The conflict has now been going for more than two years and many in the mainstream media have given up reporting. There are notable exceptions. This remarkable footage (shot by Olly Lambert and screened by PBS Frontline) must be seen.
Lambert writes movingly about the realities of war journalism in ways that happen far too rarely:
Six months ago, I was on a bed in a Turkish hotel, a few miles from the Syrian border. I was waiting for my fixer Abdulqader to come back to the room we shared. He has a hell of a reputation for helping journalists “get inside” (the euphemism of choice among correspondents operating in Syria).
Before that day, I’d only met him once, for just a few hours, in a hushed and somewhat secretive meeting in the corner of a hotel foyer in Istanbul. Two hours into our second meeting, I was sat in my boxer shorts in our shared room, our beds only inches apart, and the next day we were going to try to sneak into Syria for an extended stay in possibly the world’s most dangerous war zone. In friendship terms, it was “in at the deep end.”
I kept wondering if I should be more scared. The smugglers who were helping us cross the border were full of horror stories about their friends being killed in airstrikes, or so-and-so “disappearing near Homs.” Then there was the casual warning I’d been given: ”There’s been a lot of shelling on the road you want to take …” It alarmed me at first, but then I caught myself wondering how much danger this last line really indicated — the road we wanted to take stretched for miles, and people were vague about when it was actually shelled. It sounded to me then like I was being advised not to drive on a highway because there’d been a car crash there the previous week.
We crossed into Syria the next day, and it took two more to reach our filming destination: the Orontes River valley in Idlib province. It’s a beautiful stretch of Syria’s rural heartland, peaceful for generations, but now a sectarian fault line: On one side of the river, Sunni fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army hold sway. On the other side, less than a mile away, Alawite villagers remain fiercely loyal to the government, and were protected by a line of well-armed regime checkpoints.
On our second day on the rebel side, the army positions shelled the village we were living in. The sound was almost innocuous at first — a distant pop, a pause of about 20 seconds, and then a vicious crunch as the shell landed nearby.
After the fourth explosion, we headed to the makeshift field hospital to see what had happened. As I got out of the car, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me into a rudimentary emergency room.
There on a metal gurney was an elderly man, probably mid-60s, lying on his back, his face covered in dust, and his right leg blown off at the knee, a shredded flap of skin dangling from his bloodied stump. The medical team looked resigned, and gave me vague shrugs that I took to indicate their impotence, or their familiarity with a scene like this. I looked at the old man lying on the table in front of them. He was semi-conscious and shivering. He died a few minutes later.
The man who had brought me in pulled at my sleeve and took me into the room next door. It was completely dark. He flicked a switch on his cigarette lighter to produce a tiny torch light, and shone its weak beam into the room to reveal two badly injured men lying in the darkness. The nearest man was making a strange, hoarse, stuttering sound that I realized was his faltering breath. The second man was reaching out to the man lying next to him, his cousin it turned out, and was saying, in Arabic, “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah.” He wanted these to be his last words.
The quiet, dark horror of the scene froze me for a moment. I asked myself, quite deliberately, if I realized what I was looking at. I found myself slipping into that weirdly safe mental space, a kind of filming autopilot. I took the lighter from my guide’s hand, and shone the torch beam onto the men in the dark. I concentrated on keeping the camera steady. I asked the people behind me to be quiet so I could get good, clean sound of the dying man’s last words. I told myself I could think about it later.
Outside the hospital, a truck had pulled up with three mangled corpses in the back. A crowd had gathered around it, but a path quickly opened up and I was pushed through to film the bodies. ”Film, film,” people around me urged. It was a horrendous sight, and I flicked the camera to automatic — I didn’t trust my reactions to this.
A man was standing in the truck, holding something up for me to film. The sun was in my eyes, and I couldn’t see. Then the man slipped into silhouette, to reveal the awful outline of a severed foot, dangling there in his hand, displayed as evidence. For a few seconds, I forgot to breathe.
By the second week, I could hardly sleep. I lost all confidence in what I was doing. There was no privacy. I got the shits. I was bitten to pieces by mosquitoes. And I became increasingly aware of my split perspective on what I was seeing: I’d experience total sensory and emotional overload, and then find myself thinking solely about framing or continuity, or about how this story would “work in the edit.”
It got worse. One day, we heard we’d finally been granted an interview with Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Martyrs of Syria Brigade, the most powerful rebel faction in the region.
We were summoned to meet him in an anonymous house in the small village of Al-Bara, and I’d only just started filming when the house shook as a regime jet flew overhead, dropping the most almighty bomb on the village. I was standing in the doorway trying to see the plane when the blast knocked me to the ground. It had landed 300 meters away. Even Jamal looked shocked.