It was Feb. 23, 2011, and the Middle East was heaving to the pulse of people power. Egypt’s autocrat had resigned two weeks earlier, Tunisia’s had dictator fled in mid-January, and Libyan opposition fighters had just seized control of chunks of the east of their country. I had entered Syria clandestinely to see if the forces roiling the region had reached this confidently authoritarian state.
I was in Damascus on that day, eating greasy kibbe meatballs, the only customer at a small fast food outlet across the street from the Libyan Embassy. It was a vantage point that allowed me to watch several branches of the Syrian security apparatus prepare to intimidate a peaceful vigil called in solidarity with the Libyan people. I ate slowly.
The rows of black-clad policemen, anti-riot police in their olive green uniforms, and the clumps of not-so-secret police made it obvious that the demonstrators weren’t going to get anywhere near the embassy. Equally obvious was how the gathering would be dispersed: As I joined the 200 or so protesters in a nearby park, I watched as they were kicked, beaten, and insulted. Some were hauled into mini-buses parked off to the side and detained. Passersby scurried away, afraid to offer help even as some demonstrators pleaded for it.
This was President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at its strongest. The fear it then struck into all Syrians would not last: Several weeks later, on March 15, 2011, protests would break out against the regime itself, marking what is widely considered the beginning of the uprising.
I have spent most of my time since then documenting events in Syria — entering the country undercover many, many times to watch the slow disintegration of a formidable regime and the emergence of new power structures. Though based in Beirut, I’ve been on a Lebanon-Turkey-Syria loop for the better part of two years now.
I do it because I’m curious and deeply invested in the story, not because I’m some sort of an adrenaline junkie. I want to know what happens next, to know the people who are effecting change and those affected by it. I also need to be certain I can verify sources. I do not use sources I don’t know — who are merely voices on the other end of a phone, who may or may not be in the town or city they claim to be in, and who may or may not be reliable. (The lack of a daily deadline has afforded me that luxury.)
And so, as the world learned Syrian geography with each new massacre, I used my cultural and linguistic fluency in Arabic to try to glean insights into what was happening on the ground. I keep a low profile, always work alone, and, as an Arabic speaker, have no need for a translator. I can blend in as much or as little as I want to — it’s a spectrum I can move along depending on who I’m with, where I am, and the security situation in that particular area.
My work would not be possible without the immense generosity of the many Syrians who have welcomed me into their homes or bases like a daughter or sister, who have shared their stories, their hopes, their fears, and their meals with me. Many have done so at risk to themselves — especially in the early days when people still spoke in code on the phone for fear of eavesdropping, and the regime was going house to house in some areas looking for dissenters. I travel with Syrians, I sleep where they sleep, live as they live, learn about their lives. I don’t want to tell the story any other way.
Unfortunately, I was blacklisted early on by the Syrian regime, labeled a spy working for several states and — laughably — a weapons smuggler. As a result, it’s simply too dangerous for me to explore the views of regime loyalists, lest I be detained during the course of my reporting. I regret that this part of the story is closed to me. Still, that’s not to say the regime’s opponents have all been welcoming: The accusation of “spy” still flies around easily. I usually talk my way out of that, and if that doesn’t work, there are many influential people in rebel circles I can quickly call on to quash it.
Over the past 21 months, there have been close calls, run-ins at regime checkpoints, shells that fell a little too nearby, things I wished I’d never have to see, friends or contacts who have been killed. Still, I consider it a great privilege to cover Syria during these tumultuous times, and I intend to continue doing so as best I can for as long as I can.
First published in Foreign Policy.
Photo by leilita78