Syria from both sides

Twice, I have received visas to photograph pro-Assad districts in Damascus. Many journalists are denied entry; no reason is given. In September, I flew to Damascus for five days to document supporters of the regime. It was my second trip to the country. I didn’t have government minders while working in Damascus and the rural towns of Ma’loula and Douma, but there were many other obstacles I had to overcome to obtain the coverage I desired: checkpoints that prevented me from entering rebel-held areas (I snuck past a few), overbearing restrictions, and conversations that crashed into walls of illogical ideology.

Most pro-Assad Syrians espouse variations of the same narrative: The Free Syrian Army is composed of foreign-backed terrorists bent on destabilizing Syria who are at the service of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and America; Assad has been forced to use measured violence to crush them, and he is the bulwark keeping Syria from fragmenting into bloody sectarianism; many of the atrocities Western journalists are blaming on Assad’s army and shabiha (Assad-hired thugs who dress like civilians and sneak-attack protestors) are actually being committed by the rebels and their criminal milieu.

Students at Bunat Al Ajial, a private school in Damascus, during a math class.

In my experience, when Assad supporters are asked about reports of the state officials torturing activists or the overwhelming use of indiscriminate force on civilian populations, they say either that these claims are exaggerations, if not fabrications, or that violence is necessary. One Syrian journalist even pointed out that if the US is permitted the use of extrajudicial arrests and torture to thwart “terrorists,” then Assad’s government should also be allowed to do so.

The storylines of rebels and loyalists are constantly competing in the Arab media. Satellite-television stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, networks that made their names with impartial coverage, have had a noticeable pro-rebel tilt. Inside Syria, the Damascus-based array of state-run television channels and Addounia TV (a privately owned station viewed by many as a mouthpiece of Assad) broadcast the government’s line. These Assad-backed channels have been blocked by satellite-television services in Egypt and many countries throughout the Gulf.

A family in the process of moving to another house. The city they’re leaving, Zabadani, is under bombardment; however, they said they aren’t moving because of the danger but instead due to a recent marriage.

The one and only time I ran into a Syrian state-TV reporter in downtown Damascus, she was conducting street interviews on a pressing issue: “Which fruits and vegetables do you freeze so you can eat them out of season?” It made the smoke billowing on the horizon all the more surreal.

Earlier that day, I had been sitting at a coffee shop on the slopes of Mount Qasioun, taking in the sweeping view of Damascus. I saw smoke then too, rising up from the southern suburb of Qadam. A man walked up to me and identified himself as state security. He told me that I was not allowed to photograph anything, explaining that the smoke on the horizon was black, which, according to him, meant that the rebels were burning tires to make the government look bad. He had no explanation, however, for the thud of artillery fire that had been audible since dawn.

The roar of such fire fades into the background of Damascus but doesn’t ever dissipate. On the first day of primary school in the upper-class neighborhood of Mezzeh, the sound seeped into a closed-window classroom where I was photographing young students. One mother tried to comfort her son by claiming it was thunder. Eventually, he didn’t believe her anymore and asked, “When will it rain?” A couple of young hairdressers hanging out in Mezzeh joked with me that it was “the sound of romance.”

Rama Hamdi tries to coax her son, Hadi Shaban, to leave for his first day of school in Damascus. Even in peaceful parts of the city, the daily routine has been disrupted—students are going to schools closer to home since the roads are unsafe after dark. Even in the supposedly secure neighborhood of Mezzeh, the low thud of artillery shells is a constant.

The only place in the city where artillery fire couldn’t be heard was during karaoke night at a place called the Mood Lounge. There I watched a small crowd of the rich and well-connected crack jokes and prod one another to sing patriotic songs, French classics, and Amy Winehouse.

Just two days before my visit to the Mood Lounge, a writer, translator, and I were heading down a back road into Zabadani, one of the rebel-held towns along the Lebanese border. We were stopped at a checkpoint outside town and escorted to a house that had been turned into a makeshift command post. Inside, a military officer firmly told us that, for our own safety, we wouldn’t be allowed into the city. He confirmed that the artillery constantly sounding in the distance was being lobbed at Zabadani.

Paradoxically, while the officer prevented us from entering his jurisdiction, he also demanded that we, in our journalism, “tell the truth.” He told us that Assad would rather watch 100 of his soldiers die than allow a single innocent civilian to be killed. The next day, a Syrian activist tweeted that about 20 people had died at the hands of the Syrian Army in Zabadani.

The officer speculated that his nation’s erupting civil war was just the beginning of World War III—after an attack by Israel, he said, Syria would be forced to defend itself by invading and eventually liberating Jerusalem. And with that, we were ordered to turn around and join the line of cars evacuating the area. The other vehicles were mostly filled with families of civilians.

