July, 2013. Reporting from Kilis and Antalya, Turkey
Wijbe Abma nurses a beer and burns through the tenth cigarette of the day, cursing himself for not having the courage to approach the topless Czech girl two beach chairs over. It’s almost noon, and Wijbe is straining to relax at a Turkish resort near Antalya. He mostly succeeds until the evening fireworks boom across the cove and he starts flinching, as if he’s still in war.
Four noons and a hundred cigarettes earlier, the scruffy Dutchman was unloading a truck filled with boxes of spaghetti, rice, baby milk, flour, butter, lentils, tomato paste, oil, sugar, and lollipops to feed civilians in war-torn Aleppo. It was his ninth trip dodging bullets in as many months, and Wijbe oscitllated between raising funds online and distributing over 80,000 kilograms of food to bombed-out neighborhoods in northern Syria.
The project is over now—Syria burnt him out—so Wijbe’s taking a one-week break at a booze-and-bikinis beach resort before heading home to Utrecht, where September will bring about his final year of University. He’s 22.
Battle-hardened as Wijbe’s faded blue eyes may be, his young lungs filled with tar, he shyly over-rehearses his strategy to say “hello” to the sunbathing Czech girl nearby.
“One hundred [Turkish] Lira you no speak this girl” wages Hassan, Wijbe’s Syrian assistant and closest friend, who is haplessly prowling for women at the beach (despite being married), and drinking whiskey (despite him being a practicing Muslim and it being the holy month of Ramadan).
The two of them communicate in a unique language carefully tailored to Hassan’s very weak English and very strong accent, with a few rogue Arabic words tossed in and a total abandonment of grammar. I can’t follow, but Wijbe claims that they “can discuss any topic.”
When Hassan fled the war with his family nearly a year ago, he settled in Kilis, a dusty, conservative town just two miles on the Turkish side of Syria’s northern border. Most days in Kilis you can see bombs fall across the border, even hear the big ones through the windows at the Hotel Istanbul, a cheap fleabag lodging populated by an ever-morphing mix of Syrian refugees, foreign freelancers, and the occasional war tourist. This has been Wijbe’s home and base since for much of the last year.
His arrival in Kilis was preceded by months of wandering, an overland odyssey originating at his study-abroad program in South Korea last year. A ferry to Vladivostok in Russia, three weeks on the trans-Siberian railroad, then buses, trains and hitchhiking through Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, then back down through Russia, and a ferry across the Black Sea to Turkey. The adventure was supposed to end at his home in Holland, but as he traveled through southern Turkey, Wijbe made the accidental acquaintance of a Syrian man whose son had been killed while the family made its escape across the border. “Suddenly it became very real, to me,” he says. “I no longer had this comfortable distance between myself and the war.”
It was October, and Syria hijacked Wijbe’s thoughts. In the following days—despite months of scrimping and saving on the road, even sleeping outside when weather permitted—Wijbe’s bank account had only €700, which he drained and used to buy 100 blankets that he hoped to deliver to internally-displaced refugees facing the impending winter months. But aid distribution in war requires impeccable planning.
WIJBE GOES TO SYRIA
Wijbe met a freelancer in Kilis, who explained that to cross into rebel-held territories in northern Syria, you simply walk across the border and get a passport stamp at the Turkish gate. After the minefield, (which is really just a normal road with a minefield on either side), you’re in Syria, and there’s a woefully undersupplied refugee camp packed with thousands of internally displaced Syrians immediately on the left. While the border is open to Syrians fleeing home, the refugees at this facility, called “Bab al-Salama,” either don’t have the necessary documents or don’t have the money to start a new life in Turkey.
Wijbe crossed into northern Syria for the first time in mid-October to scope out aid distribution networks. He was terrified. “I had this misconception that the moment you get to Syria there are bombs everywhere and you’ll immediately get shot. But it’s not like that. Millions of civilians still live in this country.”
