes selling little trinkets and candies; drivers in beat up old cars wanting to give you a ride. We got in the car and headed to A’zaz.

First stop was at a mosque destroyed by the first attack nine months earlier. Crazy. Two blown up tanks half covered by rubble. We climbed around and struggled to take in what it must have been like to have such a sacred place destroyed in your hometown.

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

Then off to the neighborhood blown up a few days earlier by a missile air strike. This was shocking. So fresh, so real.
I got out of the car and spotted some dust-covered men drinking tea on a hill. They were some of the surviving men from the neighborhood and surrounding streets, already rebuilding. They were all smiles! They admitted that what had happened was terrible and expressed anger for what had been done, but they were filled mostly with hope for a fresh start and an end to the war. They expressed gratitude for those that had survived and the fact that the missile had landed the way it did. It had landed in soft ground, so when it landed, it sunk in the ground before it exploded making the destruction about a third of what it could have been. Their attitudes were so humbling.

I said goodbye and proceeded down the destroyed street. I was on the verge of tears, but I knew it would do no good, so I held it together. I walked up on the fifteen-foot crater left by the bomb and looked around at all the buildings and homes destroyed. I had never seen anything like this. My fixer caught up a few minutes later and described to me how the attack happened in the middle of the night unexpectedly. Reports said that around twenty people died, but the locals gave mixed reports from only one to about twenty-five. The number didn’t matter. The damage was clearly devastating. There weren’t even any rebel fighters in the neighborhood! Just working men, women and children. Innocent victims.
I climbed down into the crater and looked for any bits left behind that would tell a story. I was surprised to see bits of various items big enough to recognize what they came from. I mean, the buildings all around were obliterated. When I climbed out I was given a gift: an actual piece of the missile casing that was recovered. All I could do was stare at it. I really didn’t know what to say.

After exploring around the destruction a bit more, I walked over toward the first building still fully standing. Two little eyes and a chubby face peeked out from the doorway. I calmly smiled, waved and squatted down into the most nonthreatening position I could think of. A few moments later a little boy and his sister shyly came out. The boy brought a little stool to sit on while he came to talk to me. He couldn’t have been more than five years old. Once again, I had to swallow hard to fight back the tears. This was the first house left standing in the row of houses on the street. They barely survived the blast. I shook the little kids’ hands and my fixer came over to help translate. After exchanging names and joking a little I could tell that the little kids seemed happy still despite their situation. I had to know how this was possible.

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

Me: “Are you happy?”
Boy: “Yes.”
Me: “Why are you happy?”
Boy: “Because even though Assad destroyed where we live twice, we can rebuild again.”
Me: “You are very strong.”
Boy: Smiling shyly, “I am scared of the bombs.”
Me: “Do you ever cry?”
Boy: “Yes, when the bombs come.”
Me: “When was the last time you cried?”
Boy: “Yesterday.”
Me: “Why was that?”
Boys: “There was an attack on the city again.”
Me: “When you get sad, how do you become happy again?”
Boy: “I go to my grandfather’s house nearby… He is always happy.”
Me: Then just for fun I asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Boy: “I want to be a man.” he said unashamed. Then added, “… and a police officer.”
Such smart answers, and still such a kid. I loved it.

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

I talked and joked with the kids a little while longer, then I took off my thirty pounds of body armor and showed off for them with a backflip in the street. I got some high fives and then we had to move again. It was dangerous for us to stay in one place for very long… Not only for us, but also the locals we were with. There is a danger that news of visitors can be construed as some kind of secret operation or something. So we left for the part of town still in one piece.

First, we went to a mosque that had been shelled but was still standing connected to a street market. Then, we went to the market where it seemed like a normal day (minus running water and electricity). Vendors sold their goods, and those still living in the city came and bought what they needed. There was a bit more trade and bartering going on instead of cash exchange because of the situation. There were a surprising number of smiles and people happily going about their business. I admit, it wasn’t what I expected. I did an interview with a storeowner and got answers to the questions similar to the boy’s. His happiness came from the hope that the conflict would end. He believes no matter what was destroyed, they could rebuild!

Then it was off to get something to eat. We sat down upstairs in a tiny dirty little restaurant (Remember: there hasn’t been any running water or electricity for months) and ordered our food. We were alone in the four-table area upstairs until three minutes later, two rebel fighters walked upstairs and sat down at the table beside us. Normally, this would be ok. I mean, we were with a rebel fighter. We were clearly not a threat, right? But I could tell my fixer was uneasy. In English, he basically said to be on our most polite behavior and said, “These are members of…” and he slid his phone over to us where he had typed the words, “JABAT AL NUSRA”.

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

Jabat Al Nusra? They weren’t supposed to be in A’zaz! We knew they had a major stronghold in the north of Syria, but we specifically went to A’zaz because the intel we had was that they were not in that city. Jabat Al Nusra is reportedly an Al Qaida-backed, Islamist-extremist militant group made up mostly of fighters from outside of Syria. They are rumored to be very anti-American. Also, their tactics are notoriously harsh and unpredictable. Most who get taken in for questioning by them are never heard from again. There are many stories of detainees being tortured and mutilated. Regardless of which rumors were true and which were made up, there were things far worse than death that were shown on YouTube by both Assad’s regime and this group. So this was nothing to take lightly. (I apologize, but for the sake of the people still down there I cannot publish any pictures inside the restaurant with the faces of the members of the group.)

