Qamishli (Syria) I was on my way back towards the Syrian-Iraqi border when I received the call from the Brazilian photographer, Gabriel Cheim, that made my blood run cold. “The RPG flew across my eyes, hit a Kurdish fighter and exploded. It killed him instantly. Gabriele was a bit further away and he sustained facial injuries from the shrapnel.” Gabriele Micalizzi, the Italian photojournalist who works as part of the Cesura collective, was injured at approximately 10am yesterday, on the frontlines of the Caliphate’s last stand in Syria’s east. I’d spent the previous ten days or so travelling around the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled north east of the country with Francesco Semprini from La Stampa. For the last four we’d been on the frontlines in Baghuz Fawqani, the final holdout of the followers of the Caliphate. We’d left Gabriele on Sunday afternoon, on the roof of a battle-scarred house which CNN had chosen as their location from which to film the final assault. Francesco and I left for Iraq and Italy the next day, as agreed. Gabriele, who is a photographer of real pedigree, decided to remain “for another week at least, to see the end of the Caliphate”, wanting to bring back those images of war that hit you right in the gut.
He was immediately taken by a Syrian Democratic Forces ambulance and evacuated by helicopter to the American base near the Al-Omar refinery, which was also where the journalists slept. Too far from the front to turn back, I spent the entire afternoon in touch with the Italian consulate in Erbil and with my own contacts. If all goes well, by the time this article is published Gabriele will have been evacuated to Role 3, the flagship American field hospital in Baghdad.
Gabriele is not only a travel companion, he’s almost like a godson. I see in him the same enthusiasm that I had when I started out by throwing myself into the black hole of war reporting, some 35 years ago. I met Gabriele in Sirte during a pitched battle to liberate the Libyan “capital” of the Islamic State. A suicide bomber had detonated himself in our location and shreds of flesh had struck us in the head. He comes from a different world to mine, anarchic and left-wing, but in the front lines these distinctions mean nothing. We connected immediately, and after Sirte we lived through the massive battle for Mosul together, inch by inch, house by house. Gabriele took some exceptional photos which brought to life the vision of ISIS’ Berlin.
After Mosul came the siege of Raqqa, complaining non-stop as to why the Kurds weren’t letting us see any of the “bang bang”.
During this last mission, Semprini and I nicknamed him Rhino for his tenacity.
He made his money from fashion photography and trap videos, but war was his – our – cursed passion. Along the same front in which he was injured we had stood side-by-side and filmed the bombing runs of the American hunters and pieces to camera alongside the Kurdish heavy machine-guns as they fired on the positions of the jihadists. We were always careful to test the waters first, keep our heads down, take a backwards step when necessary, but war is nothing if not unpredictable. On that CNN rooftop we didn’t get to say goodbye properly. Motivated by superstition, I wrote him a WhatsApp message, “do yourself justice and have fun.” It was only when I heard his chipper voice in an audio message from the American base that I realised that he had the makings of a true war reporter, with all the necessary grit and thick skin.
Translation by Sahar Zivan