After being dropped off by Turkish border smugglers, Eliyahu Kamisher and his two companions slogged through thick mud for about a kilometer. Then, through a well-trodden opening in the barbed wire, they stepped into Syria.
Kamisher, 20, is a native Californian who is studying abroad this year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His venture into the war zone to the north was the high-risk part of his winter break. As of this interview, in mid-March, he still hadn’t told his mother about it.
The Turkish leg of the trip, which began in mid-February, was relatively straightforward: accessible, affordable and appealing to a political science major.
But Antakya in Turkey’s southern Hatay Province held a particular fascination for Kamisher. Not only is it a resort town with an ancient synagogue, but it also lies on the Syrian border, and has become a key crossing point for members and supporters of the Free Syrian Army. “If I decided not to go into Syria, I figured I could still visit the synagogue,” Kamisher recalled thinking as he planned the venture.
Why, on earth, would a Jewish kid studying in Jerusalem want to put himself at such risk? His ambition, Kamisher explained, is to work in diplomacy with a focus on conflict resolution. The way he sees it, that requires some first-hand acquaintance with conflict.
In Antakya, Kamisher and his fellow Hebrew U student, Hector Sharp, 22, from New Zealand, found that much of the town’s resort sheen had been eclipsed by the Syrian conflict. One café they stopped at was packed with Free Syrian Army fighters on leave, many nursing wounds. At a hostel frequented by journalists and Free Syria activists, Kamisher and Sharp met the woman who would take them into the battle zone.
Obaidah Zytoon traverses the border, bringing out video to show the world the human side of the two-year conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives. But, Kamisher explained, she also imports a message into Syria, admonishing FSA combatants to comply with international rules of war and the tenets of the Koran in their treatment of war prisoners and civilians. A crusader for secular democracy, Zytoon espouses non-violent forms of resistance against both the Syrian regime and extremists involved in the conflict.
Unlike the Syrian fixers who hawk their smuggling and guiding services to the hostel’s many journalists – with a $100-200 per diem price tag – Zytoon was friendly and made a casual offer to let Kamisher and Sharp come with her into the war zone. Kamisher said he felt he could trust her.
“Before we went in, I told her that I’m Jewish and that I have a big Jewish name and a big Israeli visa in my passport,” Kamisher said. “She said that it would be OK and that no one would really ask for my I.D. because we’d be going with her.”
After entering Syrian territory, Kamisher, Sharp and Zytoon packed into the back of a truck heading south to Qalaat Al Madiq in Syria’s Hama Governorate. On the last short stretch of their 120 kilometer (75 mile) ride, they heard the loud boom and saw the smoke of what they later learned was a Syrian army shell that killed 10 civilians, two of them children.
At the home of Raid, a friend of Zytoon’s who was in the midst of preparations for a family wedding, Kamisher and Sharp had a three-day immersion in Syrian daily life.
“Everything just shows you how intertwined family and violence have become, because everyone is a rebel and in every house there’s a gun,” says Kamisher. “You’ll be sitting in the living room and the father will be polishing his gun and there will be YouTube videos playing of dead bodies. While the dad’s loading his Kalishnikov, the kids are a few feet away playing and giggling. It’s just hard, because the kids are going to grow up in violence and that’s what they’ll learn: to deal with the situation with violence.”
Kamisher said he was able to learn firsthand about the differences between the opposition factions, including having the rare opportunity to talk with a member of the militant Islamic Al-Nusra Front who had come in to attend the wedding. Al-Nusra has waged extreme tactics to score some of the bloodiest victories on behalf of the rebel cause, but has been repudiated by the FSA and is classified by the US State Department as an al-Qaeda affiliate.
The wedding guest “became a Salafi type guy because he had seen his entire farm and livelihood burned,” said Kamisher. “He has so much pent-up anger that he turned to extremist Islam. He told Hector jokingly to strap a bomb to himself and go out and blow something up.”
Kamisher, who grew up as one of the only Jews in his tiny rural hometown of Wofford Heights, says that his Judaism – reinforced by his distinctly Jewish name and visits to synagogue when he was staying with his father – strongly shaped his identity. While in Syria, he said, “even though I don’t look Jewish, I felt like my Jewishness was about to explode out of me.”
Before entering Syria, Kamisher and Sharp had purged their belongings of items that might indicate a Jewish or Israel connection. Kamisher’s US passport, with its Israeli visa stamp, was taped securely to Sharp’s leg. (Sharp carried a second passport, without an Israeli visa stamp.) Despite their best efforts, Kamisher said there were a few slip-ups, with stray Hebrew words infiltrating his rudimentary Arabic, and a bus ride on which he noticed Hector writing with a pen bearing an “I [heart] Jerusalem” logo.
The travelers’ second host in Qalaat Al Madiq was Jamil Radoon, said to be a high-ranking Syrian army defector who told Kamisher he commands 4,000 fighters in 33 factions (katibas) in the Governorate of Hama, each with its own name and affiliation. Kamisher said Radoon is a physically imposing, authoritative figure with a clear organizational bent and a view toward the future. The commander showed off a well-maintained arms database that he said tracks every firearm via its serial number and the fighter to whom it was issued. He told Kamisher that every recipient of a firearm had signed a contract to help ensure the weaponry can be collected after the hostilities.
What many people don’t understand, said Kalisher, is that while all the Syrian rebel soldiers are Muslim, they aren’t all extremists. Jamil Radoon and Obaidah Zytoon envision a secular democracy and are seeking support for the moderates to help reduce the role of Salafists and Jihadists, he said.
Their sojourn in the area lasted a week, he said, and was punctuated by potshots fired from a castle above the town by pro-Assad forces that caused several fatalities.
When the two Hebrew U. students decided it was time to leave, Radoon provided an armed driver to take Kamisher and Sharp back to the Free Syrian Army checkpoint, and to what turned out to be the most nerve-wracking moment of the trip – when the border guard refused to let them pass without examining their travel documents. After some arguing, Kamisher told Sharp to discreetly untape the passport from his leg. As it turns out, most fortuitously says Kamisher, “the tape had mashed the passport and just sealed the [Israeli] visa page shut, so when the guy flipped through it didn’t open up.”
Now back at his studies in Jerusalem, Kamisher said he had let his father but not his mother know about his intention to enter a war zone. “I emailed her and said we were gonna be backpacking for three or four days [in Turkey] and might not have Internet.” At the time of this interview, Kamisher said his mother still didn’t know.
“I don’t know how my mom will react, he said. “She’ll probably freak out.”