A hard slog with low-life smugglers is a small price for avoiding Syrian forces. By Paul Wood
A dozen smugglers were squatting next to their mules. We should have left hours earlier. The four of us in the BBC team worried that if we didn’t go soon it would be dawn before we reached Lebanon. A Syrian patrol might spot us on the bare hillside. We were on the edge of the mountains that run along Syria’s border with Lebanon, falling away into the Bekaa Valley, and not all that far from the official border crossing on the Damascus-Beirut highway. There had been a gunfight in the next village, they told us, a battle for control of the smuggling routes (and for the big profits from selling weapons to the rebels). Three men had been killed. The mules’ owner was on the winning side. But he’d be late.
When he did arrive, we set off up a steep hill, the rocky ground luminous white under the full moon. Some of the mules were loaded with rocket-propelled grenades and a heavy machine gun for a village on the way. The others, we rode. The smugglers were “the scum of the earth,” said one of those in our group. It was Ramadan, but they weren’t fasting. They swore. When we parted ways 12 hours later, one got very aggressive as we checked the mules’ panniers for anything left behind. “Back off or I shoot,” he snarled from atop a black horse. “F— you and f— your sister.” He had stolen a flak jacket, we discovered later.
We were using this criminal gang because rebel fighters were unable to take us back the way we had come, through the town of Zabadani. There was too much shelling. We could hear it in the distance as the sun came up, volleys of far off thunder from the tanks and artillery pieces we had seen ringing the town two weeks earlier. That crossing, into Syria, hadn’t been easy, either. It was too steep for mules so we walked for three nights, legs aching, lungs burning, stopping to rest before we edged around Syrian army posts as quietly as we could in the dark.
That journey was in August 2012, one of a half-dozen covert trips across the border that we made for the BBC over the past year. The crew consisted of a cameraman, Fred Scott; a medic, Kevin Sweeney; our translator, Ghassan (who was not using his real name); and me. We did this to be able to cover the insurgency from the inside. But, mostly, we had to sneak in because the regime was not granting visas. Despite the government’s promise to the United Nations that foreign reporters would be given access, visas were often impossible to obtain. A hard slog with low-life smugglers was a small price for avoiding the Syrian security forces. “Seven years for crossing the border illegally. Another 10 for having a sat phone,” an activist warned when we were setting up our first trip, in November 2011. “Do you really want to do this?”
The regime’s grip was still strong everywhere on those first covert trips in 2011. We’d spend days or even weeks hiding out in safe houses. Activists and Free Syrian Army fighters risked their lives to look after us. Getting caught was a real risk. There was always a government checkpoint nearby. Informers, we were warned, were everywhere. An activist told me that a Lebanese reporter for an international news agency had been arrested and tortured for a month with electric shocks. A Western journalist was detained and badly beaten, her captors urinating on her as she lay on the cell floor, he said. As anyone reporting from Syria will tell you, the activists sometimes exaggerate, but such stories seemed alarmingly plausible. They were in line with what we’d heard about others who had run into trouble in Syria. The uprising was still quite new and it seemed the authorities were trying to scoop up activists’ networks by arresting journalists. The reporters who were detained for meeting with opponents of the regime were in the country legally. At the very least, we thought, we would be jailed as spies if caught. Our interpreter expected he would be killed.
The official media blamed Syria’s troubles on “foreign infiltrators” and “agents of Israel.” In Homs last February, my host came in to say he had seen me on Dounia, a private channel known for putting out pro-regime propaganda even more virulent than that of state television. He told me that Dounia showed one of my pieces on camera while the anchor accused me of using certain words and gestures to send coded messages to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. I found this too ridiculous to believe, even for Dounia. Why wouldn’t I just phone Mossad? But other Syrians told me later that they had seen the broadcast, too.
