Every other journalist is trying to get into Syria, but on Saturday I was trying to get out. The government had made it perfectly clear: My visa was expiring and unless I left on April 23, I would “face the full force of the law”.
I had agreed the night before with my cameraman, Ben Mitchell, over a drink that neither of us wanted to discover what “full force of the law” meant. So the debate was really whether I should fly out from Damascus or drive to Amman, Jordan, and fly from there.
The decision was made that he would fly out from Damascus, the Syrian capital, with the gear and I would drive to Amman. I had left my second passport there with a friend. One for Arab countries and the other for Israel. Welcome to 21st century diplomatic relations.
I decided to wait until after noon prayers before setting out south to the border. If the roads were going to be blocked with various pieces of burning detritus, as they had the day before, I wanted to know first. It’s about 125km from Damascus to the Jordanian border – a drive that should only take an hour or so, especially with the way Syrian drivers tend to step on the gas.
I was in a really bad mood on this particular morning as I was by default being expelled from the country. I said very little to the driver as we set out, which is unusual for me. I’ve been grilled in the old school style of journalism: I can still hear the voice of one of my mentors saying “eyes and ears Mr Perry … eyes and ears”.
The only two questions I asked my driver as we left Damascus were his name, and where he was from. “Abdel … from Daraa,” he told me.
“Beautiful city,” I responded.
Truth was: I didn’t know if it was beautiful or not. It was less than four weeks ago when I tried to access the city (which lies right against the Jordanian border in the South) and was turned back by the army. It was my first week in Syria when we tried to cover the initial protests in Daraa. I remember coming across that army checkpoint and two machine-gun positions had been “pre-sighted”.
An old military technique that I learned from the US Marine Corps about after years in Iraq: Soldiers will simply take two posts, put them at approximately “two o’clock and ten o’clock” as your eyes would scan the horizon: a certain distance out – fire off a few rounds until you hit the post. Then mark that spot on the machine guns sightings – and just like that … you’ve got yourself a “pre-sighted kill zone”.
A kill zone. The name says it all. US marines have a particular knack for naming things that describe exactly what they really are.
I knew that day, seeing those posts and that “kill zone” that the government was taking these small demonstrations (at the time) very seriously. Syria up until these past five weeks had been a quiet country, while the rest of the region seemed to continue to burn.
Of course it became clear the day before, on April the 22nd, that the government would no longer stand for the type of dissent that had spread: clear opposition to the regime. Over a hundred people were killed across the country on a bloody Friday, the bloodiest since the protests began.
I tried to get out of the hotel and around the country as best I could throughout my month there. But as I told a colleague: “I don’t blend in really well – and this government is rounding up journalists.”
It was really that, and a few bad incidents I had come across while trying to get out and about. Be it my camera being wrested away from me outside the main mosque in Damascus or my drive through the neighbourhood of Barza in Damascus the previous week.
Barzah: A bad neighbourhood to begin with … it had gone from bad to worse the Friday I decided to drive through and take a look. Men with metal pipes were in the middle of the street beating people.
At least a dozen walking wounded were headed away from the main mosque there, some bleeding from the head; others had their hands bandaged. Clearly there had been a hand-to-hand brutal battle. Ambulances raced away from the scene – and each time I would have the driver circle back they would wave the pipes as if to say: “We dare you to get out of that car.”
Gunfire raining into crowd
My grumpy attitude, Abdel [the driver] and I were approaching the city of Izraa when something immediately clearly horrible was unfolding down the road directly in front of us. People, mostly truck drivers, were standing on the highway … yelling at the cars approaching – telling them to pull over.
Screaming and waving widely. I saw one making signs with his hands. He was mimicking the motion of a machine gun firing. I got my bearings, noticing right away two road signs: one pointing to the right that read “Izraa: 1km” and the other pointing to the left that read “Daraa”.
It dawned on me at that moment that I had been here before. We were just outside the “kill zone” I had seen weeks earlier on the outskirts of Daraa.
About 50 metres from where we pulled over was an overpass that connected Daraa to Izraa. I could see clearly a crowd of people marching from my left to my right over the bridge.
Suddenly gunfire rained into the crowd. The truck drivers dove for cover. And, for what seemed like an eternity, I sat there in the car, stunned and frozen. People were falling on top of each other, being cut down like weeds in a field by what I think must have been a mix of both small arms fire and machine gun fire. I saw at least two children shot. They fell immediately. People were screaming. Gunfire rattled on.
