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A Syrian Photographer's Life In Civil War


Syria this week is heading into a fifth year of civil war. Millions of lives have been changed forever. One is a man who goes by Saeed al Batal. That's not his real name, but the one he uses so he can speak freely. He's a photographer who lives a few miles outside of the capital, Damascus - just a few miles, but a world away. Saeed al Batal's town of Douma is the closest thing to a front line in Syria's civil war, and it's been largely destroyed. His story begins on March 25, 2011. He joined the town's first uprising and was captured.

SAEED AL BATAL: Captured, yeah, but not into jail - into secret basements of the security hands of the regime.

MONTAGNE: He got out, but life was never the same.

AL BATAL: I lost so many friends, and I lost my opportunity to continue my education in college and so many other stuff.

MONTAGNE: We first spoke with Saeed al Batal nearly four months ago. At the time, it seemed like life in Syria could not get worse, but it did - a harsh winter, no electricity and then his home was carpet bombed. This is where we pick up his story.

AL BATAL: It's been like hell - like, over 24 to 45 airstrike a day on the city. Today, there's a lot of clouds in the sky, so the airplane could not fly. And there's no barrel bombs, so that's why we can talk today.

MONTAGNE: Where you are in your neighborhood and even in Douma, are there children there now?


MONTAGNE: And how are they all and their families surviving? How are you surviving? It's been a hard winter.

AL BATAL: I don't know how to describe it to you in specific words, but, for example, schools here start at 6 a.m. and end at 8 a.m. 'cause 8 a.m. is when the airstrike arrive for the city. People here survive - and literally surviving using whatever they can to keep going. We create fuel from plastic. We try to use the earth and harvest our own food. People actually here are living on the edge. Every day is like your last day, so you have to seize it to the max.

MONTAGNE: You said fuel. A moment ago, you mentioned fuel from plastic.

AL BATAL: Yeah. We discovered that you can get fuel out of plastic. If you boil the plastic to a certain point, you get some kind of fuel that can - works on the cars and on the electricity generators. And it's really the key that keep us going till now. It's not great, but it's working. And that's what keep us going.

MONTAGNE: You think - I mean, it makes me - my mind wander to - thinking of that level of creativity and toughness - how far that would go in a peacetime in Syria.

AL BATAL: I think people under siege are really different from any other human being. And I have discovered the hard way that the siege is the most powerful weapon humankind has ever created - not the nuclear weapons, not the chemical weapon, but siege 'cause siege can really get you to a certain mental point that you can break. And you can sometimes even accept the idea that going back to that regime that killed your brother and sister and family - and nothing else could do that you.

MONTAGNE: Just to give us some details in one respect, when it came down to the basics, what, for instance, did you eat this winter? Or, you know, how did you and others under these circumstances manage to even get food in? And what was it?

AL BATAL: Actually, we are not a small city. There is some space. You can use the earth. You can harvest your own food. But actually, in winter, there is nothing to harvest anymore. We live depending on the black market between us and corrupt soldiers - that they are ready to give us some amount of food on our very, very high prices. And when I say very high prices, one kilogram of rice costs more than $50, and one kilogram of sugar cost more than $75, so we smuggle it in. We smuggle it in. And people here get used to eat just one meal a day. And I know some of the families that - where there's children eat day on and day off to leave up space for their brothers to eat.

MONTAGNE: Why do you stay? Have you any opportunity to leave?

AL BATAL: I did have opportunities back in the past to leave, but I didn't take it. Chances of you surviving this journey is 10 to five percent. And there is no smart, educated people anymore in the city 'cause more and more, the rich go away and then the middle-class go away. And what's left is the most poor people who don't have any education - no hope at all and left alone.

Most of the people that get out of Syria are the young, smart, educated people that you can depend on to build the country. And all the people that - they are coming into Syria are from India, from Britain, from America - the mental problem teenagers that - they want to live a war. They are coming into Syria while, last year, four to 5,000 Syrian people died on the way to Europe, while more than 5,000 European people came into Syria to fight with ISIS.

So ironic - Syrian people dying to get to Europe while Europe youth are coming here to die and fight. But I still have hope because I still believe that any movement, even if it's a backward movement, is much more better than static. And we have been living here, in this country, in a static situation for more than 40 years, and it's time to move.

MONTAGNE: Saeed, thank you for talking to us. We're glad to have you back.

AL BATAL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Saeed al Batal is a Syrian photographer who asked that we don't use his real name. He spoke to us via Skype from the town of Douma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.