London, Asharq Al-Awsat – The Syrian revolution, which has been raging for more than a year, has been doing so under a cover of widespread confusion and claims from the al-Assad regime that “armed gangs” are responsible for the unrest. It has been extremely difficult for professional journalists to enter the country and document the situation, which has led to the phenomenon of “citizen journalism”, namely Syrian opposition figures documenting what is happening on the ground. In the midst of this unrest and confusion two foreign journalists entered Syria to reveal to the world the true story of the Syrian revolution; the Guardian’s Ian Black entered Syria in January, after being granted permission to report from Damascus by the al-Assad regime, whereas El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa entered Syria illegally, staying in the Homs district of Baba Amr, which came under intense government shelling, before eventually fleeing the city before it was overrun by al-Assad regime troops. Although each journalist entered Syria in a different manner, and their coverage of events differed, Black and Espinosa agree on the deplorable humanitarian situation in the country. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with both journalists about their experiences in Syria.
Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the people in Syria are very afraid about the future, adding that “the Syrian people say: they know that al-Assad’s rule is over, but this will take some time…the people are afraid of the cost [of toppling the al-Assad regime].”
He added “they are afraid because the international community is not doing anything for them…whilst the crackdown being carried out by al-Assad regime forces is intensifying.”
As for the biggest differences between the Libyan revolution and the Syrian revolution, Black stressed that “in Libya, we knew from the beginning that many senior figures had defected from the Gaddafi regime…however in Syria this has not happened, no senior figures [have defected], and this is a big difference.” The British journalist asserted that “in Syria, the regime and the opposition are not on equal footing, for they [the opposition] have guns, whereas he [al-Assad] has tanks.” He also said that there is a difference in the nature of the two countries, namely “Libya is conservative and tribal, which helps defections, whereas Syria is ruled by a small number of Alawites.”
The Guardian Middle East editor stressed that “I do not think that Syria is immune from the repercussions of revolution; regime change will happen, but this will have a very high price.”
Black, who spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat at the Guardian headquarters in London, revealed that he had spoken to ordinary Syrian citizens during his time in Syria who informed him of their fears about Syria’s economy and tourist sector, describing these as “dead”. He added “the roads are mostly closed or filled with checkpoints, government buildings are without electricity, whilst prices are extremely high, whether we are talking about food or petrol…so the situation is very abnormal.”
Describing how he entered Syria, Black said that he received permission from the Syrian authorities to enter and report from the country. He revealed that he had initially submitted a visa request to report from Syria immediately following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, but did not receive any reply; however he was lucky that the Syrian government granted him – along with a number of other foreign journalists – visas to enter the country in January, in order to demonstrate their commitment to the first Arab initiative.
Black said “I don’t think that I was granted a visa because the Syrian government likes me or because of the colour of my eyes…they just wanted to prove that they were responding to the Arab initiative.”
He added “they began to grant visas [for journalists to visit the country] from time to time for different reasons, and some of my colleagues submitted visa requests as well but did not receive an answer.”
As for why he wanted to go to Syria in the first place, Black said “I wanted to see what was happening on the ground, because I was very aware that if I did not go myself, I would be unable to find out what was happening, particularly as what is being transmitted by the opposition about what is happening on the ground is denied by official statements…so I wanted to see what was happening for myself.”
As for his movements in Syria, Black said “I was in Damascus and did not experience any difficulties, but I was reasonably sure that my telephone calls and e-mails were being monitored.”
Black, who has visited Syria more than once, also told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has felt a change in Syrian society since the outbreak of the revolution, namely that ordinary people are more willing to talk openly than ever before, even in Damascus. He said “During my visit to Syria in 2007, I noticed that the people would not talk openly, but ordinary people today – such as a taxi driver I met in Kafr Sousa [in Damascus] – were prepared to talk openly with me just moments after we had met.”
He added “we see – superficially – that many of the [Syrian] people are supportive of the government, but whether this is actually true or not is another issue” adding “this is an issue of location.”
Black also told Asharq Al-Awsat that when he was in Damascus, there was a strong security and police presence in the center of the capital. As for the controversial pro-regime Shabiha militia, who have been accused of carrying out numerous crimes, the Guardian journalist said that it was not too difficult to distinguish them from ordinary citizens as “they usually wear leather jackets and military trousers, they are ‘thugs’ who stand in the streets leading to public squares, stopping any mass movement to occupy these.”
Black also said that he had noticed power cuts in many places across the capital, adding “I went to extend my visa at the Interior Ministry and they did not have electricity, so signs of instability were evident everywhere.”
During his visit to Syria, Black was able to visit Zabadani, which is approximately 40 km from Damascus, however he acknowledged that “it was not easy to reach here, despite its proximity [to Damascus], and I had to establish special agreements with certain parties who helped me and allowed me to enter.”
