On the Streets of Damascus

I reported from the Syrian capital when a peaceful protest movement became an armed insurgency. Here's what I saw

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On the Streets of Damascus
Photo courtesy of Clarissa Ward, taken by Nasser Nouri

This is an adapted excerpt from Clarissa Ward’s latest book On All Fronts: the Education of a Journalist.

I looked down at the swell of mourners moving toward me. A coffin was held aloft, touched and blessed by a thousand hands as it swayed down the street. The men carrying it were sweating despite the cool afternoon, pressed in on all sides by chanting protestors. Some of them had caught sight of me and my camera as I had tried to catch up with the cortege, and they cleared the way. They wanted their story of resistance told. I struggled through the crowd and jumped onto a flatbed truck a few yards ahead of the coffin, which was draped with the flag of the Syrian revolution (three red stars rather than the two green stars of the offi­cial flag).

“I can’t screw up this shot, I can’t screw up this shot,” I whispered to myself.

Lying in the coffin was a 16-year-old boy who had been shot by Syrian security forces the day before. He had become the latest martyr of the rapidly growing uprising against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al‑Assad.

I took a deep breath and balanced the small point-and-shoot tourism camera on top of the cab of the truck, willing my hands to stay completely still as the coffin approached. I could see the face of the dead boy now, smooth and gray, his eyes closed, his lips parted a fraction. And then he was gone, carried off on the wave of angry mourners.

I was on my own in Damascus on my first assignment as a correspon­dent for CBS News. As a dual citizen with a UK passport, I had managed to obtain a tourist visa, but my producer had not. And I had no camera­man. I had little experience shooting video and did not underestimate the risks of embarking on such an assignment. A journalist traveling alone could easily be disappeared. But I’d been to Syria many times before, spoke enough Arabic to get around on my own, and was desperate to cover the fast- expanding Syrian uprising, which was reaching a boiling point by that fall of 2011.

Opposition activists had brought me to the sprawling suburb of Douma to cover the funeral. I had been in Damascus for a few days before I had managed to slip away from my hotel and the ever-present secret police to link up with them.

Hundreds of people now poured in from all directions. The women marched together at the back of the procession. Rows and rows of them waved banners with slogans demanding justice and the overthrow of the regime of President Bashar al‑Assad. Someone started beating a drum, and the crowd hoisted a boy onto a man’s shoulders so that he could lead the chant. “Oh, Bashar, you liar,” he chanted, “to hell with you and your speech. Freedom is at the door.”

Yalla irhal, ya Bashar,” the crowd chanted, clapping rhythmically. “Get out, Bashar!” The chant had become the anthem of the revolution, a revolution gathering strength in the suburbs of Damascus and in Homs and in Hama — and posing a genuine threat to Assad’s rule.

I looked over the sea of people, cheering and chanting, hands with cell phones raised in the air to capture the protest and beam it out on so­cial media. The crisp November air crackled with the energy and excitement of their voices. Emboldened by their own daring, they grew louder and louder, the clapping thunderous. My foot tapped along with the beat. It was electrifying.

“Bashar, screw you and screw those who salute you.”

Photo courtesy of Clarissa Ward, taken by Salma Abdelaziz.

These protesters had been waiting for their moment since the Arab Spring unfolded earlier that year — knocking over decades-old dictator­ships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

It had taken me weeks of research and Skype calls to connect with the Syrian opposition, which by the end of 2011 was being relent­lessly harried by the regime. Many activists had already been thrown in jails or simply disappeared; stories of terrible abuse and torture were be­ginning to circulate.

For the first few days I had played the role of tourist, which is what my visa insisted I must be. Then, one morning, I had put on a hijab and slipped out of the hotel — way from the watchful gaze of the chain-smoking secret policemen. With my blonde hair hidden away, I was suddenly invisible. The difference from the previous days, when everyone seemed to be staring at me, this foreigner, was incredible. I would often wear the hijab on subsequent assignments in Syria. From a security stance, it lowered my profile significantly. But it also allowed me to stand on the sidelines quietly and take in a scene as it was unfolding instead of be­coming its focus. It’s never easy as a television reporter, because carrying a camera inevitably attracts attention. Anything I could do to minimize the distraction of my presence was a plus.

