Middle East
8:58 am
Sat June 9, 2012

Finally Inside Syria, What A Reporter Sees

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

It's been another bloody week in Syria. This week, dozens of people were reportedly killed in cold blood in a tiny farming hamlet in Central Syria by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It is the latest atrocity in a 15-month revolt against the regime.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke after a meeting of the U.N. Security Council and lamented that the international community has so far had a limited response to the actions of the Syrian government.

SECRETARY BAN KI MOON: How many more times have we to condemn them? And how many ways must we say that we are outraged? The Syrian people are pleading, they are angry, but they want peace and dignity. Above all, they all want action.

SIMON: But Russia, a Security Council member, with a veto, says more pressure should be placed on the opposition. Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

AMBASSADOR VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN UNITED NATIONS AMBASSADOR: There is one missing link in what they are saying. They are not proposing anything which would resolve the problem of how to deal with the opposition.

SIMON: As efforts at diplomacy continued, U.N. monitors in Syria were finally able to reach the site of the alleged massacre, and what they found was gruesome. NPR's Deborah Amos is on a rare trip inside of Syria and was with them. Debra. thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning Scott.

SIMON: Tell us what you saw. I know it's been hard for journalists to get into Syria at all.

AMOS: We drove north to central Syria on our way to the village of Qubair. It took hours for the U.N. monitors to arrange this trip, but there was a young man who approached us as soon as we walked into the village. And this is what he sounded like. This is the excitement that he had, and fear, as he saw the U.N. monitors approach.

UNIDENTIFIEID MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIEID MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Scott, you can hear the wind whipping through this empty village, and what he's saying is they left no one alive in this village, no one alive. The people who killed here are with the government. Now, activists charged that pro-government militias killed at least 78 people in this village, including women and children.

Certainly something terrible did happen in the village. There was the smell of burned flesh everywhere and dried blood - pieces of flesh, a blood-soaked carpet and bullet holes low on the wall where we were told that the children were shot.

We were told there are about seven survivors out of a village of about 100 people.

SIMON: Who were you able to talk with? Eyewitnesses, anybody who said they were a survivor.

AMOS: What happened as we arrived is young men approached and they said they were from the neighboring village, and they said that the people killed here were their relatives. They were very nervous and the trip almost didn't happen. When the U.N. goes into one of these villages, they negotiate with the government and the opposition.

So they approached us, faces wrapped, sunglasses on. Nobody would give their names or telephone numbers, but they were familiar with this village. They took us to the mosque where there were 17 fresh graves. And they said that yesterday, they were forced to bury the bodies. That the Army came in and said that they had to be buried, this place had to be cleaned up before the U.N. arrived.

Some of them cried, some of us showed where their particular relative was killed. This massacre has a sectarian component to it. This is a Sunni Muslim village. That community is anti-government. They are surrounded by villages that are Alawite villages. These people are pro-government.

Now, the Syrian government says that this atrocity was committed by terrorists, and that they were called in to protect the village, and they killed all the people who were the terrorists. They've shown us no evidence. It's going to be the U.N.'s job to try to figure out what happened. They may be able to figure out what happened. I'm not sure they can figure out why it happened.

SIMON: Well, and that anticipates the next question. Can you tell if U.N. monitors feel they have enough information, information of the kind and quality they need to write a definitive report on which the world will be waiting?

AMOS: There were 20 monitors and this was the largest operation to date. Sausan Ghosheh, she's a spokesman for the U.N. here, she called it a surge. She acknowledged that the evidence of what happened in Qubair is scarce. There are no bodies. And after the operation was stalled by the Syrian government for more than 36 hours, it's really hard to determine.

Those who spoke to the U.N. monitors were conflicted about numbers, who died, what happened. But here is what she said about the mission.

SAUSAN GHOSHEH: It's very hard, because we don't have the bodies. It will take quite a while, until we take more interviews. Maybe we need to talk to more people from the different villages around, what they've seen and what they've heard.

AMOS: Is this day a success?

GHOSHEH: I think it's a symbolic success, being able to come in. And it's a success being able to actually register what happened, at least some factual information of what happened here.

AMOS: What's important to note here, Scott, is this is the fourth massacre in two weeks. And now we have multiple clashes very close to the heart of Damascus. This uprising is taking a very violent turn. And while the U.N. monitors will send the report back to the U.N., it doesn't stop the violence here in Syria at all.

SIMON: Deborah, you were able to report from Damascus six months ago. Does the place feel different?

AMOS: Oh, so much has changed in the last six months. I saw the first time checkpoints on the highway into the Capital. And in Damascus, there's real fear here. Every day the pressure increases. Thursday and Friday for the first time. There were heavy clashes in neighborhoods close to the heart of the city.

I spoke to one resident of Mezzah, and that's an upper-class, middle-class neighborhood. It's where embassy personnel live. A 90-minute gun battle yesterday between government forces and army defectors known here as the Free Syrian Army. At night, I can hear the gunfire, and feel those explosions.

And also at night, residents here say that there are pro-government militias, known as the Shabiha, who set up checkpoints. You know, for so long, Damascus was in a bubble. The uprising didn't touch this city, but that is not true any longer. Six months ago, it was the peace wing of the uprising that was running the revolt. Now it's the Free Syrian Army who's calling the shots.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Damascus. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.