Describing Zabadani and its people, Black said “those I met with wanted to show that they were capable of liberating their city, and they wanted to show Zabadani as a liberated zone, and that there was a “freedom tree” in its center where the names of martyrs were displayed.”
Black also spoke about the emergence of the phenomenon of citizen journalism, as the Syrian opposition has begun to document and disseminate images and video clips of their revolution, as well as the situation on the ground. Black said “they want to show that they are resisting the regime…they want to show that they are free, and that they want change.”
He also revealed that he met with many opposition youth in Damascus, saying “they were well-off, well-educated university graduates, some of them were wanted by the Syrian authorities and they spoke to me under assumed names.”
As for the Homs explosion that took place on 11 January, in which French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed, Black revealed that “the [Syrian] Ministry of Information organized a trip for us. They split us into two groups…we began with a visit to a military hospital and then they took us on a long journey, justifying this by saying that it was too difficult to drive on the normal road. We then heard the news about what happened to the second team which the French journalist was a part of.”
He added “the situation remains unclear [as to what happened] because the government and the opposition are exchanging accusations.”
As for Javier Espinosa, a correspondent for the Spanish El Mundo newspaper, he considers himself lucky to have escaped from the clutches of the al-Assad regime forces alive. During a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Espinosa revealed that although his life was in danger during his time in Baba Amr, he was lucky that he was not injured, and he continues to report on the crisis in Syria from Beirut.
As for the humanitarian situation in Baba Amr, he said that “this is very bad, for there was no food or electricity, whilst there are only limited hospital services.”
He added “if your injuries were light, then they could be treated, however if someone was seriously injured, there were no capabilities to carry out major operations.”
The Spanish journalist also revealed that “people would remain in hiding throughout the day and only come out at night to look for food”, adding “it was not just difficult to move during the day, it was extremely dangerous.”
Espinosa also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the people of Baba Amr “wanted the world to know their plight; that they want freedom and democracy…the most important message was that they wanted the world to see their suffering. They are saying: we are suffering because we want freedom.”
As for the false reports of his death, Espinosa said “as soon as I heard these I knew the reason why. I had lost my bag, which contained my laptop…during an ambush. Someone was killed and my bag was beside them, so they assumed that I was the one who was killed. I tried to retrieve the bag but this was impossible.”
Detailing his perilous journey out of Homs, Espinosa revealed “I was part of a group of civilians, journalists, and wounded from Baba Amr, along with members of the Free Syrian Army [FSA]. It was around 9 pm and we – a group of around 50 – were trying to flee. At one point, we found ourselves very close to the Syrian army position, so we had to be very quiet, but they were able to discover us and they began shelling our position heavily, everybody ran in different directions, some were killed, whilst others were injured. We couldn’t move them, I remember one man had broken his leg and was wounded elsewhere, whilst two others were also in no condition to continue, however I was able to continue the journey and flee. I met up with another group, we hid for about an hour in one of the wooded areas until the shelling stopped, and then we continued.”
He added “I knew this route a little, as it was the same route that we took to enter Baba Amr…I remember that the [Syrian] soldiers were camped on the left, so I said to those who were with me ‘let’s flee to the right.’ They said ‘it looks like you know this route better than us, so we’ll follow you’ and we began moving very slowly using the trees as cover.”
Espinosa said “we continued moving but we did not know where we were going, then we found a gate and we went in as we were sure that the majority of the people in the region support the revolution. There were three of us, myself, a Palestinian and a Syrian, and one of them – a member of the FSA – began to help us…he helped us escape, and so we saw that the FSA members are in charge of the scene, particularly in the rural areas.”
Espinosa stressed he has monitored the revolutions that have taken place across the Arab world, adding that he had previously visited Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. The Spanish journalist refused to divulge the details of where and how precisely he illegally entered the country, fearing the safety of those who helped him, as well as to ensure that foreign journalists in the future can enter Syria and cover the conflict on the ground.
As for the difference between the Libyan revolution and the Syrian revolution, Espinosa said “the difference is that the Libyan revolution had clear leadership in Benghazi from the very beginning; the Libyan rebels were also supported by army defectors, so they were in possession of arms and even tanks since the first stages of the revolution. As for the Syrian revolutionaries, they do not have any arms; with the exception of some Kalashnikov assault rifles…nobody is providing them with arms, with the exception of some they have had to purchase themselves from the black market.”
As for his opinion about arming the Syrian opposition, Espinosa said that he is not certain that this is the right solution; rather he thinks the best solution for the Syrian crisis would be to follow the Yemeni model.
He added “I hope that the risks journalists may face do not prevent them from visiting where the events are taking place, for this would cause us to rely on biased news being put forward by the government.” He added “there is danger everywhere in the world, this is not the first region to experience instability; the people must not retreat or withdraw from what they have started.”