We kept our cool, and through my fixer I talked back and forth with them. They asked where I was from. I told them, confidently, I was from the USA. They asked me what I thought of Obama. I told them I don’t get into politics, but from what I know, there have been some things I liked and a lot of things I didn’t like, just like every politician. They seemed to like that answer. They asked me what I was doing there. I told them I was looking for people that were happy and smiling despite the terrible attacks against them. They liked that answer, too. The tension eased a bit and we even joked a little. They even ended up buying us drinks!

Suddenly, the mood changed. Another member of the group walked upstairs, completely covered in black clothing with only his eyes showing, and before he had his last foot upstairs, he demanded our passports. “Passports! Passports!” he demanded, while making a chopping action at his wrist with his other hand. I have to add that all these men were armed to the teeth with knives and pistols, and, of course, fully loaded assault rifles with plenty of ammo.

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

Our fixer said not to give them to him and reminded him that according to Muslim custom, he was not to interrupt our meal for military reasons. And, to our surprise, our new friends that were part of the masked man’s same group even stood up for us, saying it was ok and to leave us alone. But he demanded anyway. He looked through our passports and went back downstairs. We breathed a sigh of relief, but our fixer said we should hurry, finish our food and get out quickly. We could be in trouble. The two other members finished first and left. Then we quickly ate and asked for the check.

That’s when things got scary. Outside, the militants hadn’t left, in fact a crowd of them had started to gather near the only exit. Then I saw my fixer’s face go a little pale. This was the first time I saw him lose composure at all. He said softly, “Okay, guys, things are getting bad.”

He could over hear what they were saying out front. “They think you are spies.” He said to just act normal and calmly put on our vests. He started to explain which direction the border with Turkey was in, just case I had to run and we got separated, or one of us was taken.

I pulled out my phone. I thought that these might be my last moments alive or out of captivity, at least. It’s interesting to know how I react in a situation like this. I pulled out my phone and tried to send two messages: one to my parents telling them I might not see them again, but that I love them; the second (this is slightly embarrassing, but true) was a message to a girl about my feelings I had never honestly shared with her. But, (maybe luckily) there was no service, so the immense worry from my parents and uncomfortable situation with the girl were avoided. Still, I felt so alone.

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

My fixer continued to give us whatever suggestions he could in the event that we were captured, but was interrupted by one of the men coming back upstairs. He switched mid-sentence from explaining the important details to some gibberish about his upcoming wedding to make it seem like we were just having a friendly conversation (in case the militant could understand English).

The guy looked at us and then went back downstairs. We waited a little longer until it seemed like they had left. We went downstairs and quickly paid and walked out into the hot sun. There were only a few men from the group left, but, to our horror, the black van that had a bunch of others, that we thought had left, had only driven to the end of the street to pick up more men!

As we tried to get in our car, the van screeched to a stop and the masked man rushed out and grabbed my friend by the arm. He told him to get in the car and that they were taking us to their prince for “questioning”. The guy who seemed like the leader of the group and also the driver of the van demanded to see my camera. I stayed calm and showed him everything on my camera. I explained again, through my fixer and interpreter, that I was doing a video project that was looking for happiness despite people’s situations. I was “looking for smiles even in a place with such terrible things done to it.” He seemed to like that answer and the pictures matched the story. Then he got to the pictures of the mosque and his demeanor softened.

“Are you Muslim?” he asked.

“No, but I am very interested in the religion here and how it plays into people’s happiness.” It was true. Unexpectedly his demeanor began to soften. Maybe he liked the idea of a Westerner actually caring about what means the most to him.

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

Meanwhile, my friend, wide-eyed and looking like he wanted this to end, was still struggling with the masked man. The driver handed the camera back to me and told the others to let us go, just like that. The masked man was still arguing with the driver of the van that they should take us in, but, eventually, he let my friend’s arm go and reluctantly got back in the van! They slowly drove off, and we quickly got in the car and left. We drove straight for the border. I was drained.

My words might not have done justice to the intensity of this situation, but this was the scariest moment in all my travels. I’ve been held at gunpoint in Africa, nearly fallen off several cliffs, stumbled onto a charging herd of elephants at night while on foot and had a number of other frightening experiences. But for these long thirty minutes, my heart raced as the fear of the unknown consumed my thoughts more than any other time. What would they do with us? Would I ever see my parents and loved ones again? How were we going to get away?

We drove in silence for a while, reflecting on what had just happened, trying to gather our thoughts. My friend wanted to talk it out, but I wasn’t ready. This may have been rude, but I told him to be quiet. I just wanted silence… just complete silence for a while. Nothing really needed to be said. I just wanted to be safely back in Turkey.

We finally crossed the border after what seemed like hours. I was so glad that it was over. I had planned originally for two days in Syria, but I knew now that I couldn’t safely go back for a while, so I had to call it good. Here I was hardly surviving a day inside the country. My heart went out to the people that lived there every day, smiling through it all! I was just grateful to have met the happy, hopeful people I met. I was grateful to have made it out.

Source: Eric Hill www.gowitheric.com

Courtesy of  Eric Hill

Courtesy of Eric Hill

5 Responses to “Global Odyssey: Dangerous Dining”

  1. Gaya Holmes says:

    This guy rocks and he is so cuuuuteeeeee

  2. Dani says:

    What a crazy adventure!

  3. […] friend Eric Hill just came back from Syria. His mission with the Global Odyssey project is to find something […]

  4. Ebru says:

    Eric is amazing-very intuitive, very inspiring, very challenging. Love it.

  5. may says:

    You seem like a great person. R.I.P