Sheep owned by a Bedouin family are fed on the outskirts of Damascus. Sheep are one of the few populations faring better than normal during the war; fruits and vegetables that can’t be transported to the city are being used to feed local livestock.

In Ma’loula, a small southwestern Christian mountain town, I had a drink in the home of a soldier who fought in the 1973 war with Israel. He said that he was a former member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and that while fighting in the Sinai he and a group of fellow soldiers had wanted to prove themselves to their Egyptian counterparts—their allies in that ill-fated assault on Israel—so they had roasted a dead Israeli soldier on a spit and pretended to eat his flesh. They were actually eating from a lamb that had been cooked nearby. His explanation for their barbarity? “It was a time of war.”

The soldier then pointed to my jawline, to a patch of white in my brown beard, and said that terror alone can cause such a spot to appear almost instantly. He was probably right; I noticed the discoloration after my first trip into the fighting in Homs, a city that has been devastated in the war. The cure, he told me, was to rub it raw with steel wool until it bleeds, for three days straight. Then let it scar over.

In the suburb of Arabaeen a protest of hundreds filled a street after friday prayers. Peaceful protests of this kind took place in many of the suburbs of Damascus.

In a house on the border of Baba Amr, Homs bullet holes riddle the walls and furniture. Blocks of the city were abandoned and most shops were closed.

The helmet of a UN observer sits in the lobby of a hotel in Homs, Syria. The UN delegation in Homs includes Finns.

A rebel fighter in the suburb of Duma drives around with a gun at the ready. Even though the neighborhood is now peaceful the army is known to invade with overwhelming force and kill or kidnap known members of the rebellion.

Two Humvees are covered in the Syrian flag on one of the main streets of Damascus, Syria. The owner added the flags soon after the start of the rebellion, and would go on almost daily parades through the street with patriotic music and pretty girls hanging out the windows. But in the last few months it has become too dangerous so they now just sit beside the road, guarded by guys with AK-47s.

To make defending their neighborhood easier the rebels of Khaldeya have cut holes in the walls of neighboring houses. They run through the houses avoiding the snipers that shoot down the streets.

A correspondent for Syrian state television interviews a lady in the streets of Damascus, Syria. While smoke rises in the background from shelling they are asking Syrians which fruits and vegetables they prefer to save in the freezer from one season to the next. Syrian state TV channels have been blocked from two of the main satellite TV networks in the middle east Arabsat and Nilesat, reducing the ability of them to transmit the government version of events. The government says that the fighting was started from foreign agitation and funding, and consists mainly of foreign terrorists.

One of the members of the Free Army of Syria, and formerly a soldier in the Syrian Army, looks around a corner after hearing shots fired nearby in Khadeiya. The collection of volunteers guard their neighborhood from inside houses as the Syrian Army fires at them from across the streets and high locations.

In Damascus the street shop owners have been fighting for customers and space with new street sellers. Many of the street vendors are refugees from insecure cities who are unemployed.

Residents of the besieged neighborhood of Khadeiya run through the streets to avoid snipers. Sheets are hung and moved as the snipers move to try and block their view.

Water, and electricity have been cut since Khadeiya was taken by the opposition. Now electricity is snuck in on clandestine power lines and water is distributed from old wells.

A photo of Bashar Assad hands on the wall of the main meeting room of Saint Thecla monastery in Ma'loula.

Ma'aloula is a village built into the side of a mountain is historically Christian and with many churches, monasteries and convents. It is also one of the last Aramaic speaking communities in the world. It has not had any sectarian or revolutionary violence though there have been incidences of small groups trying to incite protests and calls to religious fighting. The muslim and christian communities have been working together to try and keep calm though.

A member of the Free Syrian Army approaches the border of Khadeiya where the Syrian Army is firing on them. Scattered machine gun fire can be heard coming from both sides but the real fear comes with the sound of artillery and RPGs.

A small party is held in the center of Khadeiya where men and their children come mainly to sing anti-government songs and dance.

One of the soldiers of the Syrian Free Army is brought into a makeshift hospital after he was hurt in an explosion. The small clinic is the only one left after 3 other hospitals and clinics were shelled.

An elderly man walks through a cut in the rocks beside St. Thecla Monastery. The local legend is that the mountain opened miraculously to protect a Thecla, a young noble virgin christian, from her perusers.

Rebel fighters wait in a square in the neighborhood of Khaldeiya, Homs. There are many holes in the square where mortars and rockets have landed.

Hadi Shaban is reluctant to leave for his first day of school as his mother Rama Hamdi tries to coax him along.

