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Free Syrian Army

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Syria has always been a tough place to cover for journalists. Confidently authoritarian with a ruthlessly formidable security and intelligence apparatus, Syria has long been one of the most policed of Arab police states. So when some Syrians defied their government to take to the streets in the southern city of Dara‘a in March 2011, the temptation to cover the story was overwhelming for many, including myself.

The story of the Syrian uprising is ultimately the tale of regular citizens silencing the policeman in their heads, breaking their own personal barriers of fear to speak, to demonstrate, to demand, to reject, to no longer be afraid, to live in dignity. It’s about what these people will do, what they will endure, and what they are prepared to become to achieve their aims.

It is also the story of a significant portion of the population that considers the regime of President Bashar Assad the country’s best option, because they believe in its Baathist secular ideology or directly benefit from its patronage or don’t have confidence in Assad’s opponents and fear what may come next. Understanding what this segment of the population will accept in terms of state violence, the narratives they choose to believe and their concerns is a critical component of the story, though one that is harder to obtain, given the paucity of press visas issued by Damascus.

The only way to tell the Syrian story, really tell it, is to be on the ground with the men, women and children who are central to it, whether in Syria on in the neighboring states that many Syrians have fled to. It isn’t easy to do — the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York City, has dubbed Syria the “most dangerous place for journalists in the world” — but it is essential. Nothing beats being there. There is no compensating for seeing, feeling, touching, capturing, living the story.

The images here are a testament to the power of being on the ground, of sharing and capturing a moment for posterity, of translating an element of a person’s life through imagery.

Take a look at the photos. Can you place yourself in these situations? Can you imagine what it must be like? What do you feel when you look at the images? Are you drawn into them, or are you repulsed? Can you relate to them, or are they too alien? This is the power of translating on-the-ground reporting to an audience. This is why we must and will continue to document the Syrian uprising from inside the country when we can, and we — members of the foreign press corps — are not alone. Sadly, as is often the case, local journalists (both professional and citizen) have disproportionately borne the brunt of the casualties in this crisis. Still, this story is not about members of the media and what we go through to tell it; it’s about the Syrians who entrust their testimonies, their experiences, their hopes, their fears, their images to us in the hope that they will help explain what is happening in one of the most pivotal states in the Middle East.

—Rania Abouzeid

This collection of testimonies is the third in a series by TIME documenting iconic images of conflict. See “9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” and “Afghanistan: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” for more.

Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Reporting by Vaughn Wallace.

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It was a typical day at one of the hospitals here in Aleppo, a typical three hours, to be even more specific. Children seemed to be everywhere, on hospital beds, in the hospital lobby and waiting with listless faces outside the clinic. Blood seemed to seep through every piece of clothing they had. Some, as young as three, composed themselves as needles pierced their skin to stitch up deep wounds.

Mohamed, 13, tried hard not to cry as he lay on a hospital bed, wincing in pain from the injury he’d sustained after a shell landed near the breadline where he had waited for hours. No one knew he’d been hurt yet and his cousin arrived only thirty minutes later to transfer him to another hospital.

More civilians flooded in, and those who were conscious had a resigned look of acceptance—this was just what happened now these days.

A teenage son, his face smeared in red, collapsed in tears over his father’s body laying on the gurney. He was hit in the head by a bullet, caught in the crossfire as their car made their way through the confusing myriad of streets, unaware of where the snipers or perhaps even the army was. He didn’t seem to register the reality and stared at his father’s bloodied body in disbelief. The doctors bound his father’s hands together and covered him in a blue sheet. They carried his body into the back seat of the car, his feet sticking oddly out of the right window. The boys in the back couldn’t hold it in any longer—as the car pulled away, they wailed.

A man’s body, uncollected by his relatives, lay on a bed in an alley behind the hospital. Another man came rushing in, his eyes wide with fear. In his arms was a bleeding young girl. The hospital staff were all busy attending other civilians and fighters. “What do I do?” he screamed. He was panting, panicking. Someone told him to go to another field hospital. Back in the surgery room, almost easy enough to miss, was an 8-year-old girl who had apparently died in an airstrike. Her body was being wrapped in a shroud and a doctor picked her up to bring her to a waiting taxi.

And minutes later, 15-year-old Fareed was rushed into the hospital. His eyes were wide open as he took deep, labored breaths—his last few before turning motionless. The doctors rushed him to surgery, attempting to resuscitate him. His mother appeared in the lobby, screaming, hyperventilating, crying and grasping at her face in disbelief.

Fareed couldn’t be saved. The little piece of shrapnel had entered his back and passed through his heart—there was nothing the doctors could do here. The hospital had so many needs—for staff, surgeons in particular, and crucial medical equipment like oxygen tanks. It is simultaneously a little house of horrors, and a little house of miracles, where death hangs heavy in the air but every saved life brings a renewed sense of purpose for the doctors.

