Syria Crisis

After Shadowing Assad, Syrian Photographer Focused On War

Ammar Abd Rabbo covered two Assad presidencies from the inside, but his view changed when the Syrian civil war started.

Assad was all smiles in Paris in 2008
Assad was all smiles in Paris in 2008
A. J. Naddaff

Ammar Abd Rabbo spent 20 years photographing Syria's ruling elite. The Franco-Syrian photographer followed former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to formal events, trying to capture spontaneous moments of the often stern head of state. He documented the day he died, photographing current President Bashar al-Assad praying over his father's grave.

He was also there to document the transfer of power from the conservative Hafez to his son, the seemingly more modern Bashar. Abd Rabbo would go on to form a close relationship with the new Syrian president, portraying him as an unassuming family man who drove his own car. But when the conflict broke out in 2011, Abd Rabbo shifted his focus from the Assad family to the violence.

Syria Deeply spoke with Abd Rabbo about his role as the official photographer of Syria's ruling elite, his once-close relationship with the Assad family and how he documented Syria's fraught history in the run-up to the war.

SYRIA DEEPLY: When did you start taking photos inside Syria? What was the assignment?

AMMAR ABD RABBO: I believe it was in 1990 when I was working for the French news agency Sygma. I wasn't assigned but I took the opportunity to capture photos of Hafez al-Assad giving a speech inside a stadium celebrating the Ba'ath Party"s rise to power. There were very few photos of him at the time and they were mainly the same boring ones taken by official news agencies. You never saw him very lively or even waving his hands. I noticed there would be an opportunity to get quite close to him, so I obtained the necessary credentials and took off.

What was it like photographing the day Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, after ruling Syria for three decades. How did people react?

It was 17 years ago, so the pictures I took were before the digital age. It was a sad day for many people, even maybe for some who didn't necessarily love Hafez al-Assad because it was still a page of their life being turned. Hafez ruled Syria for 30 years, which is a lot, so for many people, he was the only leader they knew. Many were also a bit scared of the chaos that might erupt in the wake of his death. ...

When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 there was a brief period of intense social and political debate that became known as the Damascus Spring. Did your photography change during this time?

That was a very coincidental year because Bashar al-Assad's rise to the throne also marked the arrival of digital cameras, and Bashar is quite a photography enthusiast. On different trips to Damascus from 2001-2002, I met with him and his wife. He would tell me how he had a photo lab in his bathroom growing up and how he used to print his own photos. We had a common interest to discuss. When he became president, he was really interested in portraying himself in a different view from the official, presidential photography of his father. In the beginning, he was very much against having any self-portraits displayed. He said he didn't like it. He purged the old photographers from his father's era and brought in new ones with new technology, a new set of eyes and a new way of doing things. On the occasions we met, Bashar would sometimes ask me very technical questions (how to deal with the lighting and different cameras) but also about the message itself. I always explained that every photo also carries a message. You can tell the world if Bashar is someone nice, funny, laughing, angry, scary, etc.

In February 2011, shortly before the revolution broke out, Vogue magazine published an article titled "A Rose in the Desert" about first lady Asma al-Assad. The article commended Bashar and Asma for seemingly having embraced Westernization. What is your take on the description, given that your pre-revolution photographs of the couple appear to have the same message?

None of what you said about Bashar al-Assad is made up by Vogue or by me, it is true. When Bashar drives with his car or plays with his kids, he is definitely doing that. On a political side, his image was also intriguing because, in the wake of Hafez al-Assad's death, many thought Syria wouldn't open up and wouldn't be a freer country. In other words, Syria was going into a dead end, which meant blood everywhere and horrible war, like now. So when Bashar came to power — because he studied in London and took the metro Underground, because he married a Sunni and because he appeared different from many people in the regime — they thought it could help open this system from inside.

Unfortunately, it did not work this way. It was a hope many of us had and this hope was also expressed in these kind of images. He is more like the happy father. He was someone very accessible that you could talk to and rely on and identify with. The problem that I realized was that these images I took were forbidden in Syria. So, the images were shaped for those outside Syria to see, because Bashar and his entourage wanted to send a message to the world, like through Vogue, that "we are nice and we love our kids." But inside Syria, the message was: "We are tough. We have to scare you, beat you up, arrest you and perhaps even kill you if you dissent from our opinion." The glamorous photo of an elegant couple would replace the ugly truth of oppression.

Let's talk about the 2011 revolution. What was your personal position on the revolution in the wake of the government crackdown?

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, starting in Tunisia and Libya, I took a very clear position to be with the people, not with the dictatorship. One month later, when the revolution broke out in Syria, I was also in this same mood. It is logical for me to be next to the people who want their freedom, not next to the dictators who are killing them. This is why I did not go to Syria anymore. My last visit to Damascus was in May 2011. My personal position was very clear and unambiguous. Of course, the regime didn't like that because they couldn't put me into their conspiracy box. I was someone who traveled with them and knew them quite well. Above all, I cannot not see what is happening in Syria when it is my job to see what is happening in the world. I am not in denial or hiding. I returned in 2013 to Aleppo to capture those suffering from the fighting.

You said that you have a duty as a Syrian to show what is happening. You showed life in Aleppo from the extraordinary to the mundane in 2013. What were the conditions of photography there?

I wasn't that interested in showing the soldiers, the army or the fighters .... I was much more fascinated by those who stay and who resist and who try and create a new society, which is very difficult. After 50 years of Assad's party shaping the society, it is interesting to see how people are trying to escape this system and how they are trying to invent a life and society from nothing. These people were really fascinating and I wanted to see this and to show it to other people in the world. Unfortunately, the magazines and press I usually work for were not interested in most of the photos that I took during that visit so I decided to take them to exhibitions and to showcase them in a book for an audience to see.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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