Two cars tried to gun it under the overpass and continue down the highway, even with the gunfire continuing to cut people up. One of the cars got hit immediately before it passed under the bridge and ended up slamming into the embankment on the right side of the road. Someone fell out of the passenger side and scrambled under the bridge and crawled into a ball … just hoping for survival, I suppose.
I’ve been playing it through over and over again in my head for the past 16 hours and I still do not know where the gunfire was coming from. It seemed to be coming from a field that lay off to my right – on the Izraa side of the bridge. I could see some muzzle flashes, but I’ve never in my life seen people walking, and just shot at indiscriminately.
I could not take my eyes off what was quickly becoming carnage. One of the last things I remember seeing clearly were people lying flat on the road, taking cover behind those who had already been wounded or shot dead … lying in what must have been pools of blood to avoid a hail of flying hot hell.
Abdel’s brain finally switched back on and he flung the car into reverse and headed backwards down the highway, laying on his car horn the entire time, weaving backwards through the cars that were now slowly approaching the spot where truck drivers were taking cover in the ditch. I was gripping the handle of the door so hard, I noticed my knuckles had gone totally white.
Abdel spun the car around, drove over the median and started driving back to Damascus. There was really nothing to say at that point. But out of immediate instinct, I rang our news desk in Doha. I can’t remember what I said initially, but clearly it was enough for the editors to get an anchor up immediately to tape an interview over the phone, getting my fresh reaction to what I had seen.
I didn’t know what to say honestly except it was clear security forces [or Assad loyalists, who are now, based on behaviour, part of the security forces] had just carried out a mini-massacre. I’m sure I repeated myself too many times, something you try not to do … but this was unlike anything I had ever seen. After covering seven separate wars in as many years, I’ve never seen people march directly into a hail of gunfire.
As the interview was rapping up, we came across a heavy army checkpoint. We had driven through maybe a dozen on our way down, and the further we headed south, the more frequent they became. It was as if around 25km north of the Jordan border there was an invisible military zone that had been put up.
I didn’t notice the ones on the other side of the highway, but as soon as we started approaching one (now driving back north), Abdel and I looked at each other. Immediately I apologised to Tony Harris [our anchor] and shoved the phone into my pocket, bringing a quick end to the interview.
Being seen talking on the phone as a journalist, right after fleeing that scene, we would have ended up in detention, there is not a doubt in my mind.
As we passed through the army checkpoint, the soldiers were smoking and laughing; looking at each other; smiling, waving us through various barriers. I can only describe it like what it felt to me: an evil grimace of enjoyment was on their faces. We were maybe, at the most, 3km from where I had just seen people cut down, bullets tearing their bodies into pieces. It was disgusting.
I turned to look at Abdel, to begin asking him a series of questions about the best way to proceed from that point on – and I saw a man of maybe 40 years old with a single tear running down his cheek. “Are you ok, habbibi,” I asked like an idiot.
“Yes … yes – but shou (what) … shou,” he repeated … what do we have? There is no humanity here anymore.”
‘No humanity left’
After a few minutes of silence and many cigarettes passed back and forth we debated the best way for me to get out of the country. We debated it all the way back to Damascus.
In the end, Abdel and I agreed: make a run for the Lebanese border now, spending another night in Damascus; overstaying my visa to face the “full force of the law” after reporting what we had both just seen was not a smart idea.
So, off to the Lebanese capital Beirut we went.
Ironic that a place where I’ve seen a war and many clashes break out before was suddenly a seven-hour refugee for me as I waited for the first flight to any European city so I could then connect home to see my elderly and sick grandfather on Easter.
As I sit at this airport in Paris, writing this piece, watching people come and go, I am haunted by two thoughts: The first is a question I cannot answer. How can you shoot people like that? Just watch a crowd march towards you; sit in a firing position, wait … watch; then fire directly into a crowd of civilians.
I did not see a single shot fired from the crowd in the few minutes we sat there watching people flail without any place to hide – a gut wrenching pink mist spraying strait in the air.
It is that thought, and the words of a young man from the southern city of Daraa speaking about the country he once loved, a country that has forever changed asking me rhetorically: “What do we have? There is no humanity here anymore.”