NPR’s Deborah Amos has been covering the uprising in Syria since it began more than a year ago. Like other foreign reporters, she has had to cover much of the conflict from afar because the Syrian government has only rarely granted visas. She has just returned to Syria for the first time since last fall and sent this dispatch:
The Lebanese border officials passed around my American passport. “A Syrian visa?” They all gathered to have a look. This was the first sign that much has changed since my last visit to Syria in October, 2011. It’s a short drive from the Lebanese border to the Syrian passport control office. Here, the changes included new propaganda tacked to the walls. One poster featured a hairy man with pointed ears looming over Syria. A Star of David is on his hat. It’s part of the Syrian government’s narrative that Israel is one of the partners in an international conspiracy fueling the 15-month uprising in the country.
The highway into the Syrian capital was almost empty. But our journey was interrupted by six military checkpoints on the road to Damascus. This was also new and a sign of the jitters in the capital. For months, Damascus seemed to be in a bubble, with no signs of the rebellion wracking the rest of the country, but no longer. The sounds of violence come with sunset. There is fighting most nights in the suburbs surrounding the city.
“The army controls in daylight, the Free Syrian Army controls the night,” as one activist explained.
It seems that everything is now more difficult and more expensive. Residents complain that cooking gas has disappeared from the market. The price of food is rising and more people are out of work. There are long lines to buy “pay as you go” cell phones. One company dropped the service all together; another required more security information and a longer time to activate the line. The Syrian rebellion is also a communications war. Cell phones are a weapon for activists who document the uprising with phone cameras and organize by text message. Despite the near saturation advertising around the city to entice new customers to buy cells phones, it’s harder than ever to get one.
At the Ministry of Information, there was another surprise. Journalists must stop in at the ministry soon after arrival to arrange interviews with government officials and get an assigned government escort-translator.
“Can I interview the merchants on strike,” I asked, referring to the unprecedented closure of shops in the market at the heart of the capital.
The merchants closed their doors to protest the massacres in the town of Houla where more than 100 people died, including women and children. Syria’s business community has sided with the regime for 15 months, at least in public. The strike seemed to be the first crack in that support.
“Those are just the troublemakers,” I was told, a confirmation rather than a denial.
“You can say ‘before Houla,’ and ‘after Houla'” explained an activist who asked that his name not be revealed for fear of arrest. The brutal killings have focused Syrians of the dangerous spiral in the country, he said. “We have to admit that there are some areas that are already living the civil war.”