He’s right, but that Bab al-Salama touches a heavily-guarded international boundary does not leave it immune from attack. I was there for a few hours in April, interviewing a man whose wife was dying of heart disease but couldn’t get valve surgery in Syria, and didn’t have a valid passport for entry into Turkey. As we sat drinking tea in his tent, a government MiG jet screeched through the sky and bombed rebels sieging Mennagh air base a few kilometers to the south. I smothered my fear in the belief that the pilot wouldn’t fly close enough to kill people in the refugee camp, as doing so would risk his own death by Turkish air defenses. But in late June, one pilot dared to approach, shooting at least seven people at the border camp before circling back and heading to base. Several more people died as they fled the jet and darted through the minefield with the hopes of making it to Turkey.
The managers running Bab al-Salama camp dismissed Wijbe’s intent. “As soon as I said ‘one hundred blankets,’ they started laughing,” he recalls. At the time there were over 5,000 people in the camp. “But [the camp managers] were just sitting around, drinking tea in an office, doing anything but work.”
After a few weeks of Wijbe “dating” new contacts over tea, Hassan finally came through with a trusted driver who promised to take Wijbe to Aleppo so they could deliver the blankets to individual civilians in need, door to door.
When Wijbe was sixteen years old, he and his family volunteered with a small Christian NGO to build a school in Zambia, which he says grew to be significant in two ways: it sparked his interest in humanitarian work, and it taught him “how improperly aid work is done much of the time.”
“People think that it’s better to do something than nothing, but in fact you’re only helping people if you’re doing it right,” he fumes, having since dropped Christianity.
“Doing it right” is not easy in Syria, where complications in distribution range from theft to politicization to kidnapping and death.
Wijbe shows me an email on his phone from a spokeswoman for the Dutch Red Cross. It lists the organization’s Syria aid figures for February, among which is written “Distribution of 5,000 bottles of drinking water for about 30,000 people” in a Damascus suburb. “How the hell do they think 5,000 water bottles helps 30,000 people for a month?!” Wijbe shouts.
This April, he spotted a room in Aleppo full of food boxes donated by a German NGO, but being distributed by the Free Syrian Army. He returned in May to discover the food hadn’t been given to civilians. It had been sold.
“I saw a video from A’zaz six weeks ago,” Wijbe recalls, another cigarette shrinking into his lungs. “A Syrian jihadi group called Ahrar al-Sham was taking food directly out of boxes donated by the World Food Program, and repackaging it in bags bearing their insignia. Then they distributed it to locals as their own aid.”
This is why Wijbe delivered everything himself, along with Hassan’s hand-picked crew of Syrian helpers and a truck driver. “I was kind of losing hope in the state of developmental aid. I needed to show a radical difference so that people don’t give up hope on the fact that some of us are doing it right.”
Evidently people didn’t give up hope. After Wijbe appeared on a popular Dutch television show, over 120,000 Euros poured into his donation website, all of which went directly into aid while he paid for his hotel and food in Kilis out of pocket.
THE MONEY AND THE GUNS
Waiters as young as nine years old balance trays of tea and weave through crowded red tables every night at the Muzzo Café, a Kilis landmark that happens to have three of the town’s fifteen ATM machines. Each has a transaction limit of 5,000 Turkish Lira (about $2,600), which is great for most purposes, but not when you need to buy several thousand kilograms of food.
Wijbe shopped on that kind of scale. He would repeatedly draw batches of 5,000 TL while Hassan looked on for protection, which was only necessary because the line of locals waiting to withdraw modest quantities didn’t take kindly to him draining all three machines.
The incredible flood of donations created as much difficulty as it did hope. “I started wondering if I was out of my depth,” admits Wijbe, who had publicly promised that every penny would go into direct aid. “This was going to mean a lot more trips to Syria than I had planned for.”
I ask if anyone told him that they feared donating money would be analogous to sentencing him to death in Syria. He says no, but also shares a few close calls that he never divulged to the donors.
The very first night Wijbe slept in Aleppo, three artillery shells landed less than 50 meters away. “If you can hear the whistle, it has already missed you,” he advises, and shows me his own video footage to prove it.
Another time, he slept in a building right next to the roundabout in Sakhour neighborhood, which everybody knows is surrounded by five snipers. The building was shelled a few hours in. “We took out flashlights, but couldn’t really see anything because of all the dust.”
