I almost died in Syria

I've covered wars for years, but nothing prepared me for the conflict on the ground – or in my head

Topics: Life stories, War correspondents, Syria, Journalism, Frontline, Editor's Picks, ,

I almost died in Syria A photo of the author

There’s a private bar in London whose members are nearly all war correspondents. The men and women standing at the bar could easily convince you that war reporting is one of the most exhilarating experiences that life has to offer, a gateway to the outer limits of human experience. This, of course, is absolute nonsense, and they all know it. I can tell you that because I’m frequently one of those people drinking there, and I’ve spun that line on more occasions than I care to remember.

I’ve been making documentaries in war zones on and off for the last 10 years, and I can assure you that working in a conflict zone is absolutely the most horrible, lonely and uncomfortable experience you’re ever likely to have.

But that’s easy to forget.  Within days or even hours of getting home, the bitter and complex reality of seeing a conflict close-up quickly melts into a series of increasingly honed anecdotes whose veracity I can’t quite guarantee.

The only true and abiding memory I have of the weeks and months spent in places like Helmand province in Afghanistan or a field hospital in Iraq is a vague and intangible sense of my split personality.  One part of me becomes the journalist thief, prowling in search of people and stories to turn into a film. And at the same time I’m something quite different but also connected:  a profoundly moved and thin-skinned witness to the awful extremes of human behavior.  Both sides need the other, but they pull in very different directions.

For five weeks last fall, I embarked on a new project, living on both sides of a sectarian front line in rural Syria to make a documentary for the PBS series “Frontline,” and for Channel 4 in the U.K. I filmed with Sunni rebels on one side and regime loyalists on the other as they descended into an increasingly hateful feud.

Nothing could have prepared me for the imperial-scale level of violence that I witnessed there. It was totally unprecedented in my experience. And it’s only now, reading journals and looking back at footage, that some of it is even becoming real.

A family reacts in shock after a government airstrike on the Sunni village of Al-Bara on Oct. 28, 2012.

Six months ago, I was on a bed in a Turkish hotel, a few miles from the Syrian border. I was waiting for my fixer Abdulqader to come back to the room we shared.  He has a hell of a reputation for helping journalists “get inside” (the euphemism of choice among correspondents operating in Syria).



Before that day, I’d only met him once, for just a few hours, in a hushed and somewhat secretive meeting in the corner of a hotel foyer in Istanbul.  Two hours into our second meeting, I was sat in my boxer shorts in our shared room, our beds only inches apart, and the next day we were going to try to sneak into Syria for an extended stay in possibly the world’s most dangerous war zone.  In friendship terms, it was “in at the deep end.”

I kept wondering if I should be more scared. The smugglers who were helping us cross the border were full of horror stories about their friends being killed in airstrikes, or so-and-so “disappearing near Homs.” Then there was the casual warning I’d been given:  ”There’s been a lot of shelling on the road you want to take …” It alarmed me at first, but then I caught myself wondering how much danger this last line really indicated — the road we wanted to take stretched for miles, and people were vague about when it was actually shelled.  It sounded to me then like I was being advised not to drive on a highway because there’d been a car crash there the previous week.

We crossed into Syria the next day, and it took two more to reach our filming destination: the Orontes River valley in Idlib province. It’s a beautiful stretch of Syria’s rural heartland, peaceful for generations, but now a sectarian fault line: On one side of the river, Sunni fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army hold sway. On the other side, less than a mile away, Alawite villagers remain fiercely loyal to the government, and were protected by a line of well-armed regime checkpoints.

On our second day on the rebel side, the army positions shelled the village we were living in.  The sound was almost innocuous at first — a distant pop, a pause of about 20 seconds, and then a vicious crunch as the shell landed nearby.

After the fourth explosion, we headed to the makeshift field hospital to see what had happened. As I got out of the car, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me into a rudimentary emergency room.

There on a metal gurney was an elderly man, probably mid-60s, lying on his back, his face covered in dust, and his right leg blown off at the knee, a shredded flap of skin dangling from his bloodied stump.  The medical team looked resigned, and gave me vague shrugs that I took to indicate their impotence, or their familiarity with a scene like this. I looked at the old man lying on the table in front of them. He was semi-conscious and shivering. He died a few minutes later.

The man who had brought me in pulled at my sleeve and took me into the room next door. It was completely dark.  He flicked a switch on his cigarette lighter to produce a tiny torch light, and shone its weak beam into the room to reveal two badly injured men lying in the darkness. The nearest man was making a strange, hoarse, stuttering sound that I realized was his faltering breath. The second man was reaching out to the man lying next to him, his cousin it turned out, and was saying, in Arabic, “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah.” He wanted these to be his last words.

The quiet, dark horror of the scene froze me for a moment.  I asked myself, quite deliberately, if I realized what I was looking at. I found myself slipping into that weirdly safe mental space, a kind of filming autopilot. I took the lighter from my guide’s hand, and shone the torch beam onto the men in the dark. I concentrated on keeping the camera steady. I asked the people behind me to be quiet so I could get good, clean sound of the dying man’s last words.  I told myself I could think about it later.

