A message flashed up on my phone just before 10 o’clock tonight: “Molham died today.” I called my friend straight back and he gave me the sketchy details. There was a battle near Aleppo’s Central Prison, Molham was there, and he died. That was all that he knew.
Molham was my friend, the first person I met in Aleppo – a seventeen year old who I’d watch change from a happy teenager to a messed up young man who, at one stage, was adamant that he wanted to join al-Qaeda. In May I wrote an article about him: ‘My friend, the aspiring suicide bomber’. I called him ‘Yusef’ in that article to protect him from the repercussions of what he was saying. I never imagined that he wouldn’t live long enough for the repercussions to matter.
In long conversations on Facebook I tried to persuade him to leave Aleppo and come to Turkey. He refused. He didn’t have a passport, and he didn’t have any money. His family were all still in Syria and he didn’t want to leave them or his friends.
To my shame, in recent months I tried to put a distance between us. As I grew increasingly paranoid about the risk of kidnapping in Aleppo, I worried that he might make some offhand comment to one of his friends that would reveal my presence in the city to the wrong people. I stopped looking him up when I was there, and now I wish that I hadn’t.
In the end he didn’t join al-Qaeda; he started working as a photographer, hoping to emulate some of the journalists he was hanging around with. He often asked me if he could work with me and I refused, because I didn’t want the responsibility of an eager seventeen year old with no war zone training and little experience on my shoulders. Soon afterwards I saw that he was filing photos for Reuters. I hope that they took responsibility for him in a way that I couldn’t, and I hope that if he was taking photographs as he died in the hope of selling them to that agency, they also take responsibility for him now.
I took this photo of Molham one of the last times that I saw him in person. He’d just come off his motorbike; that’s why his hand is wrapped up in a bandage. It seems stupid now to think that I berated him, and told him to be more careful on it.
What can you really say about a seventeen year old who has just been killed in his own city? All you can do is state the obvious. His life should be a quarter of the way through, not over. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near a frontline. That motorbike should have been the most dangerous thing he had to worry about.
Maybe to the rest of the world this is just the death of another Syrian – another statistic. But when it is the death of someone you know it makes you look at those statistics in a very different way.