The Battle for Damascus: Syrian activists speak out

Bel Trew, Friday 20 Jul 2012

As regime forces evacuate the capital ahead of a brutal counter-attack, Syrian filmmakers and journalists talk to Ahram Online about launching alternate news agencies and struggling to get quality footage out of the warzone

Damascus fighting
Image from Syrian State TV video purports to show Syrian troops fighting against rebels in the Midan area of Damascus (Photo: AP)

The battle for Damascus continues after a bomb blast killed three top Syrian officials Wednesday afternoon, including President Bashar Al-Assad’s own brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and the defence minister Daoud Rajiha. Senior military official General Hassan Turkmani also died in the attack on the heavily-guarded National Security building in the capital.

Thursday saw Al-Assad finally make a televised appearance on Syrian state networks as he swore in his new minister of defence, after much speculation that the premier had fled Damascus. Russia and China, meanwhile, vetoed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution to hit the war-torn country with further sanctions as violence escalated.

"This is the zero hour. Wednesday was a very powerful morale boost to the Free Syrian Army [FSA] elements and people across the country," explains well-known Syrian activist Rami Jarrah, whose organisation Activists News Association (ANA) continues to coordinate and support citizen journalists on the ground in Syria, from Cairo.

"We had a problem in Syria of how to declare the decisive moment but this is it. Everyone in the activist community has dropped everything to prepare for the ongoing assault."

For the last four days, in what revolutionaries are calling a "desperate attempt" by the regime to quell dissent, the Syrian army started shelling the heart of Damascus in central areas like Mezzah and Midan. The Shabiha (death squads) have allegedly been committing door-to-door massacres in Al-Shaghour district.

The Syrian military on Thursday gave residents of certain parts of the capital 48 hours to evacuate, as they prepare for an expected, brutal counter-offensive.

"Everyone is thinking how long these areas can continue to sustain these attacks, be subject to ongoing shelling or be isolated from other areas. How long before they run out of bullets and it turns into Baba Amr?" Jarrah adds, referring to the besieged Homs suburb, where journalist Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik were killed.

As violence and rumour mount, one of the biggest struggles in Syria is getting accurate information and quality footage out of the country.

"Anyone with a camera is targeted," explains Damascus-based video activist Youssef* who lost two colleagues, journalists Mazhar Tayara and Adam El-Homsy whilst reporting around Syria.

Around 70 per cent of the media, Youssef says has left the country because it is so dangerous. 

"The fate of a photographer or filmmaker in Syria is either to become a martyr or a prisoner. In Homs specifically, most of those who have filmed for us or those we have coordinated with have been attacked or killed."

Adding to the problem is the fact that international media, unable to get their correspondents or cameramen into the country, are forced to cite activists or broadcast clips with no means of being able to verify the reports.

As Jarrah explains, government infiltrators do on some occasions pose as activists and feed information to large media channels such as Al-Jazeera.

"It tends to be the more extreme information. After the unverified ‘opposition’ source relays the story, the government can then, for example, counter it on state TV de-legitimizing our work. It is very important that we don’t give them these tools to amplify their propaganda."

The Syrian government is a known entity, if a statement is made on behalf of the regime, officials can say whether it represents the state or not. For activists this is much harder to do.

"This is why we want to create a media association that does the same, but for the opposition."

The ANA are setting up a community-based radio station that intends to broadcast programs from Cairo over the Internet, satellite channels, and, in the future, FM radio.

Its news will be based on reports submitted from a database of 350 Syrian-based certified and trusted citizen journalists and 28 paid professional reporters across the country: "We’ve filtered out thousands we don’t see as credible." The aim is to have the informal journalists accredited, minimising unreliable sources.

Gone are the days of haphazard YouTube clips or emotive reports passed around on social media, ANA news agency will have a focus on professionalism and neutralism, Jarrah adds. Journalists are receiving proper training, loaded phrases like "martyrs", for example, will not be used.

This drive for verified sources is reflected within the Free Syrian Army itself. Defected soldiers now reportedly sign up to join the FSA, which has known battalions with corresponding officers, Jarrah added, allowing the media to determine if these sources are legitimate too.

Filmmakers are also seeing a change. Creative ways to use technology and the Internet that were pioneered at the start of the Arab Spring are now being put to professional use. Al-Jazeera, for example, aired a 24-minute documentary on Syria filmed entirely on iPhone in March, earlier this year. 

The current focus has shifted from just generating quantity of video content to quality.