Free Syrian Army soldiers urged a blond jihadist from Bosnia not to kill Wijbe for not being Muslim, while he distributed food boxes to civilians. A sniper fired, but narrowly missed him by the Umayyad Mosque. A MiG flew over Wijbe’s delivery truck as they drove to Aleppo, and he saw it drop its bomb load.
“It was never a question of whether the danger would stop me from doing my job,” he says. “Of course there were going to be problems, but as long as there were donations I was going to use the money for food boxes and make sure the right people actually got them.”
DUST, RELIGION, LOVE
Almost every woman in Kilis wears a hijab or an abaya, and finding food and drink is challenging during the sweltering daytime of the holy month of Ramadan. A few men wander the city beating drums at two o’clock in the morning so as to wake the city in time to eat breakfast before the fifteen-hour fast begins at daybreak. The first night of Ramadan, as these booms reverberated throughout the dusty cinderblock city, I awoke confused and afraid that Syrian shells were drifting over the border.
Many practicing Muslims find subtle ways to circumvent the fasting rules of Ramadan, but in a conservative town like Kilis, there’s a lot of social pressure to conform. Among the permissible excuses for not fasting is traveling more than 80 kilometers in a single day. Since Aleppo is about 60 kilometers south, a Syrian friend photographing the war for Reuters joked over tea that he’d drive to the front lines and back every day just so he could eat.
Wijbe cut off donations to his aid website in early July, packed up 2,100 food boxes and finished his final Aleppo run. He came back to Kilis just to pack his bags, and then took off for a week at a beach resort near Antalya with Hassan. “Fuck you Kilis. Insh’allah Bashar one maybe two rockets…finish Kilis,” says Hassan, sipping a beer by the pool and using Wijbe’s camera to snap pictures of women in bikinis.
Antalya is in southwest Turkey, but the only Turks they’ve seen in the nearby resort town of Kemer are staffing the hotel or running tourist shops bursting with overpriced kitsch. Almost all of the resort guests are from Russia or Eastern Europe. Menus and shop signs are in Cyrillic, prices written in Euros first, Dollars second. Turkish Lira are an afterthought.
Wijbe and I had met in Kilis this April, but only briefly, so I joined him for interviews at the resort and switched out the Ramadan drums for bass vibrations emanating from the three nightclubs down the road, which shook the hotel walls all night.
Splash! Three muscly Russians in their 30s fling themselves into the hotel pool and displace gallons of chlorinated water onto the surrounding guests, who had been quietly drinking or sunbathing or playing cards. The Czech girl and her friend get drenched, which pleases the men because, hey, it’s flirting, and now the girls have noticed them.
“It’s hard to grasp that girls can be scarier than war,” Wijbe grumbles for the second time in as many days.
Over the preceding two years, uncontrollable acne reshaped the topography of Wijbe’s forehead, but the emotional scars run much deeper than the actual pockmarks left behind.
“I’ve gotten better about this, but I used to turn away from the light so that nobody could see my face,” he says. But even today, with only tiny craters where pimples had once been, a fear of breakouts cripples his confidence and desire for intimacy.
Though he’s the first to admit that “there’s no scientific evidence to correlate this,” Wijbe insists that—in his case—sexual activity triggers acne.
This belief led him to shun girls he liked and avoid sexual release, even of the autonomous sort. Despite the hormones raging into his early twenties, Wijbe developed the necessary willpower for his forehead to clear.
Nearly a year of starving himself of sexual release did not bode well for Wijbe’s health, though, and he developed a serious bladder infection. Hospitalized treatment ensued, but the infection returned two weeks later, and he was diagnosed with prostatitis.
Alone and afraid, Wijbe called his cousin Bart, who is quite a few years older and a respected urologist in the Netherlands. Bart prescribed strong antibiotics and urged that Wijbe needed to find a good balance between his forehead condition and his sexual health, as further prostate issues or another bladder infection could carry serious risk of sterilization.
