It’s the dawn of my third and final ‘Protest Friday’ in Syria. I am sat at the beach in Latakia with friends, but right now I have found a few moments on my own. I sit on a plastic chair by the edge of the Mediterranean and let the sea stroke my feet. In a few short hours, we will need the respite granted by the shade, from the burning heat. Right now it’s a beautiful setting; the place where troubled issues are worked through, but mine are still in the womb of my mind.
I am interrupted by Yossef, a 19 year-old wire-thin party animal. Stoned and pissed beyond any level of a controlled mind, he forms disjointed sentences in a mix of Arabic, Russian and English. He is talking something about being ‘good people’. I have to leave and sleep.
Almost immediately after setting off in the minibus, we see the row of anti-aircraft guns pointing menacingly at the sky. I jokingly suggest I take a photo of them. The response is a chorus of “No!” Yet, I don’t need to photo them. The power they exude, the wide openings from which the rockets would shoot into the air are imprinted on my mind. I can easily imagine the heavy thudding as each missile is spat out. These guns could be used to shoot down airmen from Britain: my home country.
Over the past few days, an uneasy feeling has been creeping over me like a dark shadow. I am in a very rare and very uncomfortable position: I love the country, which my country is preparing to go into battle against.
“We are not fighting against the Syrian people,” my government tells us. “Our battle is with the Syrian government and its president.” But after three weeks in Syria talking to people from all sides and a stream of emails from friend in the country prior to my visit, I know for certain the overwhelming vast majority of Syrians want their president to remain – at least for the next few years.
Is British Intelligence so completely mis-informed about Syria that the intelligence it has on the country is so inaccurate it is meaningless, or is the British government lying to the British people?
And what is the media’s role in all of this? News reports tell us that western journalists can’t get into Syria, so its difficult to find out what is really going on. Yet CNN reporters have been here for such a long time. I am not a journalist, but I strolled into the country bold as brass through the arrivals lounge of Damascus airport whilst pulling my little suitcase on wheels.
The Sue Lloyd Roberts report that inspired my Protest Friday articles tells of a Syria that I certainly do not recognise nor have witnessed in the 18 days I spent travelling through the country. I am not the only one who thinks the BBC’s reporting is unfair. Throughout Syria, the people show their opinion of the western media, including Al Jazeera and the BBC, with anti-media graffiti. How could the BBC get it so wrong?
We need to have the people tell the news rather than them being told the news. What is my role in this? Am I the guy to take the lead? Am I just an arrogant fool to think I am worthy to be even considered?
I am sat next to Jossef in the minibus. For the second time that morning, he interrupts my ramblings and once again, I am grateful to him. He talks about the photos taken during my stay. We discuss transferring them from all the different cameras so that we all have everything. He keeps nodding. He is still pissed and stoned. I can see the deep pink around the large round tired eyes.
In the afternoon, after a few hours sleep, I take a wander through Latakia to look for protests or even just signs of tension. I tell my friends where I am going and, as before, they tell me to be careful. They are more afraid of their cities than I am.
This is my Protest Friday routine, but this Friday I feel different. Unlike other Fridays, I want to prove Sue Lloyds Roberts right. I want my government to be right, because the alternative – that my government is mis-informed or is lying to its people – is not something I really want to have proven to me. I don’t think anyone would, when it comes down to it. Yet to find a reason to pass the UN resolution and go into battle for the hearts and minds of the Syrians is not what I want to do either.
Right now, I need my late friend Marwan. He died this year; not from the fighting, but from an asthma attack. He was 37. His loud and sometimes boorish tomfoolery would have been the perfect antidote to my heavy, troublesome mind. I find myself wandering to all the old haunts that mean some thing about Marwan to me. They include areas in the city of poverty and current tension. I spend some minutes in private homage to Marwan. I end my journey sitting at the old man cafe where we would keep each other company. Now I am with off-duty soldiers seated on tables either side of me.
In the evening, my friends and I all meet in Mena café. It’s my last night in Syria. Laptops, camera and mobile phones are spread everywhere. Photos and mobile phone videos are transferred through bluetooth. Memory cards, some as small as a fingernail, are inserted into camera after camera, the data they hold is copied time after time. It’s like a modern version of Chinese whispers, but where the original version is maintained. How easy it would be for Western media to smuggle out the truth. I have offered them my video footage and photos, but the standard reply is: “We don’t have the time to show them.” – I have emails and voice recordings to prove this fact!
As its the end of the day, we get the reports and gossips of conflicts that have taken place that day throughout the country. It all feels as if Syria is holding the World Conflict Competition. The games are being played Homs, Hama, Damascus, Daara, and a town I cant pronounce that lies somewhere near the Turkish border. Numbers come in from both sides: The count of those dead and injured. Nothing much went on in Latakia. Some scuffles. I didn’t see anything. It’s the same-old, same old story: Nothing to report, Western media. Nothing to report.