Later, as Syria became more a civil war and less an uprising, there was an identifiable front line and rebel-held territory. Still, we got the same warning from activists as at the beginning: It’s more dangerous to go out with a camera, they said, than with a Kalashnikov. Mika Yamamoto, an experienced Japanese correspondent, was shot dead in Aleppo in August. The commander of the Free Syrian Army unit with which Yamamoto was traveling told me he had no doubt she was killed deliberately. The FSA said a captured government sniper admitted carrying out orders to target foreign reporters. It is hard to know if that is true, but Syria’s citizen journalists believe the regime is out to get them–and foreign journalists, too.
The highest-profile media casualty was Marie Colvin, one of the best and bravest correspondents of her generation. An American working for the U.K.’s Sunday Times, she went to the Baba Amr district in Homs when it came under bombardment in February. She died, along with the French photographer Rémi Ochlik, as shells or rockets hit a makeshift media center in Baba Amr. We had stayed there only the week before. It was really just an activist’s apartment with a generator, hot water, and Internet. Between the members of the BBC team, we had been to two dozen wars, but the shelling there was the worst we had ever seen. Government tanks were already at the edges of Baba Amr. After only four days, we decided to leave.
Marie came to see me before she went in. She thought the regime might do anything to prevent stories and pictures from getting out that could make foreign intervention more likely. Although citizen journalists sent out shaky pictures of the shelling day after day, the presence of international correspondents did focus attention on Baba Amr. Marie was all over the BBC, CNN, and Sky with a gut-wrenching account of a baby that had been hit by shrapnel dying in an ill-equipped field clinic. “The doctor said ‘I can’t do anything,'” she told the BBC. “His little tummy just kept heaving until he died.” She was killed less than 24 hours later. If the regime was trying to suppress coverage of Baba Amr before its ground offensive, it failed. An editor in London stated a fact when he said of Marie’s death: “This has put rocket boosters under the story.”
Did the regime deliberately attack the media center? After Baba Amr’s fall, I visited Marie’s photographer, Paul Conroy, who was recovering in a London hospital with a fist-sized hole in his thigh. He had been a soldier in the British Royal Artillery before he became a journalist and thought that Katyusha rockets were carefully aimed at them. “There were two [impacts] happening and they appeared to be bracketed in on our location,” he said. “They got a fix and then four [more] hit. As an artilleryman, I think that was a good day’s work for a well-trained team. Nothing smacked of randomness.” He told me how, using an Ethernet cable as a makeshift tourniquet for his leg, he stumbled out through thick black smoke and tripped over a body half buried in the rubble. It was Marie.
There were five days of agonizing uncertainty over whether he would be able to leave, along with other foreign journalists caught in the attack. One of the leaders of the Farouq Brigade, the main FSA group in Homs, was accused of keeping the journalists there so the world would not ignore Baba Amr’s fate. The commander, Abu Jasim, denied it when I met him later, saying his men had died trying to get the journalists out of Homs. Still, such was the mistrust and recrimination amid Baba Amr’s fall that another group of FSA fighters we were staying with nearby insisted on escorting us in case we were kidnapped by the Farouq Brigade.
Paul Conroy did not believe the regime’s promises of safe passage and so, despite his grave wounds, he chose to leave using the tunnel that was Baba Amr’s only, tenuous link to the outside world. He was being taken through by an FSA fighter when they found a man carrying a 10-year-old boy whose legs had been stripped of their flesh by an explosion. A shell had collapsed the tunnel at one point. There was just a small crawl space at the top of a pile of rubble. Paul helped the boy pull himself through the hole, bare bone scraping across jagged concrete. Paul got out, but those following had to turn back when the tunnel was attacked. They included the Spanish correspondent Javier Espinosa, the French photographer William Daniels, and the French writer Edith Bouvier, who, with a shattered femur, was taped to a stretcher. All of the foreign journalists did eventually escape Baba Amr. Remaining behind were the local reporters who had been there throughout 25 days of shelling.
