You don’t have to have visited Syria to be horrified by ‘Syria: Across the Lines’
Rarely has a piece of salad served as a symbol of friendship, especially not a limp and watery lettuce. As a gesture, however, the leafy home-grown green presented to my friend Richard by an elder among a large family of Syrians during our holiday to their country a couple of years ago has stuck in our minds as one of the kindest and most generous of gifts.
We were visiting the ruins of Al-Bara, just one among hundreds of ancient settlements known as the Dead Cities of Syria, which have attracted tourists and archaeologists to the country for centuries. Having survived Crusader conquest and Muslim invasion, Al-Bara’s homes were eventually abandoned after an earthquake in the 12th century, leaving its small pyramid-roofed tombs and low limestone walls to be overgrown for centuries by bushes and trees. Hundreds of years later, a new town of the same name sprung up alongside the historical monument, and modern inhabitants began using the peaceful, grassy remains of their Byzantine predecessors’ village as a location for summer picnics and family celebrations.
It was while wandering among the ruins with our backpacks and our cameras on a day trip from Aleppo that we came across the family, who were excited to meet us and quickly invited us to join them on their rugs for some cups of tea and a lunchtime chat in their remarkably good English. They showed us photos of a recent wedding, and the boys talked to us about football; after hearing that one of them liked Manchester United, I asked him he had heard of my team, Tottenham Hotspur. “Gareth Bale!” he cried, unaware of how pleased it made me to know that even in rural outposts of the Middle East, little kids had heard of our star player.
All too soon we had to leave to meet our minicab driver for the next stage of our trip, but before we could the father among the group insisted that he give us something, anything, to take away with us – and with limited means that something was a lettuce. I took a photo of the occasion, ostensibly ridiculous but in our minds quite moving, which in the past two years has made me and Rich chuckle fondly.
It was this photo, and this happy memory, that came back into my mind last week when I stumbled upon one the most shocking passages of film I have yet seen emerge from the Syrian civil war, which was just a couple of weeks old when we took our ill-timed holiday. The film, which forms part of Olly Lambert’s documentary, Syria: Across the Lines, which airs on Channel 4 tonight, shows the brutal effects of a bombing assault carried out by President Bashar al-Assad’s jets, all captured in real time – from the thundering arrival of the aircraft, to the bodies being pulled from the resultant rubble amid the crying and shouting of civilians, to the realisation that the planes are coming back to inflict yet more death. It was only after a couple of minutes that I recognised the name of the town being attacked: Al-Bara.
You don’t have to have visited Syria to be horrified by Lambert’s footage and his brave film-making. The tragically visceral images and his commentary have the ability to move anyone. But I had often wondered over the past two years what had become of the people I had met – of the kids who rode amongst the ruins on their motorbikes, the women who tended for the children playing with innocence yet to be corrupted by conflict and heartbreak, and the man who gave us that lettuce. I hope they were unharmed, but I can only hope. Who knows? Lambert himself is unable to say. All I know is that the uncertainty of their fate after their warmth to us on that holiday is so very sad. And if they survived, it only means other innocents have died in their place. A horrible thought.
There has been plenty of admirable and essential reporting from the cities of Syria that have come under attack – first Homs, then Aleppo, and now Damascus. Yet there are hundreds of small villages and towns like Al-Bara that can barely be accessed by the international media. Beyond the occasional headline that one of them has seen a horrific massacre, sending the names of small conurbations like Houla into the headlines, we hear little of what is happening in places like this. Many of them may have been abandoned by the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to other parts of the country or left altogether. But the Syrian countryside is surely fast seeing a new series of dying villages pockmarking its landscape alongside the Dead Cities.
Lambert tells me that some of the villagers of Al-Bara still spend afternoons out in the ruins, but now it’s not for pleasure and picnics, but to minimise the chances of being killed by a tank or an airstrike.
“I often drove on the road near Al-Bara, and there was a family who were trying to build a very basic house amongst the olive groves, far away from the village centre, as it would make it less likely to be bombed,” he says. “The whole family would be there day after day, watching or working as the men dug foundations. It was all very tragic.
“Other people who feared the bombings and shelling had taken cover in the old Ottoman caves that lie underneath many of the houses in the area. I visited a few – some had been occupied for so many months that they had carpets laid down, even a TV in one.”
He too knows what the place was like before the war came – and that these people, with whom in the West we have only become familiar through TV screens while covered in blood or carrying guns, did not deserve this.
“I had been there before, in 2011, on holiday,” Lambert says. “Syria was and still is a wonderfully hospitable place. The people were so hospitable that it became almost an occupational hazard – everywhere we went, we were invited in for tea or coffee or a meal. For the first few days I got very little done, and spent most of my time sitting on plastic chairs drinking sweet tea.”
He adds: “The day after the air strikes on Al-Bara I went back and it was almost deserted. Nearly all the shops were locked up, and the streets were almost empty. It was a ghost town, basically. The scale of the hit had really freaked people out. They’d had mortars and shelling, and there had been reports of barrel bombs and cluster bombs, and also helicopter strafing, but nothing on the scale of those two hits.
“The sad thing was that many people there were refugees, and most were living in the houses that had been vacated by others who had left in search of safety. I was left with this horrid image of crowds of people just moving like packs in search of somewhere they stood some chance of survival.
The really horrible thing about that air strike was that it was clear that the jet was “doing the rounds” in the area. While I was filming, calls were coming in about air strikes all over Jebel Azawiya. But they go largely unreported.
“When I was at the scene, people were just all over me, grabbing me and asking me to film this or that. My arm was constantly being tugged. At one point, an hand had been pulling and pulling at me while I was filming, and it was infuriating. When I finally turned to see what the guy wanted, he was standing at my side, frantically pointing at a headless corpse that was lying next to us.”
As isolated as places like Al-Bara were even before the war, Syria’s delicate tourism industry was just beginning to let more people like me visit these places. Now, it is only a handful of reporters like Lambert from the outside world who are visiting them. Let us dwell not only on the cities that are suffering, but also on the many bombs of the Syrian civil war falling unseen on these largely unknown villages.
‘Syria: Across the Lines’ will be shown at 10pm on Channel 4 on Wednesday 17 April 2013
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