DISPATCHES: The Secrets of those Who Survive War, the Taliban’s Child Soldier Problem, and Surviving the Aussie Outback
Nuggest on war and survival
“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” - The Bridge of San Luis Rey
COULD IT HAPPEN HERE? CIVIL WAR SURVIVORS RECOUNT LESSONS LEARNED
Over my years as a war reporter and war crimes investigator, I am often left in awe of the individuals I meet who have survived the most unfathomable things humans do to each other. I’ve sat with people who’ve had their body parts surgically removed by aggressors, women who have been raped until they can no longer move, and children whose tiny bones have been cracked and crushed without mercy.
But for those who survive, the silver lining that shines through them is as miraculous as it is tragic. I’ve often been struck by how these ordinary people, with no formal training or skills, are forced to become extraordinary at the drop of a hat — or a bomb. The resilience to withstand the pain (both physical and psychological), to push through the darkness, and to find the thread of hope in the bundle of misery has left me both perplexed and inspired.
In documenting the lives of a few of these individuals, I hope to shine a light on just how strong the human mind can be when it comes to holding on. I hope to illuminate our ability to prepare for and push through a crisis as it dawns. And above all, I hope to instill what it means to rise above being a victim and into the terrain of survivor, and to seek inner peace long after the torment and war has subsided.
One moment, Samer Scher was one of the multitude of passionate political college students flooding the wide and dusty streets of Modamiyeh, Syria, chanting for free and fair and elections. The next moment, gunfire from forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime ripped through the open air and those he knew and loved fell to the ground.
As panic and lawlessness erupted in the cool spring afternoon, just like that, Samer knew that their peaceful revolution had fallen down the rabbit hole of a violent war — a war from which he and his country would never return.
“All we wanted was a future. Back then, if you didn’t have a link to the regime, you couldn’t get a good job; you had no future,” Scher, now 29, lamented from the safety of his small home on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. “Animals had a better life than we did. We did not just want to receive decisions. We wanted to be part of the decision-making process.”
But from that very first barrage of bullets on the first day of their peaceful protests, the bloodshed and distrust only deepened. At any moment, anyone suspected of being part of the cadre opposing the Damascus overlords could be ripped from their homes and never seen again. Scores would be thrown into jails in the bowels of the earth, where they were subject to rape and torture. Many would be burned and blown apart, as bombs slammed into their bedrooms while they slept.
Samer, who was working as a volunteer medic at a local clinic, anxiously accepted that it was only a matter of time before the brutal enforcers came for him too. He had already seen bullets wedged into the eyes of screaming children and shrapnel searing the flesh of babies as they breathed their last breaths. He was left with the memory of a quiet conversation with a close friend, only to see that very friend shredded into pieces the very next day as a result of a shell slicing his body.
After three terrifying days of heavy fighting on the edge of his besieged hometown between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and Assad’s Army — a conscripted military — Assad’s forces breached the blockade and stormed in. It was August 22, 2012.
“I stayed in my home; there was nowhere to go,” Samer, who speaks softly with glazed eyes, continued. “It was a matter of chance — maybe the regime would come for your home, or maybe they would go for the home next door.”
Yet after nights of sleeplessness, Samer’s fogged eyes made out the shadows of soldiers peeking through the holes of his thin walls. Then, the soundtrack: gunshots cracking, footsteps, and the sounds of his front door crashing to the ground. He felt boots pelting against his limp body, splintering his bloody mouth, and then the chilling threats that they were going to shoot him.
“They were humiliating me, calling me a dog, a terrorist, insulting my family. Every one of those men — about 25 of them — were all taking a hit,” Samer said as if sifting through a graveyard of memories. “It was an unimaginable fear; I thought they would arrest me and take me to an intelligence branch.”
First, the soldiers carted Samer around the apartment building like a human shield — holding him up in case anyone opened fire as they knocked down a door. At one point, they propelled him into a bathroom, and when he turned around, he was staring down the barrel of an AK-47 at close range.
“I begged them to spare my soul, that I was just a college student,” Samer recalled.
