Syria, 2015 trip

In May of this year, I traveled again to Damascus, Syria, with the al-Wafaa campaign – a Europe based Palestinian NGO. This time I didn’t fly straight to the war zone in an old Ukranian cargo plane, but we flew to Beirut and from there we went by car. That is a 3 to 4 hour trip, which includes border crossings. It’s actually easier to enter Syria than to cross from Costa Rica into Panama over land.

I shot a lot of video that, unfortunately, hasn’t been used for anything. I still have to edit a short spot from it for al-Wafaa.

Circumstances in Damascus were pretty much the same as they were when I was there in December 2013. The same checkpoints everywhere, the same drone of cannons in the evening, and even more refugees stacked in anything that can remotely serve as a shelter.

Everything went pretty well, with the only upheaval being when I had climbed on top of our car to film our convoy and soldiers at a regime checkpoint, thinking I was filming them, fired some shots over my head. They then came running towards us. However, we had our own soldiers with us to protect the convoy, and after some heated debate, hands were shaken, apologies were made, cigarettes smoked and we were on our way again.

We did not get into Yarmouk, but we delivered food packages to its residents, who had to come pick them up in a neighborhood called Yalda, which is right next to Yarmouk and controlled by the Free Syrian Army, such as it is. Yarmouk itself is tricky. ISIS invaded – causing more people to flee – and although they have been thrown out, supposedly, there are still ISIS snipers roaming around. Many people told us about beheadings and other such mayhem.

I did manage to take a fair amount of photographs in between filming. Here’s a selection.

Vlucht naar Syrië full documentary

Here’s the radio documentary I did about the Dutch humanitarian effort called “Help Syria Through the Winter” for NTR radio. For the non-Dutch speaker: In December 2013 I boarded a cargo plane full of supplies and flew from Rotterdam to Damascus, the capital of war-torn Syria. There, I covered the distribution of the supplies to internally displaced persons.

Christmas in Damascus

DAMASCUS – The Bab Shari area in Damascus has been transformed into a heavily fortified compound. On every road there are two military checkpoints and no cars, not even the ones with an official permit, are allowed to pass through. Thus, I walked the last half mile to the Syrian Greek Orthodox al-Salib church, where mass was already on its way since early in the morning on Christmas Day. The closer I came, the more the sound of cannon fire in the distance was drowned out by the singing that came out of the beautiful building.

There was another round of security at the gate where volunteers used scanners to make sure nobody carried any guns or explosives inside. A surprisingly high number of visitors were attending the service and lighting candles.

“Actually, visits have gone up since the start of the war,” explained one of the volunteers, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. The Greek Orthodox church is the oldest and largest Christian community in Syria. The neighborhood is one of the wealthier in Damascus, reflected by the number of fur coats and other expensive fashion items people were wearing today.

Unsurprisingly, the volunteer said that, “you’ll find that most people here are very much pro-Assad.” In February of this year, Syrian Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Levant and Antioch, John al-Yaziji, met with president Assad and was quoted by state media expressing his confidence that Syria would come out victorious from its crisis.

The Greek Orthodox community is far from the only Christian group in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Syria. Throughout the country, but mostly in the north, there are other orthodox as well as Catholic groups, and everything in between.

Christians in Syria make up about 10% of the total population, with the largest concentration living in and around the city of Aleppo, now the scene of an all-out assault by the Syrian Army on the various rebel groups that control most of the town.

Many, if not most, Christians have fled. A vast number of them are Assyrians, an ethnic group with origins in ancient Mesopotamia and which now inhabits roughly the same area as the Kurdish people in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Most of them have fled either to other parts of Syria or to Turkey. Those who can afford it or have family in Europe often travel to countries like Germany or the Netherlands, either legally or facilitated by people smugglers, a representative of the Assyrian community in Holland, Abraham Tunc, told Newsmax.

This often leads to harrowing scenes when rickety boats capsize in the Mediterranean on their voyage from Turkey to EU member Greece, or when refugees get stuck, abused and extorted at the eastern European frontiers. One family member of Tunc narrowly escaped death in such a boat accident while trying to make her way from war-torn Syria to the safety of Europe.

Tunc has lived in Europe from long before war in Syria broke out, but still has family in Aleppo with whom he sometimes manages to talk on the phone. He explained that the situation there is very bad and dangerous. Other members of his extended family now live in Turkey, near the border. Some were killed.

They were never supportive of the Assad regime, but the biggest problem for the Christian Assyrians right now, said Tunc, are the jihadist groups. These militias, linked to Al Qaeda, seek to establish a caliphate across the Levant, ruled by the laws of their extremist brand of Islam. In their view, those who are not “true Muslims” deserve to be killed, and Christians most certainly qualify. “I think my cousin was killed just because he had a Christian cross dangling from the rear view mirror of his car,” Abraham Tunc said.

