Istanbul, Turkey – The metal detector beeped loudly, prompting a group of security guards to converge around Mohammad Kaddour as he attempted to enter a shopping mall in Istanbul’s Uskudar neighbourhood.
From a distance, the guards asked Kaddour, 20, to lift the leg of his combat trouser, as other shoppers warily looked on.
“It’s a prosthetic leg,” he explained with a grin, before the apologetic guards allowed him into the mall.
The attack last month at an Istanbul nightclub, which killed 39 people and was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS), has left the country on edge. But for Kaddour, Turkey is a haven – a place where he has made many new friends, while escaping possible death in Syria.
Kaddour, a Syrian freelance journalist, lost his leg in September 2013, after a botched attack against regime soldiers by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters with whom he was embedded.
“Before FSA fighters attacked the regime soldiers, we came under fire,” he said of the incident in al-Mastouma town in Idlib province, where rebels had hoped to destroy the regime’s alleged chemical arsenal. He was shot a dozen times.
A wounded Kaddour tried to hide in a pit in the ground, but one regime soldier followed him and shot him again. The soldier was killed when a rebel fighter shot him in the back.
“I survived. It was God’s will,” Kaddour said, noting he was then operated on for hours in a hospital along the Turkey-Syria border before being transferred to a state hospital in Turkey.
“In Turkey, doctors had to amputate my leg. I gave the consent. I had to. I wanted to live. There wasn’t any option left,” he told Al Jazeera.
Before the 2011 Syrian uprising, Kaddour dreamed of becoming a computer engineer. But as conflict gripped his country, his plans changed.
His passion for visual documentation sprung from his experiences during the uprising. Kaddour’s family, including his parents and four brothers, lived in northern Latakia until 2012, when they moved to their native village in Idlib, near the Turkish border.
He recalls how he used to snap covert photos of protests that unfolded in Latakia.
“I’d pretend to be talking on my Nokia [mobile phone] while I was actually clicking pictures,” Kaddour said. “I managed to take many pictures of the regime forces standing in line against the protesters. Those pictures gave me a sense of how important it was for us to document what was happening in our country.”
His brother later helped him to buy an HD camera, and soon he was back in the streets of Syria “documenting history”. He initially worked as a freelancer and fixer, selling his footage to local and international television stations. Then, starting in April 2013, he began working as an independent journalist.
“The international media survived the Syrian conflict only by getting information from the local Syrians, who volunteered to share the information. I think no channel or magazine gave us what we deserved,” he said, noting that he did not believe Syrian freelancers had been compensated fairly for the dangerous work they took on.
“But by social media, we have tried for our voices to be heard … There are people here in Turkey asking me what’s going on in Syria, or did the conflict finish,” he added.
Just 15 when he first began shooting videos, Kaddour said that he was not taken seriously by regime forces or protesters, allowing him to fly under the radar and get better shots. He travelled to Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Az Zor, among other locations, and later embedded with the FSA in hopes of getting some protection during “dangerous shoots”.
The September 2013 skirmish in al-Mastouma town nearly killed him. Now, with a leg amputated and deep scars, Kaddour is studying cinema and television at Istanbul’s Sehir University, where he aspires to continue telling his country’s story.
“We Syrians haven’t realised the importance of media … We have plenty of foreign narratives of Syria, but not many from Syrians themselves,” he said. “That’s why I plan to tell stories about my motherland through writing and filmmaking.”
Unlike many refugees, Kaddour had a chance to go to the United States in 2015, through a United Nations refugee programme that would have covered the costs of his medical treatment and education. But he turned the offer down, deciding he would rather remain closer to Syria.
Since then, he has watched with dismay the fallout from US President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban: “Trump has, in a way, sided with the terrorists. [He says he wants to fight them], but at the same time he doesn’t want their victims to run for safety … It has made all Syrians suffer more,” Kaddour said. “But I’m glad to see American people resisting the ban.”
I may have lost my leg after receiving 13 bullets, but not hope.
In his spare time, Kaddour volunteers with Syrian refugee children in Turkey, teaching and playing with them.
“I miss my country,” he said, noting that he has tried to maintain his friendship with an Alawite friend after they became estranged amid the 2011 uprising. “In 2015, I found my friend on Facebook. I enquired about his well-being, avoiding the political questions. But he was like, ‘It is good here, why did you go to an area under FSA control? Why did you support FSA? Why did you leave the city?'”
His answers did not convince his friend, who blocked Kaddour on Facebook. “I didn’t feel dejected, because I still love my friend … not his ruler [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad], though,” he added.
Meanwhile, Kaddour has made many new friends in Turkey. And although he lost his camera and some key footage during the operation that cost him his leg, he intends – once he has completed his studies – to pick up his camera and return to shoot in Syria once again.
“Hope is all I have for myself and for a better Syria,” he said. “I may have lost my leg after receiving 13 bullets, but not hope.”
Follow Baba Tamim on Twitter: @babatamim