But a bullet catapulted through his rib, another into the bottom of his arm, then another cleaved below his shoulder. Samer said the only pain he felt was the pain of fear. Facedown in a pool of crimson, he counted three more bullets entering his body and a seventh shattering the wall right by his head. He remained motionless for what felt like an eternity until the laughter and chimes of “he’s dead” faded out.
Samer managed to drag himself down a flight of crooked stairs and phone a friend for help. However, his miraculous tale of survival would only become dizzying as the war intensified into chemical attacks and mortar showers — until one day in 2015. He was given passage to flee into neighboring Turkey, an opportunity he felt would be his last chance at life. From there, he boarded a rickety boat to Greece and then moved through to Germany. Today, he’s trying to move on with life and studies, yet not leave behind the Syrian war that protracts into its eleventh year.
“I don’t know why I survived. I would say it is God’s will. I ask myself why me, and still, I have no answer,” Samer said.
Physically, he’s no longer able to lift his right arm. Psychologically, Samer is awash with an unrelenting desire to keep fighting for his country — this time with his voice.
“I’m going to run for parliament in Germany,” he noted, his strained face thawing into a wistful smile. “That’s the best I can do to protect my future family.”
WHAT AGE CAN YOU JOIN THE TALIBAN? WHEN YOU CAN GROW A BEARD
Far from the rugged mountains and obscure madrassas they not so long ago called home, young Taliban soldiers now swarm bustling city streets and freely man checkpoints dotted across the long-battered nation.
When you ask most Afghans their age – nobody seems to know, and it’s likely nobody will ever know. But chillingly, that has meant that the former insurgency has long been able to append its ranks with children.
And despite now operating as a formal government – officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – it seems the Taliban has no immediate intention of adhering to international norms and prohibiting those under the age of eighteen from entering the fray.
So what is the ballpark?
Haji Abdul Haq Akhond Hamkar, the new Deputy Director for Counter Narcotics under the Ministry of the Interior, concurs that they follow Islamic Law meaning that the recruit “should be eligible for a full beard” and that they have no “set age.” And Akif Muhajer, the representative of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, who joined the ranks as a teen, also emphasizes that having some “hairs on the face” – need not be a “full beard” – is “compulsory.”
But for an insurgency turned government deep in the throes of economic crisis and desperate for international recognition, a lack of change to the long-standing “stubble-on-the-face” policy may prove to be a hard sell for the western powers-to-be.
As per the Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, a child soldier is characterized as any person below eighteen years old who is utilized by any armed group or force in any capacity – whether it be as a frontline soldier, cook, guard, or spy – is strictly outlawed.
HOW TO SURVIVE THE AUSSIE OUTBACK WHEN EVERYTHING IS OUT TO KILL YOU
And for a little bit of brevity and a break from the typical war zone as we know it…
Running free through my grandfather’s sugarcane fields and pedaling bikes through the rugged Aussie outback defined my Australian childhood. Then there were the car rides across dusty backroads, where petrol (gas) stations were a rarity—as was the sight of another human.
Snakes would sometimes slither onto the ceilings. Deadly spiders lurked in our shoes. Dingoes howled at the moon, and roads became so steamy that they turned to tar. Yet, here I am, a fully-fledged adult who made it through. The fun fact is that most of us do. So, what are the critical tips for surviving the sunburned outback where everything is trying to kill you?
Surviving The Aussie Outback
Oz might have some 173 species of snakes and a chunk more venomous crawlies. But the chances are that a critter isn’t going to be your brush with death. Temperatures in the Aussie outback can soar beyond 120 degrees in dawn’s early light and broil your brain pretty quickly.
The heat of the bushland is raw and unfathomable. Sweat strangles you and streams into bodily crevices you did not know you had. As naughty school kiddos, we learned at school how to keep the water levels up. We tied clear plastic bags over tree branches and watched over weeks as water collected in the bags as emergency backups.
Be A Water Warrior
But we knew crisis calls for an array of options. Other tricks include following fresh animal tracks to water and sapping water from plant roots. Squeeze some drops out of succulent ground plants. Run the AC in your car with the windows down and pool the leaked water. You can also examine the directions of seed-eating birds. They fly in orderly formations when water-bound and are usually in a messy group when gliding away.