Outside the hospital, a truck had pulled up with three mangled corpses in the back.  A crowd had gathered around it, but a path quickly opened up and I was pushed through to film the bodies. ”Film, film,” people around me urged. It was a horrendous sight, and I flicked the camera to automatic — I didn’t trust my reactions to this.

A man was standing in the truck, holding something up for me to film. The sun was in my eyes, and I couldn’t see. Then the man slipped into silhouette, to reveal the awful outline of a severed foot, dangling there in his hand, displayed as evidence. For a few seconds, I forgot to breathe.

A rainbow forms over the Orontes River valley.

I wanted to find stories away from the violence, and three days later went to visit a group of young peace activists down in the valley. But when I arrived, a man appeared in the doorway and asked if I’d come to “film the bodies.” I was confused, and was led to the mosque next door. There on the blood-stained carpet were three shrouded corpses: a mother, I was told, and her two children. One of the bodies was painfully small. I lowered my camera to take this in, but someone tugged my arm. “Film, film!” he said.

I asked to be driven to where they’d been killed, and by the look of the crater it had probably been a mortar strike. It had landed about 3 meters from the garden patio of a small house whose walls were spattered with blood. A small boy was frantically digging in the crater to pull out bits of shrapnel.  I was told the mother and her kids had been sitting outside shelling corn, and were killed instantly. Two others were also killed nearby.

At the funeral procession, the body of a small boy was carried aloft on a piece of cardboard. I realized I was standing in a grave as men lowered in the bodies of two women. Blood trickled from the stretcher as they lifted it over the heads of the crowd. I worried that it would get on the camera.

Jamal Maarouf, seconds before being targeted in an airstrike.

By the second week, I could hardly sleep.  I lost all confidence in what I was doing. There was no privacy. I got the shits. I was bitten to pieces by mosquitoes. And I became increasingly aware of my split perspective on what I was seeing:  I’d experience total sensory and emotional overload, and then find myself thinking solely about framing or continuity, or about how this story would “work in the edit.”

It got worse.  One day, we heard we’d finally been granted an interview with Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Martyrs of Syria Brigade, the most powerful rebel faction in the region.

We were summoned to  meet him in an anonymous house in the small village of Al-Bara, and I’d only just started filming when the house shook as a regime jet flew overhead, dropping the most almighty bomb on the village.  I was standing in the doorway trying to see the plane when the blast knocked me to the ground.  It had landed 300 meters away.  Even Jamal looked shocked.

I knew immediately that filming Jamal in the aftermath of an airstrike was “a good scene,” and was scampering around thinking about exposure and focus. But at the same time, the most awful, visceral reaction was taking place. Beside the huge crater, an old sheikh urged me to film something on the ground, and then he started wobbling something in front of him, some sort of sack of jelly or meat.  And suddenly I realized what I was looking at: the remains of someone who was alive just minutes ago, killed in the most brutal and sudden of ways, lying there debased in the dust. The body was not recognizable as human.

I felt a terrible expression contort my face: I was pulling back my lower jaw and cheeks, my top teeth were bared, and my eyes were wide. I was still filming, but was aware that my face had contorted into a look of horror. The weirdest part was that I was relieved to be horrified, to be human among all this inhumanity, and not just some robot with a video camera.

While I stood there in the rubble, shouts started going up that the jet was returning to bomb a second time. I ever so slightly pissed myself. Where does one stand in a situation like this? Would the jet strike an area it had just hit, to kill rescuers and survivors? Or would it regard that as a “waste” of a bomb, and drop it somewhere else? Was that crater, in fact, the safest place for miles?

I’m sure there’s a training course somewhere that teaches what to do in that situation. Actually, I’ve probably done that course.  But right then, all I could do was run for it like everyone else.

A young boy is consoled after his grandparents appear to have been killed in a government airstrike on the Sunni village of Al-Bara on Oct. 28, 2012.

That night, I walked down to our little supermarket to buy cigarettes. The men at the counter pointed at my jeans and asked why I was so dirty. I said “al-Bara,” and pointed vaguely towards the north. I think they understood.

An old man pulled up a chair and sat right next to me while we smoked in silence. His sleeve was touching mine.  The shopkeeper came out and handed me a little bottle of orange juice. He’d opened it for me and had put in a straw. There was something about this gesture that broke me. I just looked at the ground and started crying. I didn’t try to hide it. It was the first time in a while I’d felt normal.

Olly Lambert has a decade of experience documenting life in conflict zones. His latest film, "Syria Behind the Lines," airs on the PBS investigative documentary series FRONTLINE on Tuesday, April 9 at 10 p.m. It will also be broadcast as "Syria: Across the Lines" in the UK on Channel 4 on April 17 at 10 p.m.

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