Syria’s lung-eating rebel explains himself


The shocking video of a Syrian rebel eating the lung of a pro-Assad fighter spread like wildfire across the Internet earlier this week. The rebel, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, has filmed a YouTube video explaining his actions. 

"I am willing to face trial for my actions if Bashar and his shabeeha [militiamen] stand trial for their atrocities," he says. "My message to the world is if the bloodshed in Syria doesn't stop, all of Syria will become like Abu Sakkar."

The Syrian rebel, whose real name is Khalid al-Hamad, goes on to explain that he did what he did because of atrocities committed by pro-Assad fighters. He said that evidence taken from their cell phones showed how they raped women, killed children, and tortured men. In an article published this week by TIME magazine, the rebel fighter explained that he had a sectarian hatred of Alawites, and that he had made another video where he cuts up a pro-Assad fighter's body with a saw.

Abu Sakkar's actions not only created controversy among observers of the conflict, but also prompted the Syrian rebel leadership to take action. The Free Syrian Army's Military Council released a statement condemning Abu Sakkar's "monstrous act," and instructed field commanders to being an investigation "in which the perpetrator will be brought to justice."

So far, however, Abu Sakkar appears to still be on the battlefield. At the end of the video, the cameraman asks him whether he will continue fighting after this controversy. "Victory or martyrdom, I will fight to the death," he replies, then walks off down the road.

Many thanks to Elliott Higgins -- who is in the midst of a blog fundraising campaign -- for pointing out the video.



Why are so many diplomatic crises sparked by fishermen?

In the latest development in the showdown between Taiwan and the Philippines over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman at the hands of the Philippine coast guard, Taiwan is holding military drills near Philippine waters. The Philippines -- its apology having been rejected by Taiwan -- is also standing firm, saying it won't "appease" the Taiwanese, while the United States is urging cooler heads to prevail. The standoff is just the latest in a string of geopolitical showdowns in which fishermen have served -- sometimes unwittingly and sometimes wittingly -- as lightning rods in East and Southeast Asian maritime territorial disputes.

The humble fishing boat, in fact, has been at the center of incidents between China and Russia; between China and Vietnam; between Japan and Taiwan; between China and South Korea; between North Korea and South Korea; between North Korea and China; between China and the Philippines; and between South Korea and Japan. And then, of course, there was the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which set relations between the two Asian superpowers on edge for months.

How has the fisherman -- a seemingly unassuming practitioner of his ancient craft -- come to play this vital role on the international stage? There are a number of factors at play. For starters, Asian waters are running out of fish -- which means more fishing boats are straying into foreign waters in search of good hauls. Then there's the growing nationalism in many of these countries, which raises the stakes in these disputes and allows one arrested fisherman to take on national significance.

In addition, there's the suspicion that some countries -- notably China -- really do use fishermen as proxies in their ongoing disputes with other countries -- that these fishing boats are not the innocent bystanders caught up in forces greater than themselves that they seem. At the height of last year's tensions with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it was reported that China was sending an "armada" of 1,000 fishing boats to the islands with the goal of overwhelming the Japanese coast guard -- though the reports later proved false.

Hung Shih-cheng, the 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman at the center of the current row between Taiwan and the Philippines, appears to have ventured into disputed territory with the simple aim of fishing; the Philippine coast guard has said the crew believed he was trying to ram one of their ships and opened fire.

Venture astray, and face the chance of catching fire from a military vessel as a result of international border disputes? That's quite an occupational hazard.