War photojournalist Robert King on the targeting of medical workers, the Free Syrian Army and his new book, Democratic Desert
"I was asking a question, and only to one person and that's to Assad. You took the Hippocratic Oath to become a doctor and are you honouring that Hippocratic Oath? Please have a look at my book and watch the video and show me where your Arab honour is because pretty much it's the only thing he's ever done that his Daddy never gave him."
Some 25 years ago Bashar Al-Assad trained as a doctor, first in Damascus and then in London. At some point in his career it's likely he took the Hippocratic Oath, a pledge by doctors to behave ethically and "to do no harm." But when his brother Bassel, who had been groomed to succeed their father as president, was killed in a car crash Bashar abandoned his medical training to become leader, and with it his moral code of practice. Since the start of Syria's 'Arab Spring' he has deliberately targeted doctors, arrested and tortured medical workers and shelled field hospitals.
It is the betrayal of the principles put forward in this oath that war photojournalist Robert King's new book, Democratic Desert - The War in Syria, seeks to challenge: "I was asking a question," he tells me, "and only to one person, and that's to Assad. You took the Hippocratic Oath to become a doctor and are you honouring that Hippocratic Oath? Please have a look at my book and watch the video and show me where your Arab honour is because pretty much it's the only thing he's ever done that his Daddy never gave him."
Crossing through towns from Lebanon and Turkey, armed with a Free Syrian Army stamp, King arrived in Syria in 2012 to document these human rights violations. A collection of the photographs he took in the year that followed, along with a documentary shot during his stay, have been put together for Democratic Desert, printed by Schilt Publishing. It is the first comprehensive book of its kind about the war and a permanent record of these war crimes: "the only way we can get rid of books is to burn them," he says.
King originally studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York but spent his student days covering regional wars and pitching to the New York Times and Time magazine. "I like the idea of helping tell people's story," he says. Since then he has witnessed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sarajevo and Chechnya. As for Syria, he made the decision to go after veteran war journalist Marie Colvin, who he knew from covering similar areas, and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed by rocket fire in Homs in February of the same year. After that, many journalists deemed it too dangerous to go. "The media stopped reporting in that area and I felt like the media was being intimidated and so that's how it got on my radar," says King.
"My main purpose was just to transmit pictures, as many photos as I could, and you know that was the purpose. Then I got there and I saw the slaughter and the loss of human lives, and the malaise of the general public, and so it got worse and worse and worse and so then it was ok, so nobody cares, and the humanity's lost. Well then I'll just do it for the next generation so they can understand how callous and cowardly the previous generation was on dealing with this issue."
His photographs, and the documentary film, certainly reflect this slaughter and brutality. There is a lot of blood. One picture depicts a child whose liver and kidney have been blown outside of their stomach following an attack, another is a close up of a man with half of his head missing. King believes it is not his job to produce aesthetically pleasing images of war for the public. Still, he says he doesn't get nightmares about what he saw. "I have a camera separating me from the real event," he explains.
Within the conflict, pockets of normal life continued and Syrians continued to talk to each other about girlfriends, getting married, music, technology, cameras, the Internet, virtual newsrooms, farming, chickens, art, music, says King. When he first arrived Syrians were friendly to westerners coming in to help tell their story. It was only towards the end, when they realised they weren't getting the weapons they needed, that they questioned the purpose of the media in the area and blamed them for photographing certain buildings because they were being targeted. "I think everybody wanted weapons so they could continue the fight," he says.
Through activists, media centres and the people streaming videos from their protests King made contacts, spending his time within territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army. Back then, he says, they were welcoming, secular, and what they wanted was a referendum or an election. The Sunni majority wanted their say in the daily operations and politics of their country.
"Because of the nature of the movement I think it was pretty organic," says King. "It was a leaderless revolution and there was no constitution that was ever produced. There were a few, in the end, Sharia courts that popped up in the more conservative parts of Syria that are now under the control of the extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra. So yes, there was a common goal, it was to remove Assad, so they could hold elections. But you know they couldn't do it with sticks and stones against nail bombs and chemical weapons. That's what's the Assad regime was willing to use."
One year after returning from Syria, King is living in Berlin, working as creative director of film for Bild.de. There are upcoming elections in Syria, but not how they were envisaged back then by the FSA. Assad is still in power and will run alongside two other relatively unknown candidates, whilst 21 other contenders have now been annulled. But what would happen in Syria in the event of real elections? "There's nobody left to vote," says King, "I think he's killed everybody. Are they going to count the votes in the refugee camps, do they have to go back to Syria to vote? It would be interesting to see."
"Most likely if there was a Sunni candidate the Sunni would win because they're the majority and that's how they think. I don't care what they say, 'we don't see people as Sunni, Shia, Alawite,' that's not true. Now everything is divided upon that, who's a good Muslim, who's a bad Muslim, and it's all on the isms of Islam. So obviously he's a minority so he would not win, unless their country and their constitution is like the United States or something I don't see it happening where a minority - whether it's ethnic or religious - can run a country unless the country's very progressive in democratic reform, or it's just a country that has been ruled by military coups."
"The story's definitely not over," says King, "it's spreading, it's affecting Lebanon and their demographics have completely changed, it's a real mess. It will spread through Turkey, and it's going to come up to Bulgaria. Absolutely. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe when my son's 42. So 25 years."
Published in Middle East Monitor