x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Battlezones offer Japanese war tourist escape from lonely life

Now in Syria, in Yemen last year and in Cairo during Egypt's uprising, Japanese lorry driver Toshifumi Fujimoti is putting his life on the line to escape a humdrum routine.

Toshifumi Fujimoto, pictured in front of damaged buses in Aleppo’s old city, plans to visit the Taliban in Afghanistan next.
Toshifumi Fujimoto, pictured in front of damaged buses in Aleppo’s old city, plans to visit the Taliban in Afghanistan next.

ALEPPO // Toshifumi Fujimoto, a Japanese lorry driver gets bored with his humdrum job, a daily run from Osaka to Tokyo or Nagasaki hauling tanker-loads of gasoline, water and, often enough, chocolate.

Yet while the stocky, bearded 45-year-old could spend his free time getting some excitement and a jolt of adrenaline by bungee-jumping or shark hunting, instead he puts his life on the line in a most unusual way.

He's become a war tourist.

Mr Fujimoto's passion has taken him from the dull routine of the Japanese highway to Syria, where as part of his latest adventure in the Middle East's hot spots he shoots photos and video while dodging bullets with zest.

He was in Yemen last year during demonstrations at the US embassy and in Cairo a year earlier, during the heady days that followed the toppling of the longtime president, Hosni Mubarak. Later this year, he plans to meet the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But for the moment, he is wrapping up a week's tour of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, which for almost six months has been one of the hottest spots in a conflict that has killed more 60,000 people, according to UN figures.

He had already spent two weeks in the war-torn country at the end of 2011, taking advantage of a tourist visa, but this time he entered the country clandestinely from Turkey.

Dressed in Japanese army fatigues and armed with two cameras and a video camera, he heads for whatever frontline he can reach every morning to document the ongoing destruction of Syria's second city and one-time commercial capital.

Mr Fujimoto, who doesn't speak English, much less Arabic, has picked up a few words, such as "dangerous" and "frontline."

The only way to interview him was to make use of online translation.

"I always go by myself, because no tour guide wants to go to the front. It's very exciting, and the adrenalin rush is like no other," he said.

"It's more dangerous in Syria to be a journalist than a tourist," he said, describing how "each morning I walk 200 metres to reach the 'front' and I'm right there on the firing line with soldiers of the [rebel] Free Syria Army."

Often, the rebels stop him in one of the Old City's streets to have their photos taken with him.

He takes his time getting his shots right, while the rebels he hangs out with shout from both sides of the street: "Run! Run! There are snipers. Run!"

"I'm not a target for snipers because I'm a tourist, not like you journalists," he said. "Besides, I'm not afraid if they shoot at me or that they might kill me. I'm a combination of samurai and kamikaze."

Mr Fujimoto won't even wear a helmet or a flack jacket. He lives with a local family. His employeers don't even know he is here.

"I just told them I was going to Turkey on holiday. If I'd told them the truth, they'd tell me I'm completely crazy."

But though some might doubt his sanity, no one can question his financial foresight, which is rooted in the sadness of his personal life.

Mr Fujimori is divorced, and says "I have no family, no friends, no girlfriend. I am alone in life."

But he does have three daughters, whom he hasn't seen for five years, "not even on Facebook or the internet, nothing. And that saddens me deeply," he said wiping away a tear.

He said he bought a life insurance policy and "I pray every day that, if something happens to me, my girls might collect the insurance money and be able to live comfortably".

During his week in Aleppo, he has covered all the battlefronts - in the districts of Amariya, Salaheddin, Saif al-Dawla, Izaa - and though he has shared many of the images he has captured, one of them has stuck in his mind.

He opened a file on his laptop to show the partly decomposed body of a seven-year-old girl gunned down by a sniper in Saif Al Dawla, which has gone unclaimed for months.

One wonders if any of his daughters could be the same age, but there was no way to pry more out of him, as he wept every time they were mentioned.

"I love children, but Syria is no place for them. A bomb can snuff out their lives at any moment," he said, as some FSA fighters asked him to join them in Saleheddin and he set off down the street toward the sound of fighting.