An undercover Al Jazeera correspondent takes us inside the lives of Syria’s anti-government demonstrators.
So begins this intriguing episode of People & Power, which gives an unusual but compelling first-person account of a country in turmoil and a revolution in progress.
The words are those of an Al Jazeera journalist who cannot be identified for fear of compromising the security of the many Syrians with whom he came into contact. For weeks with their help, he travelled the length and breadth of the county, gathering testimony about the year-long uprising against the al-Assad regime.
“I can’t tell you my name. I’ve spent many months secretly in Syria for Al Jazeera.”
With Al Jazeera cameras banned inside Syria, it was too difficult and dangerous to openly use a video camera, but he was able to use his mobile phone. With its tiny camera, filming secretly on street corners, through car windows and behind closed doors, he was able to gather images that reveal ordinary people showing extraordinary courage.
“I followed them on protests, I saw them demonstrate and fight and die, and I even heard their songs of freedom,” he says. “This is their story.”
His journey took him from the back streets of Damascus, Homs and Idlib to remote mountain villages. His arrival in the city of Sanamein early one evening was typical.
“It was about 5pm when we got there. It was already dark because it’s winter. And the electricity was shut off, so we had to walk in complete blackness. It’s very eerie there in this urban environment, and you can’t see anything except the occasional light from a cell phone or a cigarette. They [the regime] block all communications – especially on Thursday nights and Friday mornings, because people get ready for the big demonstration on Friday.
“Sanamein was one of the sights of an early massacre committed by Syrian security, who just opened fire directly in the crowd of demonstrators. Now there are constant raids at night, searching houses, looking for people. You very much feel like you are in an occupied country.”
During his journey through the Syrian uprising, he meets resistance fighters, protesters, Syrian army deserters, footballers-turned-revolutionaries and cigarette smugglers who have joined the fight. He describes his first meeting with ‘Fahad’, a street tough from the Birzeh area of Damascus. Now the proud possessor of an automatic weapon, Fahad is also one of the callers who lead people in chanting slogans at protests.
“These guys are very influential in the revolution. They lead the crowd, they are very charismatic, they will often give speeches, they help organise things,” says the undercover journalist.
He also meets several former Syrian army soldiers who have defected to the opposition.
“One of the challenges facing the regime is that they can’t secure towns and cities by purely using the domestic security forces. They have to use the army. The soldiers are mostly Sunni and from all over the country. They are from Daraa, they are from Homs, from Idlib. It’s their cousins, brothers and families who are taking part in the revolution and demonstrations. These are soldiers who are anyways less likely to want to shoot at demonstrators. So the more you use your soldiers the more defections you have.”
Overall, the impression he gained was of a people gradually – and tragically – becoming used to the constant danger and violence.
He says: “I was walking through Homs and sniper fire started and I was the only one in the crowd that actually flinched. And a father with his kids was standing by the door and they were sort of laughing at me and pointing, saying ‘why don’t you fall on the floor while you are at it?’ It’s amazing how Syrians, who never heard gunfire because they lived in a very peaceful country, have gotten used so quickly to living in a state of war, how to respond to it. They’ve very quickly become a mobilised revolutionary society, whereas before they had no experience of doing this.
“Despite all this violence and attacks every night there are demonstrations. People come out in defiance. It has become something that they have to do … like they have freedom for just that moment of time. And people will say that they feel depressed if they don’t go out. There’s a phenomenon: late at night, people will yell ‘Allahu Akbar’. Mostly it has become a statement of defiance: ‘We’re still here.’
“And then you’ll hear the gunfire in response … as if to remind them that ‘we’re still here, too’.”