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Alice Fordham

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.

In this role, she reports on Lebanon, Syria and many of the countries throughout the Middle East.

Before joining NPR in 2014, Fordham covered the Middle East for five years, reporting for The Washington Post, the Economist, The Times and other publications. She has worked in wars and political turmoil but also amid beauty, resilience and fun.

In 2011, Fordham was a Stern Fellow at the Washington Post. That same year she won the Next Century Foundation's Breakaway award, in part for an investigation into Iraqi prisons.

Fordham graduated from Cambridge University with a Bachelor of Arts in Classics.

In central Damascus, it's perfectly clear that President Bashar Assad is firmly in control. In the souks of the Old City, his face looks out of almost every shop window, pinned up next to gold jewelry or intricate rugs. No one has a bad word to say about him, at least not to a Western journalist.

In rebel enclaves nearby, forces loyal to Assad are creeping back into control. After years of siege tactics, opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus are increasingly making deals that see their fighters heading into rebel-held areas.

The Hassan Sham camp, a sprawling refuge for displaced people east of Mosul, is growing by the day as people flee fighting in the city, which Iraqi forces are trying to wrest from ISIS control.

Among the tents, toilets and food distribution centers, aid workers have set up classrooms in tents. There's a play space where little girls are jumping rope in the chilly sunshine, while hundreds more children sit in class.

They're learning English, Arabic, arithmetic — most for the first time in years.

When archaeologist Layla Salih was a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Mosul, Iraq, she visited the ancient site of Nimrud for the first time on a field trip, led by a guide past the remnants of temples and roads to the ancient palace of Ashurnasirpal II.

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For a month, Iraqi forces have been pressing an offensive against ISIS in the city of Mosul. As NPR's Alice Fordham reports, one elite group is bearing much of that burden.

The Iraqi soldiers posing for photos next to a pile of captured ISIS weaponry — mortar shells, tanks, even a tunnel-boring machine — are battle-hardened. They have been fighting ISIS all over the country since 2014, when about a third of Iraq fell to the extremists.

Speaking at a little base in northern Iraq, they say the fight for ISIS' largest stronghold, Mosul, is different.

The Karamlesh village meeting begins the traditional way, with Christian prayers led by a priest, murmured and sung, lingering in the evening air.

But the meeting's not in the actual village of Karamlesh. It's 40 miles away in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, on red plastic chairs under a dust-yellow sky, next to the corrugated trailers some of these people have been living in since 2014 when the Islamic State took their village.

Hassan Shami camp, about 15 miles east of Mosul, is pristine, the gravel spotless, the rows of tents still white and mostly empty.

There aren't yet the crowds of children, piles of garish mattresses, makeshift bathtubs, half-eaten bowls of rice and beans that have become familiar sights at Iraq's many camps for about 2 million people now displaced by the fight against the Islamic State.

That is likely to change, and soon.

The Iraqi military and its allies have been pushing for a week toward the city of Mosul, held by the Islamic State. For people fleeing the fighting, a few thousand so far, it's been an unbelievably frightening seven days.

In the Debaga camp for displaced people, about 50 miles southeast of Mosul, which is becoming more crowded, I sit with a family who tell me about leaving the village where they lived under ISIS more than two years.

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In the sunlit courtyard of a mosque, overlooked by jagged mountains, dozens of men arrive to offer condolences to the family of Brigadier Hamid Birmous.

The commander with the Iraqi Kurdish forces known as peshmerga was killed in action by an ISIS bomb during the operation to retake the city of Mosul, which began this week. Iraqi security forces continue to fight their way through villages and countryside outside the city.

To find Mosul's cops, you drive to a gray dot of a village in an endless desert. The village, Mahana, was retaken from the Islamic State a few months ago and for now it's the police base for cops who left Mosul when ISIS took over more than two years ago.

Iraq's army and its allies are now battling their way through rural areas toward the larger prize of retaking Mosul. Helicopters buzz back and forth from the frontlines. Every breath is bitter with smoke from oil wells set alight by ISIS.

The man from Mosul is neat and tidy, in his mid-30s. He uses careful English and tries to stop his voice from trembling as he speaks about the Iraqi city he lived in all his life.

"My mind is full with memories," he says. "Friends. Home. You know — my home. I was born there."

ISIS has occupied Mosul for more than two years. Residents describe a regime of strict rules and savagely violent punishments for breaking them. The man is too afraid of ISIS to give his name or occupation, but he is a professional. He brought up a family in Mosul.

For two weeks, a battle has raged in Aleppo, generating tragic images of injured civilians amid the rubble.

The city — once the country's most populous and a commercial hub — is a key prize in the civil war. For four years, it has been divided between government and rebel forces and was in effect a military stalemate.

