Damascus Diary: The Road to Hama
Madam, "Action toh idhar hai, aap kahaan jaa rahe ho? (the action is here, where are you off to?" The security officer at the Delhi airport is very disapproving as he sees our small group of journalists heading to Damascus. After all, there is little chance of any story rivaling the Anna-phenomenon on air. But as we land in Syria, it's clear that the protests that have dominated India are not on anyone's mind. Libya is the big worry.
As Tripoli falls to the TNC rebels, aided by NATO missiles, the Bash'ar Assad regime in Syria is concerned it will be the next to go in the 'Arab Spring' after Tunisia's Ben Ali, Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Gaddafi.
We are part of a group of about 100 journalists from Russia, China, India and a few Arab and Scandinavian countries, all invited to come and see the situation in Syria for ourselves. Syrian officials hope to counter some of the reports about massive protests and brutal crackdowns by Syrian security forces being continuously beamed on international airwaves.
Our first impression is the opposite of all that we've seen on TV screens for the past couple of weeks. Since all international media people have been hounded out of the country, journalists are depending on amateur video uploaded by Anti-Assad activists. By their own admission, they cannot verify the accuracy of the content. The videos are graphic at times, show unarmed protestors on the streets being gunned down by army snipers, also of tanks encircling the main flashpoint town of Hama.
As we land, the UN Human Rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, revises estimates of those killed to 2,200 in the past 6 months since the protests first erupted in February. But even Pillay hasn't had any access and is depending on individual complaints as well as the Syrian Human Rights observatory in London.
In Damascus, not just Syrian officials but also international human rights officials and diplomats give us the other side of the story: Pointing out that funerals of Syrian security personnel are held every day - indicating many protestors are armed and are firing back. The Syrian government says 600 soldiers have been killed since February 2011. Honestly, there's no way of being absolutely sure of the numbers. The worst part is that they're possibly all correct. In this part of the world, governments are repressive and everyone has got a gun.
As it turns out, not everyone gets the memo about the visiting journalists - the same evening we are detained by police and taken to a police station for filming at a Damascus market. What's really funny though is that we were there to film a pro-Assad rally!
Our group has been invited to what is called the "Syria is Fine" conference - the highlight of which is a visit to Hama. This town has always been a stronghold of the opposition and the Islamist resistance.
In 1982, a massive and cruel crackdown by Hafeez Assad's forces killed an estimated 20,000 people here as the regime moved in to end a six-year-old insurgency by Sunni groups. Even today, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups are at the forefront of the protests. In Hama, it has become a clash between conservative Islamist protesters and the secular state. In Damascus, they worry that all minorities including the ruling Allawite Shi'as, Christians and Druz will suffer if Assad is removed the way Gaddafi was.
The government accuses Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US of helping the protestors and says that's the reason Al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera and American channels only show anti-Assad protestors, ignoring the support the Assad regime has. I ask the foreign minister Wallid Mouallem why they don't allow these channels to also send reporters to Hama as they are allowing us. "What's the point," he asks, adding "They'll just send the same reports criticizing us from here as well."
This much is true: the drive to Hama is unlike anything we expected. Smooth highways, trucks plying normally, no military checkpoints and even as we drive by trouble spots like Homs, we see few signs of the sort of violence reported out of Syria in the past few months. Nothing prepares us for the normalcy of Hama though. At the city square, there's a traffic jam. At a chaotic press conference held by the city's mayor, we are told about the 'excesses' by the protesting groups, and the killing of police officers who were burnt alive inside a police station.
Outside the mayor's office, we meet several young Hama residents who freely tell us they hate the Assad regime and want a change. A woman in a burkha tells me security forces target anyone who shouts "Allah Hu Akbar". I ask her if I may film her...she has no problems, she says. Within minutes, our minders usher us away. But perhaps the Syrian government should realize that allowing people to vent their opinion and allowing reporters to speak to them is much better "image-building" than simply blocking access. The anti-Assad slogans on the walls have been covered with black paint but it's still not dense enough to cloud out the writings.
Most young Syrians will reject the obvious comparisons to the situation in Libya, particularly any similarity between Muammar Gaddafi, whom they consider a tribal chief, and the foreign-educated Bash'ar Al Assad. If anything, there may be more comparisons between Bash'ar and Seif Al- Gaddafi. Both are educated in the UK, married to modern and educated women (Asma Assad was an investment banker who met Bash'ar in London) and both spent much time trying to bridge the gap between their fathers' socialist regimes and the West.
Both dictatorships, Libya and Syria have faced sanctions in the past. But over the decade, both have transferred many of their oil and gas contracts to the US, UK and France. It is ironic that it is these very countries gunning for their regimes to go now.
Another coincidence - both are seen as unnatural heirs to their fathers, soft compared to their brothers who are accused of brutal human rights crimes: Seif's brother Khamis, now reportedly dead, ran the feared 32nd Brigade while Bash'ar's brother Maher runs the Republican Guards and the 4th division in Syria, equally feared and reviled by citizens. Intelligence chiefs of both countries have been brother-in-laws: Abdullah Sannussi was married to Gaddafi's wife's sister while Assaf Shawket is married to Bash'ar's sister.
But both Syria and Libya have another point in common - that stands out in stark contrast to most of their Arab neighbours - the high position of women in their countries. Women have been in both Gaddafi's and Assad's close circle of advisers (Gaddafi famously also had women bodyguards), but out on the streets of Tripoli (where I visited in February), and Damascus women are out freely, wearing western clothes, often without any hijab. As a woman journalist, it was remarkably easy to hail down cabs without any fear, certainly not something I would try even in Delhi.
On our last night in Damascus, we walk around the Omaiyyad Mosque and the surrounding souk well past midnight, taking in the wonderful sights, sounds, and trying the famous hand-made ice-cream. While many we speak to concede they would like to see an end to the family rule that has governed them for four decades, they bristle at the idea that like Libya, Syria may be targeted by NATO warplanes next.
More about Suhasini HaidarSuhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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