American Documented Syria's War From Inside

Robert Siegel talks with Obaida Hitto, a 25-year-old Syrian American from Texas who spent five months assisting the Free Syrian Army in Deir al-Zour on the Euphrates River, near the border of Iraq. He documented the violence in the eastern Syrian city through videos he posted on the Internet, until he was injured in a mortar attack by Bashar Assad's forces at the end of September. He is now recovering in Istanbul.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Obaida Hitto is 25 years old. He's from Murphy, Texas, although he was born in Indianapolis. He is a graduate of the University of Texas, Dallas. In May, Hitto put thoughts of attending law school on hold and he went to the country where his father was born, Syria. He went to the city of Deir al-Zour in the east of the country and he took up with a brigade of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force opposing the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. He carried a camera, not a gun.

This summer, there was fighting in the city and Obaida Hitto made videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET FIRE)

OBAIDA HITTO: Deir al-Zour, Syria. July 21st, 2012, 5:15 in the afternoon. When will the world act to stop...

(SOUNDBITE OF AN EXPLOSION)

HITTO: ...to stop Assad regime - Assad regime bombing of civilian homes and buildings. When will the world act?

SIEGEL: Today, Obaida Hitto is in Turkey. He was injured last month in a mortar attack in Deir al-Zour. And he joins us now from Istanbul. Welcome to the program.

HITTO: Thank you, Robert, for having me.

SIEGEL: Tell me first, why did you choose to go to Deir al-Zour?

HITTO: I chose to go to Deir al-Zour because I had a personal connection to Deir al-Zour. My brother-in-law is actually from Deir al-Zour and has extended and immediate family that is still living in Deir al-Zour.

SIEGEL: And what was the state of things there when you arrived in May?

HITTO: When I arrived in May, there was still a normal life going on and regular protests happening, mostly during the night and during the day whenever there was people who had been killed or taken captive or captured by the regime forces.

SIEGEL: The protests ultimately evolved into urban warfare. How did that happen?

HITTO: There was an incident where a Free Syrian Army brigade safe house, if you will, was bombed in a civilian neighborhood. And civilians and Free Syrian Army soldiers were killed and injured in that particular incident. And soon after that, there was mortar shelling that began on all of Deir al-Zour. And that's when basically the formal fight between the Free Syrian Army and the Assad regime forces began, because the Free Syrian Army would go out into the streets during the day instead of only at night.

SIEGEL: What was life like when people had evacuated the city, and when it was the Syrian army or security forces versus the armed people, the Free Syrian Army - what was it like every day? What were you doing?

HITTO: The scary part was that the lights were out and there was no formal lifestyle. So there was no food, there was no water and there was no electricity. So we were eating tuna and sardine and like these (unintelligible) - boxed cheese, cream cheese kind of stuff and stale bread. And that's kind of with some tomatoes and cucumbers that we got every few days. Somebody would sneak them in from the rural areas.

And that's kind of what we lived on for about two months, until the Free Syrian Army was able to open up some roads and get regular items in. And some small stores opened up and we could finally buy some, like Coca-Cola and Sprite, and juices and things like that.

SIEGEL: Well, those were the living conditions. In addition to that, you would be taking artillery fire from...

HITTO: Yeah, there was constant mortar shelling for a solid two months. During Ramadan it never stopped. The shelling is easy to put up with after you've experienced it several times. But it's not always easy to see somebody who has been passed away, who's covered in blood, or someone who's being taken to the hospital, you know, at high speeds in the back of a pickup.

And then they make it to the hospital and then at the hospital they can't save this person. And then you have to, you know, wrap them up in a cloth and take them to the park and bury them. So the shelling is one thing but to see somebody pass in front of you is a whole 'nother ballgame.

SIEGEL: This is from the Guardian this past summer in July, the British paper. They reported from Deir al-Zour and the reporter described a de facto alliance in the city between the Free Syrian Army and Al-Qaida. And an Al-Qaida fighter is quoted as saying, "We have clear instructions from our leadership" - meaning the Al-Qaida a leadership - "that if the Free Syrian Army needs our help, we should give it."

How close is Al-Qaida to the Free Syrian Army in Deir al-Zour?

HITTO: So, I'm kind of hard pressed to really talk about this because I think it's kind of a dead issue, as far as I'm concerned. Because I was in Deir al-Zour for five months and I know exactly about - I know the details of the situation that you're referring to. And I know the gentleman that hosted this particular journalist when he came to Deir al-Zour.

And I think that the context within which those words are given out to the public, you know, this Al-Qaida representative is telling this particular journalist that, you know, we're here to help the Free Syrian Army if our leader tells us to help the Free Syrian Army, those are kind of like Hollywood-style statements that are kind of thrown out there.

That's my take on it because, honestly, the people who are working and who are defending the neighborhoods and sacrificing their, you know, their lives for, you know, the freedom that the Syrian people want, are normal every day folks who have been forced to defend themselves with guns. And it's not Al-Qaida. And it's not an Al-Qaida leader who is calling the shots either.

SIEGEL: But from your experience, were there dozens of Al-Qaida or hundreds of Al-Qaida, or even fewer than dozens?

HITTO: I didn't interact with any.

SIEGEL: You got hit by a mortar last month. Do you still have shrapnel wounds?

HITTO: I actually went to the doctor and got an x-ray of it and I have one small piece of shrapnel located near the bottom center of my back.

SIEGEL: Are your days in the Syrian rebellion or videoing it, are they done? Or would you consider going back in?

HITTO: I am going back in. I'm not considering. It's just a matter of when. I'm trying to get some of my family members out of Syria. I'm also waiting to see my mother, who hasn't made it to Istanbul. Hi, Mom. Hopefully she will make it here safely. Then I will go back to Deir al-Zour, hopefully. Hopefully sooner than later.

SIEGEL: Well, Obaida Hitto, thank you very much for talking with us.

HITTO: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Obaida Hitto, of Murphy, Texas, spoke to us from Istanbul. He's 25 years old and he spent the past few months in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour.

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