Set up to be shot in Syria’s no man’s land?
Standing outside the Safir Hotel in Homs as the white UN Nissan landcruisers stood waiting, the Irish officer in charge, Mark Reynolds, came over: “Usual rules Alex OK? We’re not responsible for you guys. If you get into trouble we’ll leave you, yes? You’re on your own.”
“Yup – no problem Mark. Understood.”
I always say that, sort of assuming it will never come to that in any case.
Just two UN plus the local police white patrol car marked “Protocol” as escort, moving south through the peaceful areas of Homs, unmarked by war.
Barely ten minutes south from the city and it’s goodbye protocol. The last Syrian Army checkpoint is right on the main highway south to Damascus.
We’re headed west – just follow the direction the tank barrel is pointing next to the parked protocol car and you get the idea.
There’s always that slight tightening of the stomach across deserted no-mans-land, but this is open country, no sign of fighting.
Presently, the first motorbike picks us up and we are across and into the first Free Syrian Army checkpoint.
After a long and dusty half-hour of tracks across olive groves, we arrive at al Qusayr, to the predictable crowd scene.
The UN settles down for a long meeting with the civilian and military leaders here. It looks much like an Afghan “shura” to me. Everyone is cross legged on the cushions around the room, except it is Turkish coffee passed round rather than chai.
We settle down to filming outside. The women and boys bring us oranges and chairs in the heat. Shell fragments are produced to be filmed. They explain how the shelling will begin again as soon as we leave – a claim which, by its nature, must remain untested, though there is certainly extensive shell damage in some parts of town here.
So we while away the time, waiting for the UN to move – they’re the only way across the lines with any degree of safety of course.
But time drags. Our deadline begins to loom. And there’s this really irritating guy who claims to be from “rebel intelligence” and won’t quite accept that we have a visa from the government.
In his book foreign journos are people smuggled in from Lebanon illegally and that’s that. We don’t fit his profile.
He and his mates are making things difficult for our driver and translator too – their Damascus IDs and our Damascus van reg are not helping.
This is new. Different. Hostile. This is not like Homs or Houla and still the UN meeting drags on in the hot afternoon…
We decide to ask for an escort out the safe way we came in. Both sides, both checkpoints will remember our vehicle.
Set up to be shot?
Suddenly four men in a black car beckon us to follow. We move out behind.
We are led another route. Led in fact, straight into a free-fire zone. Told by the Free Syrian Army to follow a road that was blocked off in the middle of no-man’s-land.
At that point there was the crack of a bullet and one of the slower three-point turns I’ve experienced. We screamed off into the nearest side-street for cover.
There was no option but to drive back out onto the sniping ground and floor it back to the road we’d been led in on.
Predictably the black car was there which had led us to the trap. They roared off as soon as we re-appeared.
I’m quite clear the rebels deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army. Dead journos are bad for Damascus.
That conviction only strengthened half an hour later when our four friends in the same beaten-up black car suddenly pulled out of a side-street, blocking us from the UN vehicles ahead.
The UN duly drove back past us, witnessed us surrounded by shouting militia, and left town.
Eventually we got out too and on the right route, back to Damascus.
Please, do not for one me moment believe that my experience with the rebels in al Qusair was a one-off.
This morning I received the following tweet:
“@alextomo I read your piece “set up to be shot in no mans land”, I can relate as I had that same experience in Al Zabadani during our tour.”
That was from Nawaf al Thani, who is a human rights lawyer and a member of the Arab League Observer mission to Syria earlier this year.
It has to make you wonder who else has had this experience when attempting to find out what is going on in rebel-held Syria.
In a war where they slit the throats of toddlers back to the spine, what’s the big deal in sending a van full of journalists into the killing zone?
It was nothing personal.
Follow @alextomo on Twitter.