Recently I spent five days in Syria, arranging and overseeing an interview with President Bashar Assad for Fox News Channel. The interview, seen around the world, included Assad’s admission that Syria did indeed have a large stock of chemical weapons and that his country had joined the international agreement to prevent weapons of mass destruction.
There was a good deal more to the trip, however, than what ended up on television, particularly what we saw and heard on the road to Damascus.
Well over 100,000 plus people have died in the fighting in Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Instead of a number, imagine a sold out football stadium, and a big part of its parking lot full of people, and there’s your image.
The interview with Assad and Fox News’ Greg Palkot and Fox News contributor and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich had all the trappings of any high-level event. It took place at a palace with lots of security and special cars to whisk us in and out of trouble. But on the ground, with the rest of Syria, here’s some of what we witnessed.
As we crossed the border into Syria from Lebanon, a Syrian soldier warned us, what to look out for. “My brother was kidnapped a few weeks ago” he said. “He’s a cab driver. They asked for ransom, we collected the money and turned it over, and they brought my brother back in a bag, with his head cut off.”
As we were still absorbing the horror of his tragic tale, another man jumped in to tell us about the videotape he watched, of a terrorist, standing over his victim, eating the man’s heart. “Be careful,” he warned.
Lebanon and Turkey are filled with those who have managed to escape from the violence in Syria.
At a Dunkin Donuts in Beirut, a very young Syrian boy ran up as we sipped iced coffee. He had a very primitive shoe shine kit and was pressing hard to clean shoes and make a little money. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat, and his hands were filthy because he didn’t have the whole kit, just a bad brush, one rag and a box.
A translator told us that he and his six siblings had just arrived from Syria, after both their parents were killed when their home was bombed.
He inhaled the two donuts we bought him.
Driving through Damascus, you see and hear a little bit of everything. Babies in strollers being pushed under billboards with holes from the shelling. Subwoofers booming at annoying levels, interrupted only by the outgoing and incoming bombs that sound a lot like the subwoofers.
When it’s quiet in Damascus, the markets fill with desperate people trying to buy bread, and fresh vegetables, or gasoline ... at two to five times the price we pay here. And with far less available cash.
At the hotels, which are largely vacant, the staff is careful to put you in rooms nowhere near the front door. -- You never know when the next truck bomb is being delivered.
Checkpoints make navigating the streets of Damascus a rush-hour-like nightmare all day long.
There are so many guns visible, that over time, the broken walls and windows, the barbed wire, sandbags and damaged cars, all become part of what passes for normal.
It’s the Old City living through a new war.
One cab driver told us that the vehicle of choice is a mini-van, because it can fit a lot of passengers and luggage, or, when necessary, the seats slide out and you can slide in and stack up lot of body bags. “You can use the roof, too.” Minivan or hearse, depending on the day.
One last moment that sticks in my mind: a mother of four, holding up her new baby for my cell phone camera. “Take a picture of my baby, my baby” she begged. “Show them we are here.”
The Assad interview made the headlines. What’s harder to forget are the nearly invisible women and men and children, trying desperately to live in a war zone.
Michael Clemente is Executive Vice President for Fox News Channel. He traveled to Syria and Lebanon as part of the Fox News team that interviewed President Assad in September.