Over a decade ago I read an article by a writer who took a journey by train from Istanbul to Damascus. The story really stuck with me, creating a mystical view of Syria in my mind; from the warm, and hospitable people to wandering the souks of Aleppo and the ancient streets of Damascus Old Town. I didn’t get around to visiting before the war broke out, but in the years since I’d heard similar tales from others who had visited, of an incredibly welcoming place packed full of history at every turn.
As time went by and I gradually travelled to all of the neighbouring countries in the region, I slowly started to wonder despite the current conflict if visiting Syria was at all viable. Were there any areas safe enough? I had no immediate plans to travel there; at first it was just an idea floating around in my head and I enjoyed the challenge of trawling the internet, reading security reports and chasing down leads and potential fixers. The more I looked into it though, the more it became an obsession. It was an obsession I couldn’t really explain. Working in this particular industry, there were business reasons for wanting to visit but it’s the most dangerous country on earth and war has been raging all across for over half a decade. Why would anyone want to visit a warzone? How could I possibly justify it to friends and family? I thought about it long and hard and realised the only people that would understand it are those who have the same passion for offbeat travel. It wasn’t the war that was attracting me. It was the total sense of the unknown. Travellers of old would venture into uncharted territories, totally unaware of what lay ahead. Now that travel has become so easy and accessible, it is slowly starting to lose that old sense of wonder and intrigue. When looking into Syria though it was stirring up all these emotions for me. I didn’t want to go and stand on the front line and partake in War tourism. I was just genuinely intrigued as to how the people were surviving there and what stories they had to tell. Could these reasons justify my urge to visit? Maybe not but I’d already made up my mind.
I then started the long process of figuring out how exactly I could get in. Other than illegally smuggling myself over the border the only realistic options left were crossing from Northern Iraq into Kurdish Syria or coming in from Lebanon and taking the relatively short journey from Beirut to Damascus. The Iraq option was initially the most promising. I knew the KRG region well and had a contact who could set up a fixer to meet me on the Syrian side of the border. Eventually though I gave up on this avenue. As well as the visa being problematic for non-journalists, the safety in this part of the country was simply too unpredictable. And on top of this, although the rise of the Kurdish state in Rojava is an incredibly important subject, as a whole it’s not the most interesting part of the country.
I decided to focus on Damascus. Despite the war still raging in the suburbs of the city, the old town had always remained relatively unaffected, and by all accounts life there had begun to return to a level of normality. The road to the Lebanese border, being the capital’s only real lifeline to the outside world had now been heavily secured by government forces.
In August 2016 I was finally able to track down a contact in Damascus. He was someone who had previously worked in the tourism industry but after the outbreak of war had switched to fixing trips for journalist. We spent time chatting on the phone, going over in fine detail the crisis and the constantly changing safety situation. After a couple of weeks of calls, emails and WhatsApp messages, it was finally agreed. I was going to Syria.
The date was set for January 2017. The visa application went in and the following weeks were spent reading up on the fluid situation over there and poring over security reports and maps daily. The few days prior to my scheduled visit, the nerves started to kick in. I started to question again why I was going and was it really worth it? Could I really be sure that I’d be safe? The day got closer and doubts continued to race through my mind and even by the time I reached Beirut, I was asking myself should I cancel.
That decision was then taken out of my hands, as the day before I was due to enter, I learned my visa had been rejected. The fear and doubts about the trip dissipated quickly but were replaced by a strong sense of disappointment that something I’d been planning for over a year had fallen through at the last hurdle.
I left it a couple of months and then decided to try one more time with the visa application. Realistically I thought it would be rejected again so I didn’t have high hopes but then in mid May, I got a call to say it had been approved. Last minute flights were booked and off I went, back to Beirut. The day before I flew out I’d read a report of a journalist who’d recently done the exact same journey as I was doing. He talked about sleepless nights in the lead up to his visit. As things had happened so quickly this time, I didn’t have time to worry about anything.
Arriving in Beirut, I was picked up at the airport and we headed East. We drove along familiar roads, into Hezbollah territory that I’d visited previously when travelling to the Roman ruins at Baalbek. As we got close to the ancient Lebanese city of Anjar we turned off and took the short journey to the border.
