It was one week ago Friday when clashes broke out near the main mosque in the old city of Damascus. And while we have permission from the president’s office to film around the city, the security apparatus in this country is so extensive, it often operates independently without the knowledge of those at the top
You may have permission, but still end up being detained. With all the recent detentions, and warnings from the US state department and governments of other countries, we did not want to take our large camera out in the city on such a day.
Looking around the square outside our hotel this morning, it was clear. The secret police were not being so secret, standing on every corner in groups of eight to ten.
Myself and Afaf, our senior producer who runs the team here in Damascus, decided to dress like tourists. I took off my dress shirt and coat, and put on a beach t-shirt that I bought in Brazil some years ago. I took my long lens camera and stuffed it into a small bag containing what any ordinary tourist would have. We hopped in a cab and off we went.
Within the first few minutes, we could tell this was no ordinary day in Damascus. Not that any day has been ordinary in the past week, but this one seemed especially strange, as if a dark cloud was hanging over the entire city.
The first sign of trouble was spotted on the edge of the old city. Men, grouped in dozens, stood on the side of the street holding wooden batons. They were dressed in plain clothes but had the look of Syrian secret police. Even in a crowd it’s usually easy to spot secret police. Sometimes the radio is a dead give away, although this group seemed to make some attempt to blend in - aside from the wooden implements of destruction, of course.
We made our way to a coffee shop near to the mosque and waited for the call to prayer. We sat and sipped coffee talking about what a nice day it was. Everyone around you is always listening here, and it’s clear that the secret police were already onto us.
Once the call to prayer was over, we started walking the old streets of the souq. At one point I noticed we were being followed, so we ducked into a souvenir shop. They didn’t buy it, waiting for us around the next corner. So we doubled back on the mosque using one of the many narrow alleyways.
As we approached the main square that lies in front of the mosque, we could hear the faint sound of chanting. As we came around the corner we saw a few hundred people gathered tightly together chanting pro-Assad slogans. It was clear that this demonstration was pre-planned and was happening right in front of the throngs of secret police.
I managed to snap off a couple of quick pictures. Occasionally, Afaf would step in front of me to give the appearance I was taking a picture of her. I managed to get a few snaps of some of the uniformed security guards - without them noticing and shutting our mini-trip down.
We wanted to get a better view - and perhaps some other pictures - so we walked all the way around the mosque to the other side of the protest. As soon as we got to the other side, I took out my camera. Before I could even lift it to my face, three pairs of hands grabbed it, and myself, saying: “No, no pictures.”
They tried to wrestle the camera from my hands but I managed to pull it back, saying I was a tourist, that I was sorry for the trouble.
“No trouble,” they said. “But no pictures here.”
“You go now please," they said. So we walked towards the protest and I jammed the camera back in my bag. We walked the perimeter of the protest and I standed there looking at Afaf, the mosque, Afaf, the mosque ... trying to get the police to lose interest in us.
It was at that point when a colleague from another network (which will remain nameless for their safety) came up to us. A few quick jokes were exchanged at which point he noted the situation was getting "a bit dodgy”. We agreed. He said he had a car stashed down one of the back alleys and off we went.
Back to the hotel in one piece. They’re not tremendous photos but what can you expect in Syria? Even when you have permission to film, this is a place where you’re better off acting like a tourist.