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Syria undercover

In this image made on a mobile phone, a Syrian man sits inside a bus as he looks through the window at a military truck carrying Syrian soldiers, in the outskirts of the central city of Homs, Syria, on Thursday April 21, 2011. Syria's president formally ratified an end to the 50-year-old state of emergency Thursday as the regime tried to dampen enthusiasm for the country's month long uprising on the eve of massive rallies planned for Friday.(AP Photo)

It’s almost a very abrupt end to my Syrian adventure: an 18-year-old boy telling me in no uncertain terms to get off the bus. We’ve known each other all of five minutes, Mohammed and I, after he introduced himself while we were loading our luggage and I invited him to sit beside me at the back of the bus. “But why do you want to go to Homs?” he wants to know. Oh I don’t know, I say: I’m sort of touring around the country.

It’s not quite true that all foreign journalists are banned from Syria, but it’s extremely difficult to get in. Those who are granted entry are carefully shepherded around the place, and then swiftly shown the door. That’s why, in the middle of November, I’d decided to go in undercover.

Thus far I’d been lucky. After a great deal of perseverance and only at the second attempt, I’d managed to get across the Lebanese border. After two days in Damascus waiting to make contact with the Syrian opposition I’d taken a taxi to Damascus bus station and bought a ticket to Homs. A policeman was on hand to check foreign passports at the bus station, but he didn’t bother to check my passport very carefully, where it clearly states that I’m a journalist.

“Yesterday my sister saw a body in the street, and she’s been crying ever since. I fear for you, I want you to get off the bus. Get off”

My second stroke of luck was to have been befriended by Mohammed. An engineering student on his way back home to Homs, he was concerned that here was an idiotic tourist who was about himself into trouble. “There are no tourists in Homs” he told me, looking deadly serious.

His father is a headmaster in a local school, he says, but even he hasn’t been able to go out to work. Everyone knows someone who’s been killed or injured in his area, he says. “Yesterday my sister saw a body in the street, and she’s been crying ever since. I fear for you, I want you to get off the bus. Get off.” People are beginning to stare. The bus pulls away and I shrug my shoulders, but Mohammed is deadly serious. “You can still get off. Get off now.”

Homs is a city of over half a million people in the heart of Syria. It’s where you go to when you’re on the way somewhere, but it’s also a destination of its own. It’s where Syrians go to escape the hustle of Damascus, to let their hair down in its cafés and restaurants or watch the football: Homs has two football teams and a museum, where tourists can read about the famous battles that were once fought here.

Nowadays, it’s fighting a battle of its own: the city is under total military lockdown. It has become the violent centre of the Syrian uprising and the BBC has taken to calling it the “capital of the Syrian revolution”.

The hotel I’ve been taken to overlooks the main square and its now infamous clock tower, where the Syrian army reportedly ran amok and gunned down peaceful demonstrators in April 2011. Since then the violence has moved out into residential areas of the city, and has become more shadowy and impenetrable, amid rumours of growing sectarian tensions.

In the weeks before I arrive the death rate has quickened, making Homs the most violent place in the country. On the road to Homs, we pass at least 50 military vehicles going in the same general direction: a convoy of long green buses, lorries carrying munitions, and trucks with weary-looking soldiers sitting in the back smoking and sleeping. There are no tanks, but on one lorry is mounted with what looks like a huge gun.

“‘There were five thousand killed here in the last six months’, he says, a figure much higher than official  estimates”

When Mohammed and I arrive in the city centre, however, all is quiet, almost funereal. The battles between the Syrian army and its allies, the demonstrators and unknown armed groups, take place just a mile or two away from here in densely packed residential areas like Baba Amr; another flashpoint, the hotel manager tells me, is Bab Al Sebaa, just a few hundred yards up the road.

Mohammed ushers me quite forcefully to a hotel and warns me, for about the fifth time, that whatever I do I mustn’t go out. After he leaves I tell the manager I want to go and get some food, but he’s also gently solicitous. I shouldn’t really, he says – I can eat at the hotel. When I tell him I need to stretch my legs, he points out of the window at a single shopping street – walk down there, he says, but don’t go too far and don’t be too long.

Amazingly there are still demonstrations throughout the city during the day. In one café I walk into two workers lean out the window, as if they can hear something – for a moment they thought they could hear slogans and chanting, one of them says, but it might have been something else. On the same street I find a fancy patisserie where an well-dressed man in his thirties is doing very little. When the other customer in the shop shuffles off, he becomes much more talkative. He is smiling at me, but he is also deadly serious.

“There were 5,000 killed here in the last six months,” he says, a figure much higher than official estimates. “There is no water, gas or electricity for most people here. UNICEF send things here, but this is no good. We can’t go on like this.” He pats an imaginary child. “They are killing little children.” Why did I come here, he wants to know. Aleppo is safe, he says, there are lots of safe places.

Should the president go? “How can he stay,” he says, rolling his eyes, “after all this killing?” He knows this much: “I want my freedom.” Do you support the Arab League’s suspension of Syria? He nods. Do you say these things to people? “No”, he says, as if the answer should be quite obvious, and then runs his index finger across his throat.

His boss, a small businessmen who lives outside Homs but has to travel here to do business, arrives and shuts up shop. It’s getting dark, and both of them are too scared to leave, so they bring the shutters down and we pass the time drinking tea and eating cake. For the next few hours we talk about what’s going on in the city. The businessman’s mobile phone keeps interrupting us: friends who chide him for even going to Homs. When he’s here he doesn’t leave the shop, he says.

On the television we switch between Syrian state TV and Al-Jazeera. There is a story, he says, that Al-Jazeera is paying people $20,000 for photos taken on their mobile phones. The self-styled Free Syrian Army, an outfit which seems to be on the rise and which posts lots of videos on the net, might be out there fighting, and if so the best of luck to them – on balance, however, he thinks that they’re an illusion puffed up by Turkey. And he’s heard it on good authority that the police are pretending that drug dealers and criminals are demonstrators; after all, he says, that way they’re “outside the law” and can simply be killed.

Even taking pictures on your mobile phone can be enough to invite trouble. After the demonstrators were gunned down in the huge demonstration at the clock tower in April, he says, Sana, the Syrian news agency, brought crowds and people armed with camera phones to the main square to show that life was getting back to normal. But, according to the businessman, a police sniper saw the camera phone snappers and opened fire. A few people were hurt. “Mistakes have been made,” he admits, with a gallows chuckle.

 

There’s also been a spate of kidnappings, at least some of them the work of shady Alawite paramilitaries linked to the government; bodies have turned up, often bloodied and showing signs of torture. To entertain me my companions, both Sunnis, tell jokes about Shias and Alawite muslims. “You know these Shias,” one of them says, “if they kill one Sunni they go to heaven, but if they kill two or three they can bring their father and mother.” They were just joking. Both were adamant that only the mischievous would cultivate differences between Sunni and Alawites, that they were all Syrians above everything else.

The next day, while out walking, I meet the same shop manager; we’re walking in the same direction walking towards the Clock Tower, where all that remains of the April demonstration is a single graffito in Arabic. “There were 70,000 people here”, he says. “and the police were doing this”: he mimics the act of shooting from a machine gun. I bid him goodbye, afraid that he might draw attention; a few yards away, two soldiers with Kalashnikovs are guarding a government building.

A few hours after that I get a lift and leave; I can’t wait to get out. It’s only afterwards that I realise just how lucky I’ve been to have that teenage boy as a guide and those two men for convivial evening company. Two days later, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a Syrian news cameraman is discovered dead on the main street in Homs. His eyes have been gouged out.

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