Russia is among the supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. supports rebel forces. They were talking to try to find a way to calm the violence in Syria, but the negotiations collapsed this week.

New Syria Ceasefire Set To Begin Monday

Sep 10, 2016
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After marathon takes, and with caveats and reservations, the U.S. and Russia announced a plan for a truce and military coordination in Syria — and it's easy to find reasons it could fail.

As Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged, the agreement sits on a foundation of profound mistrust and comes after a similar effort, introduced in February, gradually fell apart.

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Imagine you've been hungry for the past four years. When the bombing isn't too bad, you can grow a little spinach and beans, and sometimes some smuggled lentils or rice get past the Syrian army checkpoints. But there's no milk for babies and your children have never seen a piece of fruit.

This kind of siege warfare sounds medieval, but in Syria, it is reality for hundreds of thousands of people. Most live in opposition areas, surrounded by Syrian government forces. And one of the most desperate places is Daraya, just to the southwest of the capital Damascus.

When I meet the captured ISIS fighter, he doesn't look much like the bombastic murderers in the propaganda videos.

Ahmed Darwish, 29, is slight, hunched and shuffling in orange plastic sandals, wincing in pain as he walks into a police station in Rumeilan, northern Syria, escorted by the Kurdish fighters who captured him running away after a battle. His arms are bandaged and head is wounded: he was struck in a coalition airstrike in support of the anti-ISIS forces.

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On a sky-blue Sunday morning in the little town of Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, sunlight pours through olive trees, dappling the path to a church that has for almost a century been the center of an Assyrian Christian community.

But inside the Church of Our Lady, the sound of sobbing mixes with the ancient Aramaic chants. Photographs of three people are on display at the front, propped up on white cloths embroidered with roses, next to silver crosses and golden bells; the mass is in their memory.

Blink, and you'd miss the little airstrip surrounded by farmland and tiny, mud-built villages in northeastern Syria.

There are no checkpoints outside it. Nothing to stop people driving past — just two Syrian Kurdish guards out front, smoking cigarettes. The strip itself is just visible behind berms that earth movers are bolstering.

At a rehabilitation center in Turkey, just over the border from Syria, Bassam Farouh raises and lowers leg weights, wincing and holding onto a rail.

The gray-haired Farouh is a Syrian rebel fighter who battled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army for years, until he was wounded in a Russian airstrike on his hometown across the border two months ago.

"It wasn't a war at first, it was a revolution against the system," he says. "We were trying to take a stance against the system and that led us here."

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Transcript

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A whistle shrills, and a dozen boys tear across a gray schoolyard. Some are in sneakers, others have bare feet slapping the concrete. "This is a physical education class," announces Metin Yildiz, the director of education at Elbeyli refugee camp in southern Turkey.

About 24,000 Syrians have been living in this government-run camp for three years, costing the Turkish government $3 million a month, and our guides are keen to show us Turkish classes, a kindergarten, a computer lab, an art display.

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Iraq's war against the Islamic State is gaining momentum. Intensified U.S. airstrikes and more than a year of U.S. training of Iraqi soldiers seem to be paying off. ISIS supply lines have been cut and its access to oil has been reduced. When Iraqi forces with coalition airstrikes retook the western city of Ramadi, it was the latest in a series of successes.

But ISIS is just one of many groups trying to carve out power for itself in a country where the central government is looking ever weaker.

On a little patch of grass outside a police station in the small town of Rubayda in northern Iraq, a half-dozen women with small children sit on a rug, with a haggard-looking group of men nearby, eager to talk about how they walked here.

"Day and night, for 48 hours, without food or water or sleep," says Khalaf Hussein Karam, a former soldier with a deeply lined face. He escaped from his town in the Islamic State-held area around the city of Hawija. With numerous relatives including women and children, he crossed the Hamrin mountain range.

Nine months ago, the only way into Tikrit was to roll along dirt roads recently cleared of ISIS explosives. You also had to avoid celebratory gunfire as Iraqi security forces and their allies wildly announced their victory over the extremist group.

The city, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, was deserted at the time. After months of ISIS occupation followed by heavy fighting, houses were shattered, public buildings were burned and there was no electricity or water.

Let's start on the front line of every faltering economy: the grocery store. In a Baghdad shop lined with baskets of spices and rose petal tea, owner Osama al-Hassani is measuring out roasted, salted beans.

"Is that enough?" he says to a customer.

It's not very much. The customer says he'll actually take a bit less. And the shopkeeper complains that this is the situation now. He says he used to have 30 workers in his store and now he has only two. Business has been down for months. His customers are squeezed and worried

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