In years past, this border would have been packed but nowadays there was barely any traffic and just a handful of people crossing. After the questioning at Beirut airport (have you been to Israel? Are you sure you haven’t been to Israel? Why are you coming to Lebanon?), the simplicity of this land border crossing was quite unbelievable. No questions about why I was going to Syria, just a quick stamp in the passport and waved on my way. Exactly the same on the Syrian side. Visa papers displayed, passport handed over and 2 minutes later I’m told “Welcome to Syria” as my passport along with fresh Syrian stamp is handed back to me.
I now had a hour long drive to the Damascus to deal with. Reports from a couple of years earlier had described this 65 km stretch of road as the Cannonball Run. Drivers had to keep their foot to the floor for the entire length of the road to avoid snipers, car bombs and everything else in between. Despite assurances otherwise it was difficult to get the thoughts out of my head. The adrenaline soon started rushing as my eyes darted around constantly scanning the roadside. As it turned out the road was totally quiet and it eventually turned out to be a nice serene drive into the capital.
My accommodation was a beautiful boutique hotel tucked away down a narrow street in the old town. The owner had taken incredible care and expense to renovate the buildings and interior courtyard to it’s original splendour. The problem was that it had its grand opening six months prior to the civil war starting so it had been virtually empty of guests ever since.
After checking in and being treated like a long lost family member by the incredibly friendly hotel staff, I ventured out into the city with my fixer for a tour. After visiting over 100 countries, I felt like I’d experienced pretty much everything whilst travelling. This was like nothing I’d felt before though. I was really travelling into the unknown for the first time ever. No tourists had set foot in here for years. There were no travel blogs to read or forum posts to check through. The small element of fear still inside me was bringing out a rush of adrenaline that had my senses working overdrive. Every sight, sound and smell were amplified like never before. My mind raced back to years of watching Vietnam films and seeing life carrying on as normal as could be in Saigon at the peak of the War and wondering what it could possibly have felt like being in a place like that while war raged on all around. And this is how it felt. Years of the Syrian civil war being the lead story on the news; it was hard to comprehend that I was here. I wandered down the narrow streets and felt like this could have been any time over the past two millenia. It felt like the city was just the same as it was in biblical times. History was everywhere I stepped. I descended down a stone staircase into a cavern known as the House of Saint Ananias. Today it’s a Christian church but its origin is more than 2000 years old, being the home of St Ananias who baptized Saul; he of Road to Damascus fame, who later became Paul the Apostle. It is religion that proved one of the most intriguing aspects of Damascus; churches built next door to mosques whilst Christians and Muslims around the city both mixed together without any problems. An incredible contrast to the extremism ISIS are attempting to spread throughout the rest of the country. And it wasn’t long before signs of the current conflict were noticeable. One minute I’d feel I was transported back hundreds of years, the next I would turn a corner, see mortar damage, barbed wire and heavily fortified checkpoints. Signs of the regime could be seen all over. Each shop that was closed had Syrian flags painted across their roller shutters. Portraits of Assad were everywhere and accompanied at checkpoints by portraits of Shia martyrs.
That evening I was sat in a courtyard relaxing and enjoying a beer. My sensory overdrive had slowed down and the adrenaline levels had finally started to subside. I started to think how I could be anywhere else in the world and how there was no sign at all of a war still taking place just a couple of miles away.
That was about to change when a couple of minutes later I saw a flash of light travelling across the sky. It was tracer fire. Following this there was the sound of several rapid shots of gunfire that continued to sound closer and closer. It sounded like it was only a couple of streets away. As much as I wanted to stay calm it was difficult. As I looked around though, the locals were continuing to drink and chat with each other as if nothing was happening. I asked someone how close the gunfire was.
“Oh a couple of kilometres. The wind is making it sound closer than it is”.
I sat back in my chair again and sighed a sign of relief. At that very moment, a huge bang sounded right behind me. I almost had a heart attack. I turned around to see a 8 year old girl laughing at me. She’d just stamped on a sealed plastic bottle.
