60 Minutes blog

Liam Bartlett - The journey into hell

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It's an odd feeling entering a country without a passport or visa and knowing the ruling regime doesn't want you there. Especially when your port of entry is a hole in a fence. But getting into Syria was, strangely enough, the easy part of the assignment.

We flew into the southern Turkish city of Hatay and, as night fell, were driven to a neutral 'collection point' just a kilometre from the border. An hour passed and then the call came to signal the walk into a war zone. The smugglers have it down like clockwork.

On the other side, after some anxious moments, what looks like a decrepit old postal van picks us up and drives over potholed tracks and badly damaged roads to a safe house where we can base our equipment with relative safety during our time in the country.

The chaotic nature of this war makes travel perilous. Towns only a tiny distance from each other can be dominated by opposing sides and then there's the regime's artillery which is used to shell towns and cities randomly, day and night, in a sort of leapfrog fashion. The net result is you're never sure where or when the location you're in could be targeted. Even the opposition fighters have different factional loyalties, depending on which region they are based in. Calling themselves the FSA (Free Syrian Army) they fight in anything from ill-fitting camouflage pants to business shirts and polyester slacks. And whatever weapon is available, so long as it fires, is fine by them. Predominantly armed with Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles, they are woefully under-resourced compared to the better trained regular army forces of President Bashar al Assad. One FSA officer told me the arms support comes via Saudi Arabia and Qatar but in terms of ammunition and especially, heavy weaponry like anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles, it is "nowhere near enough".

To give you some idea of the hotch-potch manner of their arsenal, here's a snapshot of some of the weapons we witnessed during our patrols with various FSA units; there were Austrian-made Steyr rifles and a Belgian 30mm FN-FAL battle weapon, an American hand grenade, Soviet-made H&K G3 Rifles, a Dragunov sniper rifle, PK Machine Gun and RPK rifle, Browning pistols, a DSHK 12.7mm heavy machine gun and an Argentinian 40mm stand-alone grenade launcher. It's the United Nations of guns and death which is ironic given the failure of the UN to take action and protect the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who have been either killed or displaced since the uprising began almost 18 months ago.

Everywhere we went, we were encouraged by the locals who are desperate to get their story out and show the world how their dictator is making them suffer but we would always get the same question: "Why aren't you helping us?, When is the West going to stop him?".

Impossible to answer and incredibly awkward when you look into the eyes of people who are trying to shield their children, in blistering heat, under the shade of a single olive tree and the only thing to look forward to is the daily delivery from a water truck. When you see the sheer scale of suffering here, it is hard to believe the first world is effectively ignoring the bloodshed.

As a young pharmacist told me in one of the besieged villages: "It is because we have no oil. If we had oil, they would come". And perhaps he is right but politics mean nothing to the woman who was nursing twin babies under the burning sun of the Bab al Howa refugee camp. She fled the bombing just two weeks after giving birth and was proud to tell us that, so far, she had managed to keep them alive for another fifteen days. No mother should have to count the cost of freedom in that way.

User comments
As someone who has family and friends in Syria, I was greatly disappointed at the biased story presented. It's not logical to side with the FSA when they are clearly the cause of this war. FSA vs Assad may as well be titled Sunnis vs Shiites. I come from a Christian family and God only knows how a sunni government will hurt the Christians in the country. My family has evacuated to the outskirts of Syria, Lebanon and Germany. Some of them were kicked out of their homes by the FSA who are now squatting. My great uncle's home is now rubble, my uncle has gathered a few homeless families he found in the local church and has them living in his home. Why should Assad step down? He didn't start this war, the FSA did. Imagine a rebel group armed with weapons, terrorising the nation with violence and demanding Gillard or Obama to step down. Would the government not retaliate by returning fire? All I'm asking for is a non biased, truth based report aka a journalist doing their job. Thanks.
Such an enthralling report! I had 'my head in the sand' about what is happening in Syria, not wanting to know about the atrocities. But Liam's report forced me to get an eyewitness point of view, reporting from the frontline of the war. It was extremely informative and enthralling! Liam's bravery as a War Correspondant is amazing and I now feel compelled to take some action.
I was shocked to see this report on 60 minutes last night. Shocked that there is no aid for these refugees, shocked that no one is stepping in to stop this madman dictator before he wipes out every town and city. Why is the UN not providing aid? Why are they being ignored?
This is a typical one sided story of the events occurring in my beloved country. It's a reflection of the stance taken by the western media that portrays the government as the villain . This couldn't be further from the truth. The ? Needs to be asked , who are the FSA and do they consist and represent Syrians and what are they want to achieve . Where do they get weapons and money from and what are their agenda . And finally why when millions turn out for pro government rallies no mention is made. Are they not the majority who support ASSAD.
We live in the 21st century. How are still living in war? No matter the year, no matter the development of humans, we still keep on killing and raging war to seek power. How can someone, or people for that matter, sleep at night with a smile on their face and food in their stomachs while their people starve and bleed to death. At what point does the world give in? At what point does the world finally stand up and say enough is enough. Billions upon billions of people have died and suffered at the hands of war and it needs to stop. It needed to stop before it even began. I want to help, i want to do something but truthfully im just a 20 year old hairdresser from the Northern Territory and tomorrow i will go to work and no one will remember the pain we saw on this program tonight. How can WE help. not as Australians but as HUMAN BEINGS. Some of us may hate but we are a loving compassionate race. HOW can WE help???
I commend your courage Liam, but honestly, your story made me sick. Ask your rebels about the massacre in Houla, killing women and children, now attributed to the FSA according to FAZ, a German newspaper and reporter Rainer Hermann. Ask them why they torture civilians and force them to become a suicide bomber as reported on bbc. Ask them why they sent a channel 4 reporter Alex Johnston deliberately into harms way hoping his death would be blamed on Assad. Yet not a single syrian government point of view in your report. Just staged gun fighting (particularly liked how your camera man wasn't flinching during the terrifying shooting), images of children (who are killed by the FSA) and the opinion of one doctor (supposedly) unwilling to show his face. There are 2 sides to this story Liam, it's a shame you risked your life in Syria and didnt risk your career by telling the real truth about what's really happening in Syria.
I seriously do not understand what you guys are looking to achieve by broadcasting such videos to our Australian's. All it seems to do is cause us to feel uneasy and helpless because we have no way of helping these people who suffer from such trauma most of their lives. This has just left me and a few others feeling very uneasy this evening.
That was a very biassed, one-sided report. I don't recall viewing your show over the many years with such an ignorant report. You certainly haven't shown your ability to 'dig for the truth'! Look into it further Sixty Minutes, there is so much more that you need to know about what's actually going on in Syria, and just who is instigating this trouble and more importantly, for what purpose. Research properly, I know you have the ability, if you want to find the truth! !
I don’t know if Mr Liam noticed that he was standing among armed men and if he noticed that they used heavy weapons and there were several tanks down by free syrian army. Those photos tell us there is a fight between two armed groups. One is the regular army wearing regular army cloths and official and the other has no uniform and hide among the civilian, hide among children, women and elderly and that tell us a lot.
After reading your blog we understand that the UN has failed to take any action against the syrian government and stop the bloodshed but we dont know why or how it can happen, ho9w is it that the UN is in other regions of the world where there is no where near the same level as bloodshed? The comment in your blog referring to there being no oil in Syria appears to ring true, it would be sad & criminal if the failure to respond and protect these people comes down to money...

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