“I feel a lot of pain inside. A lot of pain, when I see women and children injured. But I have to control myself because I have to help them,” says 28-year-old Abu Ismail, an anesthetist from Aleppo. Abu Ismail wears a black headband with white writing: There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is his prophet. “This headband gives me strength. I don’t save the lives—Allah does,” he says calmly as the horns of cars rushing to the hospital echo downstairs. Abu Ismail doesn’t flinch—his eyes remain excited and he is always smiling, even though he slept less than two hours the night before.

These are the everyday scenes in one hospital of one neighborhood in Aleppo. A microcosm of what the war looks like for the civilians of Syria, where every day the horror multiplies for even the youngest sufferers in this war. They are often the ones who cry the least as they are treated by doctors, while just a few beds over, grown men, fighters of the Free Syrian Army, scream out in pain. Daily shelling and attacks by helicopters and fighter jets seem to not break the civilian spirit. They remain resilient—they remain because they have no other place to go. Or simply, because they would rather die at home.

Nicole Tung is a freelance photographer who previously documented the uprisings in Libya and Egypt. Tung has previously filed dispatches from Syria recounting the aftermath of an airstrike in Aleppo and civilian funerals in Idlib

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The Reuters staff photographer Goran Tomasevic was with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and elsewhere, photographing the intense street combat as government forces sought to tamp the rebellion.

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In the mountains of northern Syria, the summer fruits ripened in the orchards. Farmers collected their crops, walking between olive groves, tomato patches and lush trees with a plum-like fruit they call ‘mish mish.’ It was a scene of serenity when I arrived over a week ago, surprising given the news that has streamed constantly out of Syria for the past year. Daily life must go on, my friend Mohamed said. “If you don’t work one day, maybe you won’t eat the next,” was his answer to a question on how the revolution and war affected civilians in Syria. Groups of armed Free Syrian Army fighters, many of them defectors from the military, manned check points and greeted civilians with warmth and familiarity. They knew how close the military was and how the government would not hesitate to use force, so they stayed on watch all the time, handling the meager weapons they had. AK-47s, RPGs, one tank and one 23 mm anti-aircraft gun, the latter two acquired in fights with the Syrian Army. This equipment was all they had to cover the string of more than 40 villages in the mountainous region outside of Idlib.

From our mountain top perch last Saturday, I watched the twinkling lights of the villages and towns below. And then the sickening thuds of incoming mortars erased any notion of serenity. Just 20 kilometers away, the Syrian Army was conducting its usual, almost nightly, attacks on the town of Maarat al Noman, a town of about 100,000 situated on the outskirts of Idlib City. I sat with my hosts as the word arrived about casualties. By 11 p.m., the estimated number of deaths hovered between 20 to 30—mostly the result of mortars.

We decided to go, but it would be no easy feat. The army was stationed at 13 checkpoints inside the city, as well as in the surrounding mountains and farmland. Some were as close as 4 km away. The only way to communicate with the inside was through FSA radios. After more than an hour of planning and coordination between FSA commanders, we were on our way, negotiating back roads and the lack of light. On the final stretch to the city was a Syrian Army check point, located on the top of a hill in what looked like a little house. “There, that’s the army, we’re in a dangerous area now,” Mohamed warned, but I wished he hadn’t told me. I could feel the tension in the car as Ibrahim, a shy FSA fighter who was driving, accelerated, and then I heard the crack of gunfire—four bursts. I waited for the sound of bullets hitting metal, and when it didn’t happen, a collective sigh of relief filled the car.

The shelling momentarily ceased. It was now 1 a.m. as we arrived at a mosque where locals had placed six of the dead in white sheets. The main hospital was under the control of the army, and there was no refrigeration or city morgue. The mortars had reduced the contents of the sheets to nothing but piles of civilian, human flesh—unrecognizable except for a single hand and one somewhat intact body.

I looked for a minute, began photographing, and then felt my stomach turn. The bodies were covered in chalk and large blocks of ice and water bottles were placed between the limbs. “They were just coming out of the mosque after evening prayers,” one local man screamed. “And that’s when the mortars killed them.” Even in the darkness of the mosque, streaks of blood could be seen, almost as if a giant red paint brush had been run across the floor.

In a house nearby, the women of a family were gathered in their living room reading passages from the Quran. They wept as they read, children sitting near them, bewildered. The body of Alaa Milhem, a 22-year-old French Literature student at the University of Aleppo, lay in the middle of the room, his white undershirt soaked with blood, light hair curled across his forehead. His mother bent over him, crying, sobbing, and at times wailing. “Why, why? Why?” She spoke tenderly in hushed tones to her dead son. The women around her began to cry harder, covering their faces with the Quran. Overcome with emotion, they struggled to read it any further.

All I could do was pause for a few minutes and watch. I felt my jaw clench—I could feel the pain in the room. There were no answers for his mother. Her son was studying for his final exams, heard the shelling, ran outside to help the injured, and was hit by another incoming round.

Nicole Tung is a freelance photographer who previously documented the uprisings in Libya and Egypt. See more of her work here.

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Tyler Hicks was on assignment in Syria with the correspondent Anthony Shadid when Mr. Shadid died after interviewing Syrian resistance fighters. Mr. Hicks recounts the journey for Sunday's paper.

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