Eventually he formed a suitable regimen of antibiotics and sexual release such that both health issues remain under control, but Wijbe still fears dating. “I’ve read online that when you’re really getting into a relationship, sex once a week is just not normal,” Wijbe divulges. “It should be more like every day. Maybe multiple times a day. I’ve never had a girlfriend.”
Immersion in his aid project helped build confidence, and that Kilis is culturally and morally guided by conservative Islam helped keep sexual opportunity at bay.
But at the resort near Antalya, where hedonistic success seems to be built on some magical peak of confidence and apathy, Wijbe’s sincerity leaves him a bit out of the game. “I’m not trying to get laid, I just want love, really.”
THE WAR CIRCUS
As Wijbe grew familiar with war, many of his initial fears began to fade. But the ever-looming prospect of kidnapping really scared him, especially with a recent spate of foreigners disappearing on the road to Aleppo at the hands of jihadist groups and criminal gangs.
“It isn’t like shells falling at the front line, which you can kind of evade by running. Kidnapping doesn’t happen by one method or in one area, it’s really random and you can’t do anything about it.”
Successive aid trips punctuated by occasional media attention made him a more prominent target, and he sometimes felt like a trophy of whoever was hosting him.
On a recent run out of Aleppo, an eager taxi driver loudly announced at a dangerous checkpoint run by hardcore Islamist fighters that Wijbe was from Holland. The man running the checkpoint showed apparent recognition, and asked if this was “Toby.” A Syrian aid companion piped up enthusiastically, “No, this is Wijbe!”
On another occasion, Wijbe was asked to film two young men firing an RPG from atop a bridge. He accepted, but says it was upsetting, as it turned out they didn’t seem to have a legitimate target. Sometimes they fire homemade rockets, which “fly in loops, landing god knows where, killing who knows whom.”
Though Wijbe’s work was only possible in opposition territory, he remains nonpartisan in his criticism. “[The rebels] blame the government for random shelling, but really they’re doing exactly the same thing. If they want international support, the world needs to see a difference. But apart from religion, I really don’t see one anymore. They’re extorting people, asking for protection money. If they execute somebody they say it’s authorized by sharia law. If they need supplies or cars, they steal them and label the prior owners ‘shabiha’ (government supporters).”
He declined several invitations to appear in Free Syrian Army propaganda videos, but that didn’t guarantee his escape from the publicity war. Rebel fighters once informed Wijbe that Syrian state television had used some video footage of him. The accompanying news segment declared that Wijbe Abma was “helping the terrorists.”
A few weeks later Wijbe received a suspicious phone call asking precise logistics for his next trip in and out of Syria.
“When will you cross, where will you go?” the caller demanded in bad Dutch. “I need you to help me rescue my cousin, he was kidnapped. Where can I find you?”
Wijbe pulls out his phone and shows me a picture. It’s him in Aleppo the previous week, standing shirtless on the deck of a public swimming pool that’s still operating and filled with children, despite frequent shelling in the neighborhood. Beneath a smile he holds an AK-47, one hand gripping the magazine, the other clutched around the handle.
“I’ve never fired a shot in my life,” Wijbe chuckles. “But these kinds of things happen from time to time. They hand you a gun and take a picture.”
Wijbe Abma is finished with Syria, but Syria hasn’t quite finished with him. Darkness falls at the resort near Antalya, and distant fireworks burst across the cove. “Oh god. My face is twitching.” He laughs. “When I hear shelling in Aleppo, it’s fine, it’s normal. But big sounds here or back in Holland get me.”
Some Russian tourists point at something in the sky. I don’t notice. Wijbe does. “In Syria, that’s a signal that a jet is coming.”
Syria took him from zero to thirty cigarettes a day.
Wijbe ponders his imminent return to Holland. “I know as soon as I get back there I will be bored, but I want to pick up University again,” he says.
“I told my parents I’m going to Istanbul, not home, but that’s just to surprise them when I ring the doorbell. Actually, that might not be the best idea. My father recently had a heart attack.”
Wijbe still had a few days remaining in Antalya when I returned to Kilis, but he wrote me with an update: the Czech girl’s name is Katya.