And whenever you get that life-saving liquid …
“Drink! Do not sip your water,” Bob Cooper, one of the world’s leading survival experts, told me. “Always dress and pack for an unexpected night out. Know the priorities of survival. Most people erroneously think it’s food.”
But good tucker is way down on the list. Bob said that in addition to securing fluids, one should focus on first-aid, correct clothing, shelter, fire and signaling for rescue.
Respect The Wild
Aussies are proud of their badass fauna and the funny things that thrive in the scrub. Yet, at school, we are made to repeat that the best way to survive snakebites is just not to get bitten. How? Snakes are shy, so if they strike, it is from a place of fear. Please don’t go around trying to catch them with your bare hands and naked feet. If they do get you, be sure to have a few compression bandages on standby. Without bandages, you have about 45 minutes before the venom slides through your system and into the bloodstream. If you have compressed the site, you can make it for up to twenty hours as you head to the hospital.
Here is another great survival tip. If someone warns you that a swimming area has a “Charlie,” don’t splash there. Here in the Aussie outback, It’s lingo for a crocodile. So, there is a possibility it’s a six-foot “freshie” (freshwater crocodile) or a twenty-foot saltwater thing. Hard pass.
When it comes to taking a dip, keep your eyes peeled for cone snails. Those extremely deadly predators hang out in mobs and wait for kangaroos and humans to pop by. They launch a stinger and stuff their prey with neurotoxins.
Be warned of the stonefish too, the most venomous fish on the globe. (My grandfather always made my sister and me wear shoes in the river for this very reason. But he rarely followed his own advice and was routinely rushed to the ER.) These fish look like swimming rocks, chilling in the bottom of the water in camouflage. But if you step on one, it will likely send a spit-full of venom through your veins.
The stoners also pose on land, disguising themselves with the rocks. They can survive without water and remain there for almost an entire day. Wear your shoes in and out of the river.
Also, some of the birds are brutal. Really brutal. There are the kooky, flightless, fruit-eating cassowaries, a cousin to the turkey. But the cassos can run faster than 31 mph and grow up to 6 feet tall. If they want to kill a living thing, they typically go for the abdomen. So, don’t try to feed them. Don’t be their friend. Keep calm and move away.
Another perilous bird is the magpie, better known as a “Maggie.” She surfaces in the spring with the belief that everyone wants to steal her young from the nest. She is big and black and white. You might hear that horrific flap and slap of her wings behind you when you are walking. Then it’s on. The swooping feels as though it never ends, her attacking body going back and forth to pull off chunks of your scalp and peck around your eyelids.
We have experimented with deterrents: sunglasses (“sunnies”) on the backs of our heads and drawing faces on the tops of our hats. But Maggie isn’t fooled easily. It’s best to just put your head down and run. Run until you are far enough away from the nest that she will stop circling. Then stop by the doc for stitches if you need them. We’ve all been there a time or two or more.
Some—OK, a lot—of the spiders suck too. But the worst of all is the redback. They are black with a signature blood stripe on their abdomens. As kids, we sang songs about people who got gnawed while sitting on the toilet or “loo” or “dunny,” if you want to be serious about the vernacular. Those spiders are no myth. When I was about six, a friend came over to play on an old rocking horse. I watched, incredulous, as the red-striped thing crawled out from the horse’s mop of faux hair. It bit my friend, who was innocently rocking away.
I told my mum because my friend started to cry. We did a runner to the local doctor’s office to get the antivenom just in time. So, wear your gloves when gardening and rollover logs and old pieces of furniture too. Shake out your shoes before you stick your feet in them. And steer clear of rocking horses with fake hair.
For those interested in gaining a deeper insight into the Taliban takeover and happenings in Afghanistan please tune in to some podcasts I did on my return:
The Jocko Podcast
Officer Nate Podcast:
Brass & Unity Podcast:
For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”
Also, if you want to support small business:
Some photos courtesy of my brilliant photographer @JakeSimkinPhotos. Please consider a paid subscription to allow us to continue this work.