By Christoph Reuter
It was August 2012 and we were sitting in front of the TV. The Syrian state-run channel was reporting that the country's army was fighting bravely in the streets of Maraa, and was close to defeating the terrorists there. At this very moment, the program continued, Syrian army troops were storming the cultural center where the last terrorists had holed up. The screen showed soldiers running past three-story apartment buildings.
We watched the TV, fascinated.
We had been in Maraa for days, waiting for a driver who would take us further into the interior of the country. Not a single government soldier had been seen in this small city north of Aleppo in quite a while. Not even the artillery cannons in Aleppo were capable of reaching the town. Someone called an acquaintance living near the cultural center, and learned that everything was quiet there too. And the multi-story apartment buildings? There aren't any in Maraa.
The entire report, several minutes long and related in a breathless tone, was fiction. This time we ourselves were witnesses and knew the truth.
When the Syrian state-run television channel or the private channel al-Dunya, which is owned by the Assad family, expose a Satanic conspiracy against Syria under the direction of United States President Barack Obama, or reveal that the movements of FC Barcelona's soccer players are actually secret commands directed at Syrian rebels, no one in the West pays much attention. These reports are all too clearly grotesque propaganda.
But when the events reported are ones that seem plausible at first glance -- for example the flood of foreign al-Qaida fighters supposedly organizing the Syrian rebellion, the presence of a huge number of CIA agents or the expulsion of Christians from Syrian cities -- these claims elicit a response in the West. It's often difficult for us journalists to determine whether or not they are true, because the Syrian civil war is far less accessible than the war in Libya was. In Libya, the eastern part of the country around Benghazi was liberated in a week, making it possible for journalists to travel there.
There is no Benghazi in Syria. Any corner of the country's embattled regions can be hit by an air strike at any time. At the same time, the regime's Orwellian PR machine not only presents journalists with its official view of the situation, but also provides us with supposed eyewitnesses to atrocities and al-Qaida fighters it has allegedly captured.
And no other war has been so ubiquitously captured on video. Whether these videos are real or falsified is difficult to determine. Any cliché, any falsehood can be illustrated with a video.
During one of my first trips to Syria, I traveled by bus from Damascus to Homs and found myself at an evening protest in the Hamra district of the city. The protestors, perhaps 300 of them at that point, walked along pitch-black streets toward a large intersection. For 26 minutes, the growing crowd chanted in the street, the sound reverberating off the surrounding buildings. Here and there, the power was on and streetlights bathed the demonstrators in yellowish light. Ahead of us, about 150 to 200 meters (500 to 650 feet) away, was the T-junction where the troops would appear.
It took a great deal of courage to walk in the middle of that street. With few exceptions, only the youngest of the protestors ventured there, everyone else keeping to the semidarkness along the building walls. At the edge of the crowd, a father walked with his perhaps 11-year-old son, holding tight to the boy's hand and talking to him in a quiet voice. Those who were even more afraid stuck to the side streets, peering out into the main street.
My own experiment with going to the middle of the street was a peculiar experience that took several minutes to accomplish. It felt as if I had glue on the soles of my shoes, and I could barely set one foot in front of the other. The shots could come at any moment, generally with about 10 or 20 seconds' warning. The dictatorship wanted to be sure that anyone who dared to defy it would experience the consequences.
A few of the demonstrators were standing closer to the intersection, and I heard them shout, just as I later heard the shouts in Aleppo as the regime's troops approached, and within seconds everyone had dived for cover. If the feeling wasn't complete insanity, it was something so close to it that our feet didn't know the difference.
That evening in Homs, no one knew what would happen from one minute to the next. Then we found out why things had remained so calm. New reports came in every minute, revealing that in the neighboring district of Bab Sabaa, state security force units had stormed the Fatima Mosque and shot into the crowd of people praying there. Other troops had opened fire on the nearby Rauda Mosque.
That particular night, we returned unharmed to the place where we were staying in Homs.
Traveling the Old-Fashioned Way
Journalists' trips to Syria since the beginning of the revolution have generally been weeks-long expeditions into a country under extreme conditions, making our way forward the way our ancestors traveled centuries ago, when no one knew what the world looked like beyond the next hill. We make our way from village to village, district to district, traveling by car, truck, motorcycle or on foot, with a rotating cast of companions.
Just knowing the way is no longer enough, not since the army and the regime's security forces started setting up "flying checkpoints," which spring up suddenly and arrest or simply shoot members of the opposition, or even just those who come from a town controlled by the rebels.
Many people hardly leave their villages or neighborhoods anymore. Those who do set out, because they want to or have to transport something -- journalists like us, for example -- try to scout out the route beforehand. A motorcyclist might cover the route first, an unsuspicious car drives on a kilometer or two ahead, or a vegetable truck goes first to check out the situation, its driver remaining in constant telephone contact with the second vehicle, at least when there is mobile phone service.
In all of the larger towns, the people who help us and travel with us change constantly. Each local committee, each rebel group has control over its own neighborhood, but nothing beyond that. Trips that would once have taken a few hours now often require days or even weeks.
The benefit of this mode of travel, though, is that it allows us the unfiltered experience of all the facets of reality here. We travel with professors and cattle-herding nomads, with students, bus drivers and defected intelligence agents and soldiers. Sometimes we drive with rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), sometimes with a taxi driver who's just happy to have a fare. Our impressions of reality in Syria are formed from countless small experiences, from hours-long chance encounters during these journeys and while waiting endlessly somewhere by the side of the road.
The rebels are starting to form media committees, especially near the Turkish border, where there are many foreign journalists. They too tell us their stories of the civil war, but they don't try to keep tabs on us. It would be futile in any case, given how often the people accompanying us change. And deep in the interior of the country, by the dam on the Euphrates River in the north of the country, or on the steppes east of Hama, in the beleaguered city of Rastan, or in Houla, the town west of Homs where more than 100 people were massacred on May 25, we're generally the first journalists to visit in months anyway -- or the first to show up at all.
Often our routes themselves reveal a great deal about the situation here. Drivers in the provinces of Homs and Hama, for example, take the precaution of making wide detours around any Alawite village. "They've all got weapons from the regime there," one driver explained. "They may not all support Assad, but there are militias in every village."
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