I thought back to what my fixer had said to me when he left me earlier that evening.
“If you leave the hotel, turn right only. Do not under any circumstances turn left. This way leads to the suburb under rebel control.”
It was past midnight and I’d had several beers already. Anywhere else I’d have been happy with a few more drinks but this was the last place I needed to be staggering home drunk and taking a wrong turning.
The following day I walked around the vast Al-Hamidiyah Souq. Eyes were fixed on me as I pushed my way through the crowds. The more people stared, the faster my heart would race. One young man in his twenties approached, holding out his outstretched hand.
“Thank you for coming to Syria”, he said with a smile across his face.
He shook my hand and then walked away. A couple more then gained the courage to approach me and asked for selfies. One of them asked if I had WhatsApp. The feeling of paranoia dissipated immediately. The people looking at me were just curious. They hadn’t seen foreigners here for years. The day afterwards I received a WhatsApp message from the guy who’d asked me for my contact.
“It is great to see tourists here again. Thank you for visiting my country”.
I moved on to explore Al Azem palace, a former residence of the 18th century Ottoman governor. It was in here when I saw two foreigners, the only ones I saw throughout my time in Syria; a journalist from Newcastle and a priest from Winchester. Both of them were at odds to point out what they’ve seen all over Syria and how it differs totally to what the Western media has been portraying.
The priest had been here five times since the war started and was in Aleppo as it was liberated. He said every person he met was incredibly relieved that it was back in government control. He was told of people being killed by the rebels if it was found they were supportive of the government. Others were being killed just for not being Muslim. This from the so called moderate rebel groups, not ISIS or Al Nusr. He said he’d heard all kinds of horror stories and seen first hand a children’s hospital full or corpses and smashed up equipment. He spoke with the BBC just after he saw all this – prior to the interview he was asked to brief them on what he planned to say. He claimed that he was actually told by the BBC he was not allowed to say any of the above. He told it anyway but those comments were edited out of the final piece, despite him being promised the interview was live.
The journalist had been in Syria for the past five years. He told similar stories and insisted that the closest thing to the truth that’s coming out of Syria is from Russian media. He says he’s walked around towns that have been liberated by the government forces and seen scores of dead Al Nusra fighters – none of them Syrian, but from Saudi, Pakistan, Bangladesh and others.
A lot of what they were saying, I’m sure would be immediately dismissed by many when we’re so used back home to hearing a totally different narrative. But it was hard to ignore what they were telling me and incredibly eye opening. These were people who were living it on the ground and had first hand experience. How many of the news sources we read back home have such local knowledge? These individuals may well have ulterior motives for their side of the story but it didn’t feel like that to me. It felt real and honest. What was already in my head as an extremely complex issue had now become even more complicated.
That evening I returned to the same bar as the previous night. The owner also had a food stall selling late night snacks. I’d become his regular customer now, to the point where he trusted me to run his bar.
“I need to buy supplies. Please can you mind the bar for me?”
I found myself behind the counter selling kebabs.
As the night progressed, more and more people came in to buy food and drinks. They also wanted to chat. Everything revolved around the conflict. There were other snippets of conversation but it always went back to the war. As you’d imagine, it was hard for the people here to think about anything else. I asked one girl if she’d ever thought about leaving along with millions of other refugees who had poured into neighbouring countries and across into Europe.
“Why would we leave? This is our country. If we all leave then ISIS win and take over this country. We stay and fight to the end”.
The journey out of Damascus followed the same route as the way in, but this time in the dead of night. I departed the hotel at 1:30am to find the streets totally deserted. If ever there was a place I wanted to get out of quickly this was it. The streets were in complete darkness, totally devoid of people, cars and noise. The darkness would suddenly be broken every few minutes as we reached a checkpoint and the soldiers would shine torches inside. The silence continued at the checkpoints other than a whisper to demand we show our passports, whilst another of the guards checked in the boot and back seats.
The journey felt twice as long as it had done on the way in, but I reached Beirut safely after what had been a truly life changing trip.