I was careful to ensure I wasn’t being followed as I meandered through the streets of the Syrian capital on my way to meet an activist called Ahmed. We had been introduced through another Syrian activist online who acted as a coordinator in Damascus. The night before we had stayed up late on Skype, discussing where and when to meet. I agreed I would come and find him at Bab Touma, one of the seven entrances to the old city, the following morning at eight o’clock. For the next five days, I would stay with him.

Ahmed’s face was round and smiling, with a permanent five‑o’clock shadow, and he wore the same sweatpants and plastic sandals every day. He looked like a college student who had pulled one too many all-nighters. He shared his small courtyard house in the old city with a litter of white kittens that climbed over him as we chatted and kneaded their paws on the sofas noisily.

Like many of the activists I would meet that week, Ahmed was giddy with the excitement of being part of a revolution. In the evenings, he would take me to meet up with his friends in their apartments. For the most part, they were educated and urbane, a mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Alawites. Later on, the uprising would take on a distinctly Islamist hue, but these were the heady early days that burned with ideal­ism. I would sit with them and watch as they smoked cigarette after ciga­rette and talked late into the night about what their revolution would look like. They spoke with passion about freedom and democracy and human rights and yet, even then, you could sense that they had little understand­ing of or exposure to the foundations and institutions needed to build and nurture these ideals.

Ahmed introduced me to Razan Zaitouneh, a central figure in the protest movement. She was pale and tall and slim with long, wavy, mouse-colored hair and watery blue eyes and a gap between her front teeth. She chainsmoked when she talked and she rarely smiled. Razan was in a dif­ferent league from Ahmed and his friends. She was a human rights lawyer and had been an activist in Syria for years before the Arab Spring began. She spoke with a blunt confidence, and she was savvy enough to know how real the risks were. The Syrian regime had been tracking her move­ments for some time, and she was now living in hiding to avoid arrest.

“Are you scared?” I asked her one day as we drank tea together in Ahmed’s apartment.

“Who is not?” she replied matter‑of‑factly, taking a deep drag of her cigarette. She stroked one of the kittens absentmindedly as she talked. “But we have to continue. We decided to start our revolution. This is what we have been dreaming of from a long time ago.”

She looked up at me as she stubbed her cigarette out. “Yalla [Come on], let’s go.”

Razan and Ahmed had taken me to the funeral in Douma and to the protests that were becoming more and more common on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. Often, the demonstrations would begin seemingly out of nowhere, like a flash mob. A chant would start and a crowd would form, only to melt away again just as quickly, their point made: “We are here, and we won’t be cowed.”

One afternoon, they took me to meet a network of doctors who set up underground field clinics to treat those wounded in the protests. We climbed through a hidden passage in the wall that led to a stockpile of med­ical equipment. Bandages, antibiotics, syringes, and, most ominously, skin staplers.

The courage and determination of the opposition, which at this stage eschewed violence despite the brutality meted out by the regime, were in­spiring. At a demonstration late one night in a Damascus suburb, two young women, their faces covered, sidled up next to me and handed me a note. The handwriting was neat and childish. They had drawn the flag of the Syrian revolution in ballpoint pen at the top left- hand corner of the paper. It said simply, “We don’t shed tears for the martyrs, we shed tears for the cowards.”

Still, by the end of 2011, protest was starting to give way to resistance, and an armed insurgency was beginning to form. Force could only be met by force. At the funeral in Douma, a man had come up to me carry­ing a sign. It said: “The Free Syrian Army represents and protects me.” The Free Syrian Army, known as the FSA, had formed in July and was made up mostly of Syrian soldiers who had defected after refusing orders to fire on the people.

