The Freedom Fighters

Aleppo, Syria. November 25, 1982.

Amid the clatter and chatter of a massive Thanksgiving dinner hosted by American teachers from Damascus Community School, the stories of life and death under the Hafez al-Assad regime came rapid fire. I heard about body parts falling into the school yard from a nearby bombing, the bank official hung in public outside the downtown First Central Bank, and automatic gunfire echoing around the city every night. Plus Yasir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLO) was arriving in two days. When it comes to civil war in Syria, the atrocities heaped on its population hadn’t changed from the 1980s to today. Each teacher and family member had a small, emergency evacuation suitcase packed.

It was pumpkin pie time when I realized why an AK-47 had been pointed at my chest two days earlier. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

Crossing the border from Turkey to Syria was a pain in the ass but then border crossings were always a hassle. The easy part of the trip around the world was over. Europe seemed so long ago. 900 miles of drafty, smoke-filled, dirty buses and mini-buses across Turkey brought on serious culture shock for Andy, my travel buddy, and myself. Throw in the nasty remnants of food poisoning and the fun meter was stuck at zero. We picked up a 1953 Chevy taxi and willing driver for the winding, crazy passage into Aleppo.

Aleppo was a one-night layover then another long bus ride south to Damascus. The taxi driver dropped us at a hotel. After checking in, we headed to the bus station to buy our tickets. Inside, it was Walmart on Black Friday.

We moved to the center of the station to get a better view of which cracked, dirty window would sell us tickets to Damascus. Andy spotted a vendor and went off to buy a pack of smokes. Slowly pivoting, I came face-to-face with 7 or 8 men wearing keffiyehs (see image at top) and armed with AK-47s. The keffiyehs left only the eyes exposed. Mine locked in a stare with the leader. In retrospect, the predicament reminds me of the final scene in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.

The entire station had gone from raucous din to silence, enhancing the gravity of the moment. The leader swung his gun and poked me in the chest. Bulging under my shirt and windbreaker was a leather travel pouch, hanging from my neck. He inched his gun up and down a couple of times and I took this to lift up my clothes to expose the bulge. In a nano-second, the shirts were up. Despite the bouts of diarrhea, my sphincter muscle was holding firm.

He leaned in and grabbed the pouch. He’s gonna rip it off. Instead, he squeezed it a few times. His eyes softened and the corners lifted. WTF, he’s smiling? We continued staring for a few seconds, then he whispered to his companions. In an instant, they turned and strode quickly out the nearest exit.

Andy rejoined me and we dashed out a different exit. Tough guy persona be damned, we sprinted all the way back to the hotel.

There was no other choice but to return to the station later. We got our tickets without further incident and hustled (but didn’t run!) back to the hotel. Enduring another dust-filled, drafty bus ride the next day, we passed by the outskirts of Hama. Looked like the city had been leveled. Must have been an earthquake. Wrong. The city was pulverized a few months earlier by it’s own president.

Met a U.S. Embassy guard named John at Thanksgiving and received invite to the Marine House TGIF. Over Michelob beers, he invited us on a tour of Damascus cultural sites. We visited a mosque, a church and the main souk. Photos risky for Westerners. The city was flooded with agitated PLO army refugees in a variety of camouflage uniforms.

As we departed company, John asked, “Want to go to Beirut tomorrow? It’s only 70 miles. That’s where the real action is.” (Osama bin Laden said the Israeli siege and bombardment of Beirut, Lebanon in 1982 was a major motivator for his September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center). There were active car bombings and foreigner kidnappings as Lebanon was descending into its own civil war. “No, John, my sphincter muscle needs a break.”

The encounter in the Aleppo bus station was never about me. I was just a focal point. The rebels were making a statement to the local population. We will not be subdued by Assad and his army. If we can saunter through this crowded bus station without fear, then hope remains for the resistance. Assad referred to the rebels as “terrorists.” They called themselves, “freedom fighters.” 35 years later, Aleppo is decimated and the atrocities continue.

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable.
Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. 
Anthony Bourdain

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