Between Syria's Fronts: A Two-Year Travelogue from Hell

By Christoph Reuter

Since unrest began in Syria in the spring of 2011, reporting from the country has been difficult. Former contacts are now dead or can't be located, and the country lies in ruins. Now, amid harrowing conditions, the balance of power appears to have shifted, with rebels beginning to gain the upper hand.

Night falls quickly in Syria, as the overloaded pickup trucks carrying stray refugee families emerge through the mist. The headlight beams from our car fall over destroyed houses on our drive through olive groves and abandoned towns. Campfires can occasionally be seen in the distance.

We've driven along this road once before, in April 2012, which these days seems like an eternity ago. At the time, there was still electricity here, and people still lived in Taftanas, Sarmin, Kurin and other villages in Idlib Province, in northern Syria. But now, in December 2012, entire villages are empty and pockmarked with bullet holes, their residents having fled from airstrikes, hunger and frigid temperatures.

After a while, we reach a village where residents did not openly demonstrate against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in the past. As a result, they still have electricity today. A man opens a door, shivering as he looks out at the damp, cold landscape. "Thank God for this weather!" he says wryly. It's been raining for days, and everything seems immersed in fog and mud. But the fog is also a deterrent against aircraft and helicopters, sparing the area the usual bombardment for a few days and providing a moment of calm in the midst of the apocalypse.

Today, Syria is a devastated country. The cities have turned into battlefields, and in the places from which the Assad regime's troops and militias were forced to withdraw, its air force is now incinerating the infrastructure.

Nevertheless, after months of static conflict between unequally matched forces, during which provinces were neither lost by the regime nor gained by the rebels, the balance has suddenly shifted. Military camps, airports and cities are falling to the rebels, while demoralized and hungry Syrian army units are simply giving up. The rebels are already on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, the capital. The army is defending its last bastions in the north and east, like islands in a sea, only able to receive supplies from the air. Even the Russian government, Assad's most important ally next to Iran, is gradually abandoning the dictator. Before Christmas, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he wasn't concerned with the fate of the Assad regime.

Anxiety about Postwar Syria

"We are tired," says one of the rebels who have gathered in the village on this evening. The group includes a man charged with distributing bread, a few fighters and the owner of the only satellite telephone in the village. Everyone here has lost friends and relatives, in a country that is sinking all around them.

"The others, the soldiers, are also tired. But at least we know what we're fighting for," the rebel says. Even though they are sometimes worried about the future, about the days after victory when revenge will be taken, another adds: "Who can blame someone whose family was killed?"

But where would that leave a revolution that was intended to bring down the dictator, but not plunge the country into a civil war? The Assad regime will fall, but no one knows what will happen after that.

The West has a bizarre impression of the Syrian revolution, fueled by the multiplicity of reports, photos and videos from a war zone. But who exactly are these Syrians, of whom initially a few, and then hundreds of thousands, began protesting in the spring of 2011 and eventually took up arms against the regime? What is really happening in the country where -- depending on one's interpretation of events -- either al-Qaida groups have long infiltrated the insurgency or the CIA is merely staging everything to bring about "regime change?"

At least 2 million Syrians are currently refugees within their own country, and more than 500,000 have fled to neighboring countries. This week, the United Nations reported that it estimates more than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising.

Two Years of Change

Since the beginning of the revolution, we -- a photographer, a Syrian colleague and I -- have traveled around the country a number of times, mostly following secret routes, passed on from one local opposition group to the next. We have been in hiding and have worn disguises, and we have been shot at and chased. It isn't easy to cope with the fact that so many of the people who helped us are now dead.

The current trip, shortly before Christmas, is our eighth since the beginning of the revolution. It passes through the north and to Deir el-Zour, a center for the petroleum industry on the Euphrates River, deep in the country's eastern desert. On our earlier trips, we passed through more than two-thirds of the populated parts of Syria, often spending weeks traveling in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Idlib and countless other cities, towns and villages.

We witnessed the beginning of the peaceful demonstrations, the inferno and the strange periods of calm in between.

At the beginning, in 2011, I traveled to the country three times on an official visa, allegedly as an agricultural adviser, an alibi so absurd that it was above suspicion. At the government forces' checkpoints, it helped to identify myself as a devout Christian -- not because all Christians support Assad, but because the regime would like to have their support. In 2011, we were still able to move back and forth between the two sides. But, by 2012, we could only travel in areas no longer controlled by Assad's troops. Unfortunately, this limited our field of vision.

On the other hand, the rebel-controlled area is large and uneven enough to avoid affiliation with individual groups. Moreover, we made a concerted effort to report only what we had experienced firsthand.

This is also a story of loose ends. The people with whom it begins, in the summer of 2011, are almost all dead or missing. Some have taken their place, and some of those are now dead, too. Others have become hardened and obsessed with revenge. Still others have transformed themselves: Interior decorators have become guerilla commanders and electricians are now mayors. They are doing things they have never learned how to do, building a new system even before the old one has been overthrown.

Early Days Full of Uncertainty

In 2011, there was a tension in the air, but no one in Damascus could imagine what would happen later on. Some of the friends I made in 1989, when I spent a year studying at the university in Damascus, made their careers in business. None of them seriously believed that the country would see any major changes.

But then, in the spring of 2011, shaky YouTube videos taken in Daraa in the south and Idlib in the north emerged. Eventually the news broke that hundreds of thousands had protested in Hama, where in 1982, Hafez Assad, the father of the current president and founder of the Assad dynasty, had brutally crushed an insurrection and had his troops destroy half of the city center.

At first, there was news of events happening in more distant parts of the country, only two or three hours' drive away, and yet somehow incomprehensible in the calm of Damascus. "We're having a revolution! I saw it on TV," I was told by an old friend in Damascus, who has expensive art on his walls and cases of Remy Martin cognac in his cabinet -- a brilliant cynic whose father, a member of the opposition, had fled the country years earlier and died in exile. In 2011, the son faced the same dilemma as many others: No one believed in the regime, and yet no one could imagine its fall.

Despite the external calm, fear was everywhere. Who could one trust? We were still allowed to make telephone calls as we pleased, and yet we couldn't speak openly on the phone. Later on, the situation would be reversed when everyone was talking, but the networks were increasingly breaking down. It was also still possible to drive around the country, but one had to make extraordinary efforts to meet with opposition members from other cities.

Finally, we learned that a Dutch Jesuit priest who had lived in Syria for 35 years was traveling from Damascus to Homs. He offered to take us with him to his monastery's rural estate, where it pressed wine and where he would be leading a weekend retreat.

Traveling with a priest on a public bus was above suspicion in Assad's realm. We tried to explain to an activist in Homs, who wanted to take us with him to the nightly demonstrations, where to pick us up the next morning. But he didn't understand why he was supposed to meet us at a Jesuit winery and didn't show up, perhaps because he thought it was a trap.

This meant that we were obliged to attend Father Frans' workshop. There was shooting in Homs, and we had to meditate for two days. There were drones circling in the sky above us, and we did yoga.

We didn't even know which side our host was on. Sometimes he referred to the protests as justified, and sometimes he called the rebels terrorists, leaving us puzzled. But we were anxious not to cause trouble for him or ourselves. It was like that everywhere in the first few months, a time when people said little of what was on their minds because they were still under the spell of the old fear that had held the country in its grip for 41 years.

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Reporter Christoph Reuter's journeys through wartorn Syria. Click to enlarge. Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Reporter Christoph Reuter's journeys through wartorn Syria. Click to enlarge.

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