Going Undercover in Syria: How Did She Do It?
In September, reporter Ramita Navai spent two weeks in some of the most dangerous parts of Syria on a clandestine journey into the heart of the uprising. In this reflection, she tells the story of how she and her producer broke Syria’s virtual ban on independent journalists and embedded with some of Syria’s most wanted activists.
Preparing to Go Undercover
After making contact with Syrian dissidents in London, finally one agreed to meet me – most had been scared off by the prospect of helping a journalist work undercover in Syria.
Tareq (not his real name) had only just fled the country after weeks of imprisonment and torture. The signs of what he had endured were still visible; with trembling hands he drew diagrams of the uprising in the country, and in a voice that barely rose above a whisper he outlined the dangers of the trip I was about to undertake: military checkpoints, informants, regular firefights, imprisonment, torture and possible death for any activist caught helping me. Oh, and forget about filming openly.
Similar meetings followed until a contact hooked me up with the one of the main coordinators of an underground opposition group that is spread across Syria. The coordinator told me the only way to film what was really going on in the country was for me and my director Wael Dabbous to be embedded with activists. For two weeks we communicated about every minute detail of the trip, such as where we could travel, how we could get our footage out of the country, but we mainly concentrated on how we would keep everybody safe.
Entering Syria’s World of Underground Resistance
Wael and I flew into Damascus posing as tourists with a very small home video camera. We had been given 15-day tourist visas, and for the first four days we did the rounds of the tourist sites, keeping a low profile as the coordinator had warned us that we would probably be followed by the security services. We walked around the Old City, visiting ancient mosques, the breathtaking souk and eating at some of the capital’s best restaurants.
The next step, as instructed, was to call an activist on a cell phone, using code words to communicate. Several numbers and activists later, the vetting was over. We had been given the green light and we were about to enter the world of underground resistance in Syria.
For the next 10 days more than 50 activists helped us to operate and travel. Most of the men we were with were wanted by the government — many had the scars of torture across their bodies. They were surprisingly well-organized and ran a slick operation, with lookouts and messengers in place across the whole country, trading a constant stream of information about the latest movements of the military and security forces.
They would encircle us at demonstrations, which kept our exposure to a minimum, allowing Wael to lift the camera up. Everywhere we went, the activists used a network of lookouts who communicated with each other via two-way radios. Traveling in a convoy of cars, and using back roads and dirt tracks, the activists evaded soldiers and security officers, and in this way we entered towns that were completely surrounded by military checkpoints monitoring all movement in and out.
The extent of the dissent was one of the most surprising parts of our trip. We saw thousands protesting, and not just on a Friday after prayers when traditionally protests happen. It seemed that in Rif Damashq, just north of Damascus, you couldn’t travel very far without stumbling on a demonstration. And this was after President Assad’s claims that the protests have been getting smaller.
The activists were living as fugitives, and some had not seen their families for months. They usually worked at night, using the cover of darkness to slip undetected between safe houses.
They were constantly on the move, never staying in the same location for long, fearing raids by the dreaded shabiha, loyalist militia and security forces. They never used the same safe house more than once, and they changed their cars and cell phone numbers every month or so.
We had a few close calls ourselves, including when we returned to our boutique hotel in a posh part of Damascus at 3 am. The receptionist was shaken up, and told us that security officers had been to the hotel looking for a couple of tourists. He’d convinced them no one was staying there, and we realized we had to leave.
We spent three days trapped in a safe house in the town of Madaya with three wanted activists. Only a couple of hours after we had arrived in Madaya, news came in that the army was surrounding the town and that raids would soon follow. Every day lookouts reported violent house-to-house raids in nearby neighborhoods until finally the news we were all dreading — the security forces and the feared shabiha loyalist militia were heading to our street. The activists realized that they couldn’t use their planned escape routes, which were the back windows, as armed forces were standing outside and they feared being shot.
For the first time since we’d been with them, the activists were visibly scared. They all hid in a small attic where the water tank was kept and told us to be ready with our British passports. They gave us strict instructions: Stand as far away from the door as possible, for when the militia will knock down the door and start beating anyone they find. And then we heard the thud of boots followed by smashing windows and the chilling sound of women screaming as their loved ones were dragged from their houses and beaten. Our next-door neighbor was hauled away, despite desperate pleas from his mother. It was just sheer luck that our door wasn’t knocked down. It was a terrifying moment.
The activists took every precaution to stay safe. Most of them had horrific footage of the badly tortured bodies of friends and colleagues as a permanent reminder on their cell phones. Their preferred method of communication was Skype and Facebook — always accessing these sites using proxy servers to avoid being monitored — and within hours they could mobilize thousands.
They each had a nom de guerre to disguise their real identity — many did not even know their comrades’ real names as they told us torture works well in Syria.
We never filmed their faces, even when a few foolhardy souls told us they were willing to speak to camera. The activists live in constant fear of their lives, yet they were worried about me and Wael, even when we were no longer with them. Without help from the activists, there would have been no film. Their bravery in getting this story out has been one of the most moving experiences of my career.