"Initially most of the footage shot was amateur: it did not last more than two minutes long, was filmed on a mobile phone and was very unstable," explains Youssef who has managed to produce three full-length documentaries during the ongoing fighting.  "However, there has been a progression in using HD handy-cams, as well as the building of an archive for the future."

Youssef, who also produces in-depth news reports and is working on 90-minute documentary of marginalised areas lacking media coverage, described how training initiatives for filmmakers have meant that even in the most violent conflict zones, videos are less reactive. They are now properly edited, depict more than one scene and filmmakers collect testimonies and provide analysis, he explains.

The filmmaking networks in Syria are now placing an emphasis on creative support so that cameramen and editors have the space to create quality content.

"Filmmakers under such circumstances always have this pressing sense of urgency, that turns many of them into bad journalists," explains Damascus-based producer and filmmaker Anas*, who runs a celebrated Syrian documentary film festival. "They feel like they cannot be slow and make a good film."

This is why initiatives, as Anas explains, are now being launched offering financial support, advice, training, safety and also promotion.

Youssef agrees: "The has been a development in how the media is being disseminated." The growing network of support has meant that documentaries produced within Syria, like Youssef's, are able to reach international Arab news channels.

The writers and cameramen continue to work under intense shelling. Jarrah, the activist, lost a colleague on Wednesday afternoon during an attack in the Hajar Al-Aswad district of the capital. Anas described how one filmmaker friend has been missing since 9 July. All have lost co-workers over the course of the last year and a half.

Activists stubbornly and ingeniously found ways to report, such as smashing holes through walls separating houses, so they can travel two blocks without ever needing to go outside.

"The streets are under the watch of the snipers," says Anas, explaining how in some areas, people have built tunnels to avoid bullets.

Nevertheless, it is the shelling, Anas adds, which makes Syria unique in the Arab Spring. With international backing, Libya became a war between two sides, he says. However, "in Syria it’s a huge army shelling civilian areas."

Even if the FSA control large sections of Syria’s key cities on the ground, they cannot stop air attacks.

Areas like Anas's hometown of Homs "the revolutionary capital," he says, are bombed beyond repair: "It’s the third largest city in Syria and was supposed to be the new political heart. But  now it resembles [Chechen capital] Grozny."

Youssef added that around 95 per cent of the population of the western city had been displaced and between 60-70 per cent of the city destroyed.  

Jarrah, who visited Homs recently, described being trapped in the area for three days as the border had closed. The man who smuggled him over had been shot dead attempting a second trip, so Jarrah was stuck in a basement of a building with shelling just a kilometre away.

"All the FSA and armed civilians went out for their daily fight, I was kept in with the women and children underground," Jarrah explains. They had to move the families, as the attacks got closer: "we had to walk in an open space, watching the shells falling on houses, the women with us were giving the names of their female friends who were still left in that area."

The psychological cost is enormous. "We have to lose a bit of our humanity to survive – when someone dies you just have to flip the page," says Anas, "The worst is the dead children – especially those killed by snipers. When you see a seven-year-old girl or boy killed by a bullet in the head you can’t believe it but when you see it 20 times it becomes normal."

Lack of food and medical supplies is a growing problem. Although the rebels occupy cities, the roads leading to them are in the hands of the government.

Consequently, supply routes are cut. Whole areas like Baba Amr, Deraa and Idlib, have been under siege for months.

International aid, Anas says, is not reaching the people in the most need, as these groups will only channel relief through registered organisations that are consequently monitored by the regime. "We’re getting less than 10 per cent of the minimum requirements for survival," he says.   

When the UK had offered telecommunication equipment, it was so small Anas adds, that "there was a joke in Homs ‘now we know: the British told us what to do – if you see a tank coming, throw your mobile at it.’"

The delay in aid, Anas believes, is pushing the revolution into a civil war as well as elongating the lifetime of the regime, circumstances which are contributing to the rise of radicalism.

"Islamism is growing because when you are being shelled, you have nothing: you are hungry and you coming out of 50 years of poor education and real oppression - then you have no one but God to resort to."

Syrian Christians, he added are, "paralysed with fear" that the Sunni majority rebels will oppress minority groups, a notion encouraged by the regime’s propaganda machine, which almost immediately denounced the uprising as sectarian-led.

The ongoing assault and expected crackdown on Damascus is being seen by the international community as the last-ditch endeavour of a regime to maintain its loosening grip on the country. A wave of recent mass defections has contributed to this: "we’ve got reports of tanks being left unattended on the streets," Jarrah reveals.

But is this Assad’s final stand? The fight is not over, Jarrah answers: there is still a fair way to go but the revolutionaries are much closer than they ever imagined. 

*names have been changed to protect their identity

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