Razan and Ahmed had differing views about the inception of the FSA. Ahmed emphasized that the militia’s only role was to form a perim­eter around the rallies and protect the people: “I guess it’s some kind of necessary right now.” Razan was much more skeptical, concerned that the group would fundamentally change the spirit of their nonviolent movement. Her concerns turned out to be prophetic.

Late one night, Ahmed offered to arrange for me to meet members of the Free Syrian Army. While some FSA fighters had been interviewed in Homs, none had done an on‑camera interview with a Western journal­ist in Damascus — largely because very few foreign journalists had man­aged to get into Damascus, with the exception of a handful of Europeans who had visas from the regime. But they had minders assigned to watch their every move and weren’t able to get near the protests. I knew I had a singular opportunity — and I wanted to see how real this armed resis­tance was.

Ahmed drove me back to Douma, and from there I got into another car with a man who apologized before blindfolding me. He explained that he had to make sure I didn’t know the location of the safe house where the interview would take place. Ahmed was not allowed to come with me.

I willed myself not to panic as the car twisted along winding back roads. I had no idea where we were going. We stopped after about 20 minutes, and the cool air rushed to my face as the car door opened. Some­one helped guide me inside a house, where my blindfold was removed. Standing before me were about a dozen men in military fatigues, carry­ing AK‑47s and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), their faces covered by checkered scarves known as keffiyehs.

My mouth felt dry. I was all too aware of how much of a target they were — and I half expected a bunch of Syrian military commandos to come bursting through the door at any minute, guns blazing.

I cleared my throat and introduced myself while trying to work out how I was going to shoot this interview. The frame needed to be wide enough to get all the men in it as well as me. How I wished for a camera­man and a tripod. In the end, I gave the camera to the man who had driven me there, and he balanced it on a pile of books on a side table. This would not be a beautifully produced piece of television.

“We are fighting those who made our children orphans and our wives widows,” the commander began.

I asked if he wasn’t concerned that by militarizing the conflict, more people were going to get hurt.

“We didn’t choose to go to war,” he said. “It was imposed upon us to protect our people and our honor.” He sounded stiff and formal. The commander claimed that his men had carried out attacks on military tar­gets around the capital, the heart of Assad’s power base, seizing weapons along the way.

I couldn’t get a sense of how this contingent of men fit into the hi­erarchy of the FSA, which was an early clue that there wasn’t really a coherent structure to the organization. Any group could make a banner and upload videos to YouTube, declaring themselves members of the Free Syrian Army — but it didn’t mean there was communication and coordi­nation between the groups. The Islamist movements that would eventu­ally subsume the insurgency were more disciplined, more ruthless.

As we were finishing the interview, one of the fighters beckoned me over. He was holding up a passport-sized photo of a smiling little boy with chubby cheeks and curly brown hair, his son.

“This is what we are fighting for,” he told me with an air of urgency. “So that he can have a better future.” His eyes bored directly into mine, as if to say, “Do you get it now? Do you understand?” I nodded slowly. His sincerity was obvious. But it was also clear that the fighters didn’t have a real strategy and they were up against an unrelenting enemy.

After a week in Damascus, I wanted to try to get to Homs, where the crackdown had been at its most brutal. I messaged my bosses in New York. “No,” came the immediate reply. “It sounds like you have great stuff, don’t push your luck.”

On my last night in Damascus, a blackout blanketed the city, one of many small signs that all was not well in the capital. Ahmed, Razan and I sat in the darkness in his living room, the glow of Razan’s cigarette lighting up her face a little when she took a drag. I thought back to that morning when I had asked her if she had a message for Bashar al‑Assad.

“Leave!” she said simply. “Leave now because you know that you will leave at the end but with more victims, with more suffering of the people. So just leave and leave us to start our new future, our new country. You got enough of our blood.” But Assad didn’t leave. And within two years of that trip to Damas­cus, Ahmed would be imprisoned and Razan would be kidnapped by armed men. Neither have been heard from since.

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