Among them was “Jeddi” (“grandfather” in Arabic, though he was only 34). Jeddi had been a vegetable seller before taking up a camera in the revolution. Often brave to the point of recklessness, he stayed as the FSA pulled out–to spare Baba Amr further bombardment, the rebels said. Most of the activist-reporters in Baba Amr I spoke to thought the fighters had made a mistake. One told me by phone: “The FSA are sitting in Qusayr, drinking tea and chit-chatting while Baba Amr is destroyed. They are cowards.” Jeddi told me he had dug a hole in the garden behind his house. He would hide in it when the army arrived.
We heard nothing more of Jeddi, whose real name was Ali Othman, until a few weeks later when he was arrested in Aleppo. Other activists said he was tortured, giving up dozens of names. The following month, he appeared in a bizarre and disturbing special program on Dounia, giving a two-hour interview, or “confession” as the show’s anchor described it. In the lurid title sequence, the camera moves down a darkened corridor as dramatic music blares out. A cell door swings open to reveal Jeddi sitting in the corner, head bowed, in a pool of blue blue light.
The pendulum swung back and forth. Jeddi did not denounce the revolution. Nor did he throw the questions back in the interviewer’s face. It was a skilled performance and courageous, given the enormous pressure to say what was expected of him. The FSA was still furious. One commander called him a traitor. The reaction was unfair but explained by the fact that the FSA would previously have seen Jeddi as “their” journalist and the Baba Amr media center’s function to put out propaganda for the armed uprising.
Some citizen journalists saw themselves this way, too. Most had taken to reporting to help the revolution. Some were, literally, spokesmen for the FSA, and a few were armed themselves. People, including those in the FSA ranks, expected their media to be on their side. Many, probably most, of the Arabic TV stations or newspapers seen by the average Syrian were highly partisan. People reacted to them as such.
One afternoon in November 2011 in Baba Amr, we heard shouting outside in the street. A small crowd surrounded a car. A reporter and cameraman had just driven in. They were recognized as being from Lebanese Al-Manar TV. Al Manar is a Shia channel affiliated with Hezbollah, and therefore the Syrian regime; Baba Amr, stronghold of the uprising, was mostly Sunni, like the revolution itself. The reporter had been given the blessing of a Sunni religious sheik to come into Baba Amr. He had miscalculated.
The reporter–a Lebanese Shia, we learned later–took off at a sprint and reached the government checkpoint a couple of hundred yards away. His cameraman, a Syrian Sunni, was grabbed and hustled away. There was a debate over what to do with him. Our host, Abu Sufian, a leading figure in Baba Amr, had lost three members of his family in the uprising and was enraged. “I lost my brother. My brother. They killed my brother,” he screamed.
Another man tried to calm him. “We can’t harm him,” he said. “That is not our religion.”
The cameraman was taken to see the body of a 6-year-old boy shot dead as he played on his doorstep. Male relatives, tears running down their faces, were standing silently over the boy, laid out in the nearby mosque. Our hosts informed us that the cameraman was shocked and said he’d been wrong to support the regime. They asked if we would film his statement to show he hadn’t been harmed. We refused. They tried to use the cameraman in a prisoner swap. That failed, but he was released that night in exchange for the return of two bodies, we were told. The next day we laughed as state television announced that two kidnapped journalists from Al-Manar had been freed in a “special forces raid” on Baba Amr.
I wondered if he would have been killed if we hadn’t been there. The unspoken attitude of the fighters toward reporters was: You’re either with us or against us. FSA officers would nod and agree when we told them we were not there to put out propaganda. But there was little real understanding of objective journalism. At the beginning, the rebels thought foreign reporters would bring Western planes to bomb the regime, as in Libya. By late 2012, they told us there’s no point in helping journalists–they know they are on their own. But, though they are bitter about the outside world’s failure to help, fighters and activists have continued to welcome us to their homes, feeding us, moving us around the checkpoints.
Syrian state TV accused the rebels of killing Gilles Jacquier, the first Western correspondent to die in Syria’s civil war. He was hit by a mortar shell or rocket-propelled grenade in January 2012 while on a government-sponsored trip to Homs. He was in a neighborhood of Alawites and affluent Sunnis loyal to the regime. But two Swiss journalists with him thought it was a setup, a government attack made to look like the work of rebels. Jacquier’s wife, Caroline Poiron, was also there, on assignment for Paris Match. “Everything was orchestrated–it was like theater,” she told me. “Gilles and the 12 other journalists were targeted by the regime to show the world that there are terrorists in Syria.” A French judge is now investigating.
