When FRONTLINE filmmaker Olly Lambert sat to interview Jamal Maarouf, a Syrian rebel commander, he did not anticipate that bombs from government jets would begin to fall just 300 meters away.
Though the first blast knocked him to the ground, Lambert kept his camera rolling. He spent the next hour documenting the impacts of the Oct. 28, 2012 bombing of al-Bara, a village in Idlib province an hour south of Aleppo. The result is a rare, immersive portrait of the immediate aftermath of Syrian government air strikes on a civilian population.
Assad; who do you think you are?
The Syrian national ID card includes its holder’s ancestral name and “place of origin,” i.e., the neighborhood and city most closely associated with his or her family name. Before the uprising, the ID card caused the kind of minor travel-related annoyances we’re accustomed to in the West. But in the past 20 months, the ID card has become a potent tool for profiling and weeding out suspected members of the opposition. If you get stopped at a checkpoint, being from a rebel city or neighborhood can mean the difference between life and death. And while an individual’s religion isn’t blatantly listed on the ID, most officials can make a pretty good guess about a citizen’s sect based on the information.
Syria has a long history of using citizenship restrictions to decide who’s in and who’s out. In 1962, the state arbitrarily revoked the citizenship of 120,000 Kurds. These Kurds and their descendants were all considered ajanib (stateless) until last May. Ajanib are not permitted to marry, own cars, rent houses, or possess national IDs. Below the ajanib are the maktoumeen (hidden)—those who live in stateless limbo, unable to leave Syria legally but also forbidden from getting a job.
After oppressing the separatist Kurds for decades, three weeks after the uprising Assad issued an amnesty, giving them full citizenship. This conspicuously timed move was a cynical political bid to keep the armed Kurds from allying with the opposition. It worked; the Kurds have become a third position of sorts, quietly laying the foundations for their own autonomous Kurdish revolution in the North while the FSA and the regime slaughter each other.
Even if you’re not against the regime, your ID can be used to punish you if you don’t take good care of it. This fall, the regime released 267 people from prison who had been found with broken ID cards. In recent months, a firebrand Syrian sheikh has been calling for Syrians to break their ID cards to protest the regime. One man told Agence France-Presse that he had been on his way home when security forces stopped him and found his ID card broken. Another unlucky soul told AFP, “They beat me and forced me to confess that I was following the sheikh’s instructions, which I didn’t know existed.” When these Syrians were released, their heads were shaved, and they bore signs of torture. The lesson is to take good care of your driver’s license, especially if you live under a paranoid-schizophrenic wartime regime.
POSTSCRIPT: MARIE COLVIN, 1956-2012
It is not yet clear if the Syrian government deliberately targeted the building in which Colvin and Ochlik, and a number of other journalists, were working. (The Times described it as a “makeshift media center.”) At least three other journalists were apparently injured in the same attack. All this suggests that the Assad regime may have begun a direct assault on the media, though that remains unclear. Many of the foreign reporters filing from Syria have done so after sneaking across the border.
Colvin would be the first to demand that we concentrate less on her own death than on the outrage of the Syrian Army, under the command of a tyrant too often described as a “mild-mannered” eye doctor, slaughtering its own people. And it is all being carried out with arms and diplomatic cover from Vladimir Putin.
Like Shadid, Colvin devoted her life—and gave her life—for the proposition that the truth of history demands witnesses. Her death, like Shadid’s, like that of so many others, is yet another reminder, as if any more were needed, that experience in the field is no shelter from disaster. In November 2010, at St. Bride’s Church in London, Colvin was one of the speakers at a service called Truth At All Costs to honor the hundreds of journalists who have died in war zones over the years. The Duchess of Cornwall was there. As ever, Colvin spoke best for herself as she described the essential place of war reporting and the inner calculus of risk. Here are a few paragraphs, but I would hope you will read it all:
Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen, I am honored and humbled to be speaking to you at this service tonight to remember the journalists and their support staff who gave their lives to report from the war zones of the twenty-first century. I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling.
Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction, and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.
Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defense or the Pentagon, and all the sanitized language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children.
Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?