Tea with the Free Syria Army, and our government minder

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BBC News producer Cara Swift tells the story behind Jeremy Bowen's reports from Zabadani, a rebel-held town in Syria:

After so much time in Gaddafi's Tripoli last year, I became used to being herded onto a government bus and driven around on mystery tours. We were rarely given any detail of where they would be taking us, but we could always rely on coming across a 'spontaneous' pro-Gaddafi crowd of green flags being waved to the chant: "God, Muammar, Libya, that's all we need."

So, when I recently arrived in Damascus on an official visa, maybe I could be forgiven for assuming the same sort of fate lay ahead of me, with 'Bashar and Syria' in place of 'Muammar and Libya'.

But I only came across such crowds once in ten days, in an Alawite area of Damascus. It was the snarled Damascus traffic which slowed our bus down in Syria, not pre-arranged demonstrators.


To travel outside of the capital, we needed permission from the Ministry of Information, and a government minder to accompany us. To speak to opposition activists involved passing through many armed checkpoints. Talking to the opposition, let alone meeting them, is hard to arrange. And risky for them and us.

So we were surprised when we received a call granting us permission to visit Zabadani (above), a town west of Damascus where we'd heard there was a ceasefire between President Assad's troops and the opposition Free Syria Army. We arrived and were escorted to a house, accompanied by the minder and a team from Syrian State TV.

When a young man speaking fluent English appeared claiming to be a leading activist there, we didn't believe him. It seemed too easy. It must be staged.

Our first ten minutes were spent questioning him, trying to prove he really was who he said he was. We surreptitiously asked some trusted activists we knew to 'drive-by' and see if they could verify his claims. He was telling the truth.

Of course the name he called himself wasn't real. It's usual for opposition activists to call themselves names like 'John' to protect their identity. But, as with all the opposition activists I met in Gaddafi's Libya, his face and expressions were very real. 

Dressed in a black beanie hat to protect himself from the minus eight degrees cold, he enthusiastically spent the day giving us a tour. Eager to show us walls scarred by bullets and shrapnel, he led us through the narrow streets. As we weaved through the city he told us stories of their revolution so far: of fighting, of defence, of bravery, and of injuries.

Our 'tour group' grew as other activists joined us, carrying parts of mortar shells they said had landed nearby. Curious children skipped alongside practising their English. "Hello," they would say into my microphone, and then shyly giggle and hide behind their friends.  

Our guide asked us to stay for the evening. "There will be a demonstration again," he said. So we did. Our hosts were concerned about how cold we were, and insisted on taking us to an apartment with a roaring open fire. As we waited for dusk, I practically had my feet in the open flames to try to restore some feeling in my toes. We were served delicious sweet tea as the man beside me explained how he was arrested in Zabadani last year for protesting. He showed me his legs and told me they'd both been broken when he was in prison. 

Three young girls appeared carrying a photo of their dad who had recently been killed. Everyone in the room had a story to tell. And they weren't afraid to share their stories with our government minder. I watched as our guide put a hand on his shoulder and gestured for him to sit next to the fire. Our minder smiled as he sipped a glass of sweet tea and thanked our hosts.

The apartment overlooked a square where a huge independence flag was flying. Hand-made decorations with the names of those killed hung from a fake tree. As dusk fell, people began to gather around it. Men, women, and children. Some were holding photos of loved ones who have died. Some were chanting, some were dancing. Some were riding around on the back of a pick-up truck which had enormous speakers blaring out anti-Assad songs.

Earlier in the day as we had waited for permission to travel to Zabadani, we never imagined we'd have such access to this side of the story. I'd spent ten months watching such scenes on YouTube and it was amazing to experience it for myself.

Since we left there have been reports of renewed fighting in the Zabadani area. Practically everyone we spoke to during our visit to Syria spoke of worse things to come - of continuing violence, of more blood being spilled.

No conflict is ever black and white. It can become so easy to group people into either pro or anti-Assad camps. But the image of our minder and our opposition guide sitting side by side and talking will forever stay in my mind. If they can talk maybe there can still be hope for dialogue.

Cara Swift, @cswift2, senior Middle East producer with BBC News, was in Syria for ten days for BBC News along with Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor, and cameraman Darren Conway. She has previously covered the Arab uprisings last year in Egypt and Libya, and has worked in BBC Foreign News as a producer for more than 11 years.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Sidney Monroe

    on 16 Feb 2012 16:50

    Oooh darling you are sooo brave. How did you manage without your Evian?

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