5:01pm

Mon August 22, 2011
Middle East

A Controlled Glimpse Of A Restive Syrian Town

NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Syria on a tour organized by a youth group aligned with the government of President Bashar Assad. Most foreign journalists are barred from entering the country otherwise. The tour's theme is "Syria Is Fine." Most of the reporters are from countries that have a history of supporting the Syrian regime — Russia and Iran among them. McEvers is the only American reporter in the group, which also includes some European journalists.

On Monday, the group traveled by bus to Hama, the city where many thousands of government opponents were killed in a 1982 uprising. The city has also been a hotbed of demonstrations in recent months.

Over the past five months, thousands and thousands of people have stood in the streets of Hama in protest. At one point, this city was a kind of free zone of anti-government sentiment.

That is no more. On the way in, we saw truckloads of soldiers and armed men. There are several checkpoints around the city where soldiers are perched behind sandbags with guns at crucial points in the city, in the squares and at banks.

Our minders tell us Hama is now safe, and life is getting back to normal. They herd us into the gorgeous, Ottoman-Islamic style municipal building for a press conference with Hama's governor, Anis al Na'en.

Na'en says protests in Hama were peaceful in the beginning. But they recently turned violent. First, he says, protesters built their barricades to keep security forces out. Then, he says, activists began attacking security forces.

This, he says, is why so much force was used in Hama. Meanwhile, anti-government groups are calling the recent military action the Ramadan massacre. This month alone, activists say, 100 peaceful protesters were killed in Hama. But given the restrictions reporters face, those reports cannot be verified.

Outside, just across the street from the municipal building, we see a group of young men who have assembled. At first we think this is part of the orchestrated tour.

But soon the group starts shouting the telltale slogan of the Arab uprisings — "the people want the fall of the regime."

Plainclothes security men surround them. A young guy walks up wearing sunglasses and cupping his hands over his mouth.

"I can't show my face because of the security. A lot of security around here. And we have a lot of arrested people in the prisons. Dozens, dozens of them," he says.

Just then, the crowd surges and runs into the street.

What happened? I ask.

Another man replies: "They arrested him, because he say what's the truth in Hama."

Desperate voices in the crowd: "Please help us, please help us." Soon after, they say that anyone who talked to us was arrested and thrown into a car.

Then our handlers round us up and direct us back to the bus. At one point, one of the handlers says, "If you don't get in the bus now, we will leave you here. Alone."

Another minder can hardly control herself as she screams at a French camera crew.

Back in the bus — where we had earlier been given badges and T-shirts with President Bashar Assad on them — the minders are back in control of the story.

They show us buildings they claim were bombed and burned by terrorists, and a bridge where they say terrorists threw bodies of soldiers into the river. This, too, cannot be verified.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Syria on a government-sponsored tour. That's just about the only way foreign journalists can get into that country. Kelly is the only American on this tour. It was organized for reporters from countries that support the Syrian regime: Russia, Iran. Today, they visited Hama, which has been a center of protest. As Kelly reports, the tour was intended to demonstrate that life in Hama is getting back to normal, but that is not what the reporters witnessed.

KELLY MCEVERS: So this is Hama. We just got off the bus. We're standing in front of the municipal building. It's a gorgeous old building in the old Ottoman-Islamic style. This is the place where, over the past five months, you have seen thousands and thousands of people standing in the streets in protest. At one point, this city was a kind of free zone of anti-government sentiment. That is no more. On the way in, we saw truckloads of soldiers and armed men. There are several checkpoints around the city were soldiers are perched behind sandbags with guns at, you know, crucial points of the city, in the squares and at banks.

Our minders tell us Hama has now been cleaned and life is getting back to normal. They herd us into the municipal building for a press conference with Hama's governor, Anis al Na'en.

ANIS AL NA'EN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He says protests in Hama were peaceful in the beginning, but they recently turned violent. First, he says, protesters built barricades to keep security forces out. Then, he says, activists began attacking security forces.

NA'EN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This, he says, is why so much force was used in Hama in what anti-government groups are calling the Ramadan Massacre. This month alone, activists say 100 peaceful protesters were killed in Hama. But it's difficult to verify their stories. Outside, just across the street from the municipal building, we see a group of guys that's assembled, most likely for our benefit. Pretty soon they start shouting the telltale slogan of the Arab uprisings.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting)

MCEVERS: The people want the fall of the regime. Plainclothes security men surround them. A young guy walks up wearing sunglasses and cupping his hands over his mouth.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I can't show my face because of the security. A lot of security around here. And we have a lot of arrested people in the prisons. Dozens, dozens of them.

Allah.

MCEVERS: Just then, the crowd surges and runs into the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD YELLING)

MCEVERS: Tell us what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They arrested him because he say what's the truth in Hama.

MCEVERS: They just arrested somebody?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Any people, any people speak with any journalist...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Please help us. Please help us. Please.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...any people speak with any journalist and foreign man, the security man, they take it.

MCEVERS: Now they're saying that anyone who talked to us just got arrested, got thrown into a car. And now our handlers are rounding us up and taking us back.

At one point, one of the handlers says, if you don't get in the bus now, we will leave you here alone. Another minder can hardly control herself as she screams at a French camera crew.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Back in the bus, they're back in control of the story. They show us buildings they say were bombed and burned by terrorists, not by peaceful protesters, and a bridge where they say terrorists threw bodies of soldiers into the river. This, too, is difficult to verify. It's tempting to say there are two narratives at work here and that each side is manipulating the media to tell its version of the story. The reality, most people on this tour today agreed, is that it's even more complicated than that. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.