My journey into Syria’s nightmare
By Zohra Bensemra
The contact from Syria called: “Be ready in 30 minutes,” he said. “If you want to go, we have to go now.”
From the moment we left our Turkish hotel near the border, my colleague and I traveled on dirt roads used by smugglers and farmers around Syria’s northern frontier. The highways were busy with soldiers and shabbiha, irregular pro-Assad fighters.
Unlike in Libya, where clear frontlines divided rebels from Muammar Gaddafi’s army, in Syria, frontlines cut through villages and criss-cross farmlands in a treacherous maze. One village might be pro-Assad, the president’s picture hanging in every window, the next a solidly rebel-held town, another a mixture of communities where you could not trust your neighbor.
In Libya, miles divided the warring parties. In Syria, enemies are yards apart. The war is being fought from house to house. Not knowing the local terrain, we were completely dependent on our rebel guides to keep us alive.
As we approached the border, we abandoned the car driven by one guide and took a tractor that was waiting. It had rained. The fields were muddy. Our guide tried to smooth over footprints we left in the churned soil, for fear of leaving traces.
We reached a waterway we had to cross. The only way over was to sit, packed tight with all our heavy equipment, in what looked like a metal basin that might be used by peasant women to wash laundry. We worked our way over by pulling on a rope.
By the time we reached the far side, it was getting dark.
After spending the night with a family, a car came to sneak us into a village near Idlib where we would be based for five days. We heard shelling overnight. We waited.
Next morning, they took us to another village. The fighting – presumably including the shelling we had heard – was over when we arrived. But smoke was still rising from some buildings as we entered through back roads.
Local people kept approaching us: “Come and see my father, he was killed!” one would say; “Come down this road, there are two bodies!”; “Come and see my house that was destroyed.”
The shelling seemed to have been indiscriminate. Houses in different parts of town had been hit. It was as if a blind man had been firing the guns and could not see or did not care where the shells fell.
Local people took us to a house where they said a woman of 70 had died. A shell had hit it. The mirror in her bedroom was spattered in blood, and flesh. It was as if she had exploded.
We went to the mosque. Two bodies were there, covered in a green and white mat. One had no head. Knowing no media would publish the most horrific of the images, I later filed only pictures giving a sense of the scene.
Victims of the violence had been buried in a garden that had been transformed into a makeshift graveyard. It was too dangerous for people to go to the cemetery.
From the moment we had crossed the border from Turkey, the terror was palpable in the faces of our guides, of all the villagers.
Yet we did not get a real taste of what it meant to be under attack, to be the target, until the next day when a rebel came to take us to a village near Aleppo where a Turkish truck had been attacked by pro-Assad forces a day earlier.
The village was home to both rebels and shabbiha, agents working for the Assad government. We were bundled from safe house to safe house. We could see snipers across the street. As we left the village, we came across an army patrol.
Our guide panicked and reversed the car. It drew attention. A shot rang out. We veered off down a side road. Before we knew it, we were under heavy fire. Rockets whizzed above our heads and assault rifles rattled in our direction. But we drove slowly, afraid to speed up lest we draw more attention.
Finally, we stopped in an olive grove, where we lay face down in the mud. We could hear shelling, far away and close by. Dusk was falling and we could make out the red tracer of anti-aircraft fire lighting up the sky. They were firing heavy weaponry at journalists. We were not armed. Nor was our guide.
Finally, we got back in the car, hiding all our equipment in the boot for fear it would give away our profession if we were stopped. Our guide drove along dirt tracks, phoning rebels at each turn to find out which roads and which houses were safe.
He took us to one house.
“I have to get you out of this village tonight,” the guide said. “They know you are here and they will raid houses tonight, looking for journalists. Don’t run. Walk as normal.”
We were so afraid, it was hard to go slow.
After a stop at another house, we came to another owned by a man whose sympathies for the rebels he kept secret and who, as a result, was believed to be above suspicion by the authorities.
Five minutes after we went inside, we heard vehicles outside, driving down the road, soldiers knocking on doors.
My colleague was with the men of the family. I was in a room with two other women, and several children playing on the floor. The women agreed that if the soldiers came in they would tell them I was a deaf-mute, to conceal my North African accent.
Our hosts brought me coffee and tried to chat. But all I could think of was what would happen if the army raided this house. That this entire family would be killed because of us.
The knock on the door never came.
Finally, we heard the patrol pass into another neighborhood. Only 20 minutes had passed but it felt like a lifetime.
I have covered so many wars in so many countries. In Iraq, you could always have got unlucky and caught up in a suicide bombing. In Lebanon, there had been safe areas and risky ones. In Libya, for the most part, it was clearer who was fighting and who was a non-combatant. In Syria, the war that I witnessed was different: It was one fought among civilians, among neighbors.
We left Syria by another smugglers’ route, through muddy farmlands. I had not washed nor changed my clothes throughout the five-day trip. Only once we were in Turkey did we begin to unwind. When we did, our journey into Syria seemed surreal, the fear we had felt under fire, hunted down, like a dream.
As we began to make arrangements to fly home, we received an e-mail; the man who had lent us his home for five days in that rebel village had been killed in Idlib, by shabbiha, it said.
Conditions for our work had been so tough in Syria, that it had been hard to capture many of the striking, bold images that make for the most arresting photography. This man had risked his life so that we could make at least a simple record of the fear that Syrians, whichever side they are on, are living with every day.