Alex Thompson of Britain’s Channel 4 made another accusation against the rebels. He believes that FSA fighters pointed his crew down a road where they knew the regime’s forces would fire on any approaching vehicle. “The rebels deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army,” he wrote on his blog. “Dead journos are bad for Damascus.” Thompson said that the rebels he met didn’t trust anyone coming from Damascus on an official visa. We traveled with activists or fighters from start to finish. But I never felt, as he did, that the rebels might get you killed just so they could blame it on the government. We still had problems: hostile questions about stories that, it turned out, the rebels had not actually seen, or about the actions of “BBC journalists” when we knew there had been no one from the BBC present.
An FSA spokesman in northern Lebanon, for example, began telling armed groups inside Syria that I was a spy. How did he know? A source inside the regime, he said. Had he spoken to this informer? No, others had. What had been said exactly? He wasn’t sure. This might have been a lie by the regime to discredit us, we said. Had he thought of that? We began to suspect that this was fallout from emails written by Nir Rosen, the controversial American journalist and commentator. Among the thousands of emails uncovered when activists hacked into President Bashar al-Assad’s private account in February 2012 were forwarded messages from Rosen. He had written to officials to inform them that reporters were sneaking into Homs. He did this to help his own visa application. He named me. This was not helpful. We assumed the regime knew we had been in Homs–we had broadcast from there–but Assad was apparently not aware himself. We worried that if he were to take a personal interest, the security services would really start looking for us.
Rosen mounted a vigorous defense, writing articles and enlisting activists to deny that he was a regime stooge or a spy. I suspected that upon seeing my name and the word “spy” in the same article, the FSA spokesman and others had simply gotten things backward. Other journalists faced similar, flimsy accusations, often just the result of muddle on the part of the FSA. “What made you think he was a spy?” one reporter asked when a colleague came under suspicion. “He asked what weapons we were using,” a fighter replied. A French reporter found herself the subject of a tense discussion in Homs. “They thought you were a spy and were debating whether to execute you,” an activist told her when she got back to Lebanon.
All of this might be the product of 40 years of state-sponsored paranoia about outsiders, especially Westerners, and the fact that the Free Syrian Army is not one organization but a brand name for hundreds of local militias. The chaos has also allowed jihadist groups to join the fight, a dangerous development for Western journalists in Syria. The British photographer John Cantlie and a Dutch colleague, Jeroen Oerlemans, stumbled into a foreign jihadists’ camp in the north in July. There were 40 fighters, from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Chechnya, and Turkey and 10 to 15 speaking with southern English accents. The journalists were blindfolded, handcuffed, kicked around, and put in stress positions. Some of the worst treatment was from the Britons, Cantlie said. They were young, on their first jihad and “very excited” to have Western hostages. They were calling us “Christian filth,” and saying “die, kafir” (infidel), he recalls. A knife was sharpened, to behead them, they were told. They ran for their lives across the plain leading away from the camp. The jihadists sprayed automatic fire in their direction. Both were wounded and dragged back.
They were patched up and prepared for transfer to a “more serious” Al-Qaeda-affiliated group. Cantlie said they would have been killed if the FSA had not arrived to rescue them. “The implications are that the longer this goes on, the more complicated it will become,” he said. “And the longer this goes on, the nastier it will get, for all of us.” They were both lucky not to join the list of those who have died covering Syria’s civil war, some foreign correspondents, many more local reporters. Whether it is the presence of jihadist groups or the regime’s use of aerial bombing, new risks are being added to those that journalists faced at the beginning. As Syria endures its second winter of war, the dangers for journalists are multiplying.
Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent covering Syria. He has reported on more than a dozen conflicts, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Darfur, the Balkans, and Chechnya.