Turned back in Daraa

The Syrian army blocked Al Jazeera's correspondent from entering the southern city of Daraa, site of unprecedented protests, &quotfor his own safety&quot.

    Sometimes the best video in the eyes of the Syrian government is no video at all.

    On Tuesday, we had covered the pro-government protests in downtown Damascus: with no difficulty whatsoever.

    But as Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, was expected to speak on Wednesday we decide to drive to Daraa  - the town where the anti-government protests began a week ago - but the road wasn't all smooth sailing.

    Two heavy machine guns, protected by sand bags sat in the middle of the road: pre-sited, markers along the road had been painted: a clear sign that the army was taking their own security seriously.

    As we approached they waved us to pull to the side of the road. We presented our IDs (passports, etc) – and we are accredited journalists - we should have permission to travel where we like, when we like.

    The drive of roughly 100km went smoothly until we entered the city of Daraa. The outer ring of security (the Syrian army) was no problem at all. They glanced into our car and waved us through quickly. But as we approached the centre of the city it was immediately clear that the situation was different than the government was presenting.

    The back and forth conversation continued as our IDs were taken off – the army was working their radios. In an attempt to show the army that we expected no trouble I stepped out of the car and started chatting with some of the soldiers.

    “You are welcome,” they said: a common phrase you hear in English from time to time in Syria. I looked around and noticed that no one was on the streets. It looked like a ghost town. 

    Our IDs suddenly returned: with a stern warning. “We are not allowing any press into the city” said a top-ranking official. When we inquired as to why - “for your own safety” came the answer. “We’re not even letting state television into the city today.”

    “Where is everybody?” our senior producer asked in Arabic. The answer came back immediately, “Obviously they are inside … watching the president’s speech.”

    “You need to go now,” they said: “Back to Damascus."

    As we got back in the car I noticed that one of the soldiers had said something to our driver. I wondered what was said, as I could not understand the quick speaking Arabic. “He told him: we have your ID - we know your license plates - if you don’t return directly to Damascus...well…it will not be good for you.”

    Later in the evening I spoke to one of Al Jazeera's presenters, Adrian Finnegan and he asked me a question: “You’ve been in Syria reporting for many years: what did you make of the high level of security?”

    I explained it to him like this: “Two years ago I did a combat patrol with the Syrian army along the Iraqi border. There were less weapons and firepower on that trip than I saw today in Daraa.”


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