After Doubts Grow, A Regime Backer Flees Syria

Published February 8, 2012 6:54AM (EST)

CAIRO (AP) — Younes al-Yousef rarely goes outside in Cairo, fearful that even here someone will recognize him and word will get back to Damascus. He stays in a simple, rented apartment with his wife and children, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and watching TV for the latest from the homeland he fled, Syria.

Al-Yousef is waiting for the fall of a regime that he once believed in. He served as a cog in its machine, as a cameraman for a pro-government television station that showed Syrians "the reality" of the uprising.

"I was a supporter and I benefited from the regime, I can't deny it," the 35-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview in his apartment. "I tell you the truth, I was with the regime heart and soul."

But he said that as he watched security forces blast towns where protesters took to the streets to demand the ouster of President Bashar Assad, he could no longer believe the line he was helping bring to the public, that "terrorists" were tearing apart the country.

He expressed his doubts to a colleague. Then, fearing retaliation, he packed up his family and fled the country.

Al-Yousef's account of his experiences could not be independently confirmed, given the chaos in Syria and the limitations put on journalists by the government.

But his story gives a glimpse into how the regime has used one of its most powerful tools on the home front, the media, to keep the broader public on its side as it faces the greatest internal challenge in 40 years of rule by the Assad family.

Since protests began in March, the government has insisted they were not a popular uprising like those that toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt but the work of terrorists and armed groups in a foreign-backed plot to tear Syria apart. For Syrians watching the influential pro-regime media, this has been the cause of the daily bloodshed.

The message resonates among Syrians who have been taught for years that the Assads' secular, nationalist rule is what keeps the country together. There is particularly fear among minorities — the Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, and Christians — that Sunni Muslim fundamentalists will take over and retaliate against them. Even among the Sunni majority, which has been the backbone of the uprising, some fear the country will be torn apart if Assad goes.

Al-Yousef says he never had any reason to doubt the government's version.

Before the uprising, he had a store selling camera equipment in Kfar Takharim, a town amid hills of olive groves in the northwestern province of Idlib, near the Turkish border. He did video work, filming weddings. He had good relationships with local officers in the security apparatus, a necessity for anyone trying to get ahead.

He occasionally did video work for the Dunya satellite TV station, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and one of Syria's wealthiest men. His work for the station alongside its local Idlib correspondent picked up when the uprising began.

He said he would see demonstrations in the area but wouldn't film them because he knew the channel didn't want that. The protests were put down by security forces with tear gas and clubs.

It wasn't until May that he encountered shootings. There was a giant demonstration in the city of Idlib, the provincial capital, and al-Yousef said he heard gunfire and saw ambulances wailing by. Later, locals told him security forces had killed a dozen people.

"It was understood that those people are saboteurs, terrorists," he said. "That was our idea about them, and the journalist or correspondent was like a security officer in his relationship with the security services and the army."

As time went on, the protests grew larger and more frequent. Al-Yousef said that when he and the Dunya correspondent would hear about a planned demonstration, they would show up early to film it when only a few dozen people had arrived and use that footage even if it grew larger later on.

Then came the siege of Jisr el-Shughour, a town just over the hills from the Turkish border that in June rose up and virtually drove out regime police. Several dozen soldiers and police joined protesters in the town, the first significant instance of armed defectors siding with the uprising. Regime forces responded with a heavy siege.

The days of heavy fighting that lasted until the regime retook the town gave the small-town wedding videographer his first real look at such violence. It rattled him.

"People got killed and I saw dead bodies. I wasn't used to that. So I started wondering how that happened," he said.

At one point, he entered the town to get some of his relatives out. He found it nearly empty of people, but intact. A few days later, the security services brought him in to film. He found destruction everywhere.

"The city was a wasteland, stores had been burnt and smashed," he said. He asked a security officer what happened. The officer said gunmen and terrorists had attacked the town. "We believed what he said."

But his suspicions grew. Each time he was taken into town, he would film pro-regime "residents" — mostly brought in from outside town. When the security forces took him to film mass graves they said were full of people killed by the terrorists, al-Yousef was convinced that they were faked — saying he recognized bodies that were dug twice out of different locations.

"This is when I started thinking about a conspiracy. I hadn't seen any gunmen or terrorists and I was hearing army officers tell me that we came here because of gunmen and terrorists," he said. "So where is the conspiracy that you kept telling us about, the big conspiracy against Syria?"

In August, he decided that he couldn't go on with the job. He told the Dunya correspondent; they argued and parted ways. He soon heard that the correspondent told the authorities he was helping the terrorists.

On Sept. 2, he took his wife, Fatima, and two kids, aged 2 and 3, across the border to Turkey. They left so fast they barely carried more than the clothes they were wearing.

While in Turkey, a security official he knew back home contacted him and tried to coax him back, saying nothing would happen to him. He didn't believe him. Twice, Syrians he didn't know in Turkey tried to meet him. He shunned them, fearing they would kidnap him.

He moved on to Cairo in late October, and he says the efforts to get him back to Syria have continued. He said he frequently receives phone calls from Syrians who want to meet him. One recently said he had brought him money from his brother, but his brother had never heard of the man, al-Yousef said.

"If the want to get me, they'll get me. It's an issue of revenge now," he said.

With his savings running out, he struggles to pay rent with support his family sends him.

He thinks about Syria all the time, he said. He's convinced Assad will eventually fall.

"Before, we had no one in Syria who dared to call for freedom," he said. "The people will not go back. It's impossible for them to go back."

By Salon Staff

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