“You spotlight what’s happening, trying to demand accountability, and yet nothing has changed. And you question what you’ve done, if you’ve done enough. Syria defies logic.”
Earlier this month, Damon and producer Raja Razek traveled across the Turkish border to Adana, a town once controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, documenting the change and fear in the community. Here, she describes two of her most challenging earlier Syria trips, and how they compare to how she reports the story now. “Two or three years ago, you were factoring in getting caught by the regime,” she says. “Now you’re factoring in getting caught by the regime and also by ISIS, and that is absolutely terrifying.”
The first time we went in legally was July  with the regime, with the minders. And obviously they had a super-tight grip on us. They would take us to specific neighborhoods in Damascus. They finally agreed to take us, a big group of journalists, to this neighborhood called Barzeh, where the demonstrations were happening. I got in touch with activists in Barzeh before we went. It was these really cryptic conversations, because we’re in the hotel, we thought the rooms were bugged, so we’d be on Skype, but I would be typing my responses to them so that no one could hear what I was actually saying.
We agreed to meet and the activist I was meeting was like, “I’ll be the guy in the gray sweatshirt.” We get there, and our minder says to us, “OK, that’s the mosque where all the people who are carrying the knives are and you can’t go close to it.” And we just walk away from him and hook up with a bunch of people and go deeper into the neighborhood, and he freaks out and leaves. We end up in the middle of the demonstration, and that’s where we met this young activist named Dr. Ibrahim, who took us in to see the clinic that he’d set up.
He and I come up with this plot to have me sneak out of the hotel, at night, changing outfits, walking in and out of cafes, changing what I’m wearing, until I end up inside a vehicle with another guy who’s so terrified he’s sweating through his clothing and shaking like a leaf. Switch vehicles five times, I’m alone without a crew. At one point I end up on the outskirts of Damascus and I’m in a van and I’m lying down in the back of it, hiding. And eventually I meet back up with Dr. Ibrahim in Barzeh.
The whole point of this was to show the international media that there were innocent people getting shot at by security forces, and he wanted me to go back in so I could meet people that he treated. Six months after I met him, he was killed, probably trying to flee Syria. The pressure was too much on him. He was trying to leave and he was shot near the border with Turkey. The people with him ended up leaving his body behind. I was in Baghdad at the time and I remember seeing the footage on one of the Arab networks and refusing to believe that it was him. I did not want to have to write that obituary.
You do still meet people like Dr. Ibrahim, but it’s harder to find them because they have either been killed or arrested by the regime or driven underground, as have most of the voices of moderation. And now they’re also being targeted and driven away by ISIS.
Three-quarters of the activists that I knew in the beginning are either dead, or they’ve gone from being dead to being fighters. A lot of them by nature of what’s happened have become a lot more conservative and fundamentalist. When we were in Bab al-Amr in February 2012, you’re in a house with a bunch of activists, getting shelled nonstop. When you have nothing left and think you’re going to die all the time, you turn to religion.
When we went to Bab al-Amr, it took us five days to get there. It’s an hour and a half drive from the border, but it took five days. And you’re climbing through a sewage tunnel for hours, in a death trap, and it’s terrifying. It took a long time because the Syrians had found the original entrance to the tunnel and bombed it, and the rebels were trying to dig another hole into the tunnel [before we could go in]. It was pitch black, and the entrance that they dug was about 200 meters away from a Syrian military base.
They drop you down a hole that’s two meters wide. It’s like falling down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. You’re in the sewage tunnel, which is a meter and a half in height. You’re hunched over, carrying everything you can carry, and all you see is this silhouette of the person in front of you. It’s a mental challenge. You have to put your brain in a place that says just put one foot in front of the other. Because you can’t think about where you are and if it gets bombed, it’s game over.
You build up relationships with [the activists who are in areas you can’t get to], and you rely on them. You end up chatting with them, even if it’s not about Syria. It’s about who they are as people. It’s about the girl that they’re in love with who they haven’t seen in two years because of the revolution, and the fact that they’re eating and living on five olives a day. And how do you communicate that to the rest of the world? That’s the hardest thing. When you’re not there, to do the story justice is the hardest thing.
With Adana, and the way Syria is today, you’re always calculating the risk. It had been a long time since journalists had gone into northern Syria, because of [security risks posed by] ISIS. We looked at crossing into Bab al-Salameh, but we weren’t confident that ISIS was far enough away. We looked into the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and it seemed like it was becoming more and more viable ([activists] were telling us anywhere between 60 to 100 kilometers) to be able to go in and out very quickly. We went in to tell the story of a town that used to be controlled by ISIS, but we also went in because when you stay out for so long, the unknown grows. We needed to get back in to get an understanding of the lay of the land, and what the feel is inside, even if it’s just 20 minutes across the border.
We wanted to accomplish two things: the story of this town under ISIS control, and how do the people really feel about ISIS? It was quite interesting to get into the nitty gritty. When ISIS first came, they were leaving people alone, letting them live, they seemed like this pure organization. And it slowly began to change while the other rebel groups were [occupied] on the front line. As one of the [other rebel] fighters was telling us, “We’re all rebel groups, fighting for the same thing. So we were OK leaving ISIS behind to guard Adana while we went out to fight.” But that’s when ISIS began to implement its own theories and principles about how people need to live. By the time the other rebel units realized what was happening, it was almost too late.
Interestingly, they weren’t forcing women to wear the full-on niqab [contrary to rumors.] But shops had to close during prayer time even though Muslis can pray wherever they are. There was a horrible story about how they cut the head off of one of the main FSA commanders and dumped it on a pile of garbage in broad daylight. Stories about how they would execute people and leave the bodies at the checkpoints so everyone driving past had to slow down and look at them.
Luckily, everything went smoothly. We were confident of who we were with, but when we were hitting the four-hour mark, we thought, let’s wrap it, let’s go, not push our luck. They were telling us about mass graves they’d uncovered. As we were leaving, we got a call that a family had shown up at one of the grave sites. The family was there because they had heard that their loved one might be there [and the FSA was going to dig up and rebury the bodies]. We got there, and they were trying to use shovels, and they were waiting for a bulldozer to come. One of the [family members] had found his brother’s jacket, which had little pairs of socks in it.
That’s how he knew it was his brother, because he’d been sent out to buy tomatoes and socks for the kids. This one father who leaves his home to go get socks for his kids, and he’s dead for it. Why?