Tuesday was the first day of school for some of the students in Syria. Even in the peaceful parts of Damascus the routine has been disrupted. Students are going to schools closer to their home since the roads are insecure after dark. Some schools are running two schools in the same building, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Even in the secure neighborhood of Mezzah low thud of shells being fired nearby can be heard.

Abdel Basit Sharoot, a well known Syrian singer, whispers the words of a revolutionary song into the ears of children so they can sing them. They are at a neighborhood nightly protest in Khaldi, Homs.

The elite of Damascus dance and sing at Karaoke night In a bar called "Mood" in Damascus, Syria. The nights end earlier than usual for those that have to drive home on dangerous roads. But the patrons proudly belt out everything from patriotic songs to Amy Winehouse.

A small party is held in the center of Khadeiya where men and their children come mainly to sing anti-government songs and dance.

Many of the remaining people and cars of Kahdeiya have been shot multiple times. This soldier showed me 3 bullet holes. One doctor showed me the 9 times he has been wounded while retrieving patients in their makeshift ambulance.

Students at Bumat Alajial private school sit in a math class in Damascus, Syria

A rebel fighter looks around the corner of a house near the front line of Khaldeya, Homs.

The family portraits and icons of an Aramaic speaking man in Ma'aloula. He was also a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and was a member of the military. While speaking about his past, he bragged about fighting against Israel alongside Egyptian soldiers in 1973. He says, one night as a prank they hung a dead Israeli on a spit and roasted the corpes alongside a sheep, tricking their fellow soldiers into thinking they were eating human flesh.

One of the officers of the Free Syrian Army sits with his family in their home in Khadeiya. He is unusual for keeping his family in the middle of the bullet riddled neighborhood. But he is too well know as a member of the opposition and as he says "I prefer my children die beside me than apart from me". He used to be an officer in the Syrian Army until, but his brother was shot while returning home from the first protest in Khaldi and he immediately decided to defect and support the opposition.

One of the residents of Khadeiya, Homs was shot in the legs by a sniper after leaving the evening protest. After being patched up in the clinic he returned to the protest to tell his friends he is ok.

A group of UN soldiers from Romanian prepare for the day in the lobby of their hotel. The UN is increasing their numbers in Syria as an unarmed observation force.

The main square of Khadeiya is pitted with holes from mortars and explosives. At one time this square was used for organizing anti-government protests where many were originally killed.

A theater rebranding Hollywood films as skin-flicks continues running near the old city of Damascus.

Families have made a refugee camp out of an abandoned school in Homs. The only requirement is that a member of the family must have died or be in jail. This room houses three families from beside Baba Amr, Homs. After the fled the violence their houses were completely ransacked, allegedly by pro-government thugs.

To make defending their neighborhood easier the rebels have cut holes in the walls of neighboring houses. They run through the houses avoiding the snipers that shoot down the streets.

Mainly young men gather in parks in downtown Damascus, Syria. Central Damascus is relatively untouched by violence, but at night many people refuse to drive in the suburbs or the countryside out of fear of attacks by shabiha, gangs, or rebels (depending on which stories the believe).

The gutted remains of one building still stands while the rubble of a security forces building that was bombed in Damascus is hidden behind a wall. The bomb was so strong that residential housing across the highway was also knocked apart and required construction after the blast.

On fridays most of the city is closed including the famous Souq Khamadeia. While the business elite of Damascus have been tacitly supportive of Bashar recently they have been closing their shops in protest to the fighting.

One of the "Market of thieves" that have popped up beside the road selling used furniture. It's commonly believed that the furniture is looted from homes abandoned by refugees.

The sheep of a bedouin family are tied together so they can be milked in the outskirts of Damascus. They are one of the few groups doing better than normal. Since many fruits and vegetables can't be transported to the city they are being liquidated to animal farmers as feed.

Looking out across Damascus at night it is hard to tell that other parts of the country are riddled by violence between opposition and the government.

Zabadani, Syria - September 17:

A family moves to another house as the city they are leaving, Zabadani, is under bombardment. They say they aren't moving because of the danger but because of a recent marriage.

(David Degner / Getty Images)

Damascus Syria - September 19:

Fires burn near the neighborhood of Qadam In Damascus, Syria as seen from Qassioun Mountain which used to be a place to and drink coffee and refreshments, but now artillery is fired from nearby down onto the city.

The rebels say that the smoke come from the shelling of their neighborhoods and the plainclothed security man that stopped me from photographing claimed that they were tires lit by rebels to make the government look bad. Shelling was heard throughout the day.

(David Degner / Getty Images)