Just months ago, the Lebanon based terrorist Hezbollah group, which is an ally of Iran and the regime of Syria’s Assad regime, drove out these Al Qaeda linked groups from the north-western coastal part of Syria, where many Christian minorities live.

Meanwhile, when mass in Damascus came to a close, this correspondent headed for the exit and, once outside, almost overlooked it: What appeared at first glance to be a nativity scene placed against the church, turned out to be an improvised little space to remember those who were killed during the ongoing war.

The wall was covered with portrait pictures and people were telling stories; a family was dragged out of their house and murdered, a man was killed by a bomb, others suffered even more gruesome treatment.

“We lost about 200 members of our community because of the war,” the aforementioned volunteer said.

“It all started as protests. People wanted more freedom, which everybody understood. And then it became war and we are where we are today,” he added.

When the singing inside subsided, the booms of the cannons at the edge of town came back. It took about 10 minutes to walk back to the car that was parked next to a military roadblock. They were checking trunks of passing cars. The news reported that the Pope prayed for Syria. On an otherwise tranquil Christmas day in Damascus, the war was never far away.

———————–

A different version of this story appeared earlier in NewsMax. This is the “director’s cut.”

Vuile Handen – Help Syrië de Winter Door

Een paar dagen geleden moest het hele gezelschap hulpverleners op bezoek bij de minister van Sociale Zaken, die de baas is over de humanitaire hulp in Syrië. Dat kwam erg slecht uit, want we waren druk bezig de hulpgoederen in verschillende vluchtelingenkampen in en om Damascus te brengen. Daarnaast vindt niemand het echt leuk om zaken te doen met het regime.

Maar het moet. Van een landingsvergunning voor het vliegtuig tot het invoeren en transport van de hulpgoederen en het reizen van de vrijwilligers – dat alles is volkomen onmogelijk zonder een heel pak vergunningen, brieven, pasjes en noem het maar op. Alleen al de checkpoints die overal in de stad zijn opgezet door het leger zouden elk uren kosten om te passeren zonder speciale passen.

Bij binnenkomst in het royale kantoor van de minister arriveerde ook meteen de nationale televisie en andere pro-Assad media. Er werd naar hartelust gefilmd en geknipt. De enige die echter ook vragen stelde was uw verslaggever. ‘s Avonds zagen we onszelf ineens terug op de Syrische staats-TV: Beelden van het team werden getoond terwijl een commentaarstem uitlegde dat de Nederlanders waren gekomen om het “terrorisme te bestrijden”. Met dekens en babymelk dan, waarschijnlijk?

Het blijft een ongemakkelijke situatie voor iedereen; je hebt toestemming nodig van het regime om hulp te verlenen aan slachtoffers van een oorlog die door datzelfde regime is begonnen.

Het wat dommere deel van de moslimgemeenschap in Nederland – de jihadist crowd, zeg maar – legde dit vervolgens uit als dat wij op een “pro-Assad missie” zouden zijn, wat natuurlijk onzin is.

De vieze smaak in de mond verdween gelukkig weer een beetje toen we na het officiële bezoek aankwamen bij het Jaramana tentenkamp in een buitenwijk van Damascus. Hier zitten duizenden mensen opeengepakt in tenten en in een uitgewoond flatgebouw zonder dat enige vorm van hulp hen bereikt. En nu waren wij er dus met dekens en kachels en winterjassen. Blije gezichten.

Eén vliegtuig is een druppel op een gloeiende plaat, maar wat de vrijwilligers van Help Syrië De Winter Door hebben bewezen is dat het wel degelijk mogelijk is om humanitaire hulp te verlenen aan slachtoffers waarvan de grotere NGO’s vaak beweren dat ze niet bereikt kunnen worden. En dat het laten zien dat er nog iemand aan ze denkt soms even belangrijk is voor de vluchtelingen als een nieuwe matras.

Photo: The lady on the left is Kinda al-Shammat, the Syrian minister of social affairs. Yours truly sits on the right. 

Dit stuk verscheen eerder op de HollandDoc website: Radiomaker Okke Ornstein van Holland Doc Radio is kort voor de kerst met een hulpgoederentransport mee gereisd naar Syrië om verslag te doen van de eerste humanitaire vlucht vanuit Nederland naar het door oorlog verscheurde land. Op 19 januari om 21.00 uur zendt Holland Doc Radio de documentaire ‘Vlucht naar Syrië uit.