Story transcripts

Journey into Hell

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Gareth Harvey

There are few more dangerous places in the world right now than Syria, especially if you're a western reporter.

Just getting into the country is a life and death proposition. You need to be smuggled across the border in the middle of the night. Then you have to hope there are rebel soldiers waiting on the other side, prepared to truck you to the frontline.

Liam Bartlett made the clandestine and incredibly risky journey to the heart of Syria's brutal and bloody civil war.

He discovered a place where civilians are being slaughtered in their tens of thousands and their ancient cities bombed to rubble. And all the while, the rest of the world does nothing.

Full transcript:

GUIDE: Don’t turn on the lights.

STORY – LIAM BARTLETT: Border crossings don’t come much more perilous than this. This is basically a smuggling route. I’m in no-man’s-land on the Turkish border. How do we get back out?

GUIDE: How? Same way.

LIAM BARTLETT: A kilometre ahead is my destination – Syria.

GUIDE: Maybe they will see us, come on.

LIAM BARTLETT: A barbed wire border fence marks the point of no return. From Turkey into Syria, this is a smugglers’ route, used to bring arms and supplies to the rebels – the Free Syrian Army or FSA. It’s high-priority target for Syrian government forces. Do you know those guys in the cars up ahead are Free Syrian Army?

GUIDE: I cannot say I know them or not, because I don’t see them.

LIAM BARTLETT: So we’re going to walk up there and hope for the best?


LIAM BARTLETT: Finally, we’re in. By mid-morning we’re away from the border, driving through a Syria tortured by war. We arrive at a rebel forward post, just 500m from the Syrian army. And it’s not long before all Hell breaks loose. They may look like a ragtag bunch, but don’t be mistaken. What these Free Syrian Army opposition fighters lack in modern heavy weapons compared to their Regime counterparts, they more than make up for in passion for the fight and commitment. And given that they’re prepared to fight street by street, this is a war that’s going to last an awfully long time. Have you seen many of your fellow soldiers get killed?

ABU: Yesterday five of my friends got killed, but we killed a lot of them.

LIAM BARTLETT: This young fighter calls himself Abu Omar - a British-Syrian who hails from Cambridge, England. Like Syrians across the country, and the world, Abu Omar is answering the call to freedom, and probable death. All that death, has it changed your mind about anything?

ABU: No, because when I came here from Cambridge, I knew that I’m going to be dead. So I knew I was coming for death.

LIAM BARTLETT: You don’t care if you die?

ABU: No, because I know this thing that I’m doing is the right thing.

LIAM BARTLETT: How old are you?

ABU: 19.

LIAM BARTLETT: For the past 18 blood-drenched months, rebels like Abu Omar have been battling the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar al Assad. Assad’s response has been vicious, desperate and indiscriminate: tens of thousands of his countrymen, women and children have been killed, countless injured. Nowhere is it more brutal than Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the epicentre of the entire civil war.

KHALED: We are free people, and we will live as a free people, or we choose death. We don’t have another choice.

LIAM BARTLETT: Khaled is a young doctor in Aleppo.

KHALED: There is no word can just let you to imagine even, how much, how much we are suffering.

LIAM BARTLETT: Khaled’s loyalty is to the FSA, his surgical mask is his only protection against the Assad regime, which circulates photographs of its enemies, marking them for death. And that death is often terrible, like that of a woman whose body Khaled found.

KHALED: They burned her, and she was alive at that time.

LIAM BARTLETT: They burned her alive.

KHALED: Yes, yes. Yes. It’s terrible. You can - you are a human, what I can say? You are a human, you understand.

LIAM BARTLETT: On the outskirts of Aleppo, a unit of rebel fighters is preparing for battle. They believe they have God on their side, but that’s about all they have. Such is the unevenness of this conflict that half these fighters can expect to die, in what is often close-quarters combat. This is the frontline of the battle now, is it?


LIAM BARTLETT: And there are still snipers out there in those buildings?

FSA FIGHTER: Yes. There are many snipers.

LIAM BARTLETT: I’m not sure all the same that you should be standing there, my friend. Right now. The outgunned Free Syrian Army is closing the weapons gap any way it can. And you captured this today? This is a very big prize, yes? But prizes like this are few.

GUIDE: There’s another one, look at this.

LIAM BARTLETT: So rebels rely on crude but effective home-made explosive devices, equalisers in an unequal war. A year ago, Mohammed was a mechanical engineer. Now he’s one of the FSA’s master bomb-makers. He makes everything from hand grenades to landmines. A fuse, transmitter, and remote control. It’s simple, but deadly. So these bombs do the job?


LIAM BARTLETT: Can I ask you - it’s a very personal question. Are you prepared to die for this?


LIAM BARTLETT: You would go all the way?

MOHAMMED: Yes, I will die if this help my country, help my people, my family, my wife and my children. If the government kill me, I am ready.

LIAM BARTLETT: The cost of freedom?


LIAM BARTLETT: But for every tank the rebels destroy, for every strike they score against Assad’s army, Assad strikes back in fury - entire towns virtually leveled by airstrikes and artillery. These were not military bases. They were the homes and shops and businesses of ordinary Syrians. This place is a measure of President Assad’s brutality, and his merciless determination to stay in power, even if it means slaughtering every one of his citizens. This small town of Al Atterab, up until two months ago, had a population of 40,000 people. Now it’s a virtual ghost town. But even for those 4,000 who are still brave enough to call it home, the shelling continues almost every single day.

KHALED: A father who went out to get some bread for his family, and he came back to see that all of the building - it’s not existing, it’s just disappeared. For nothing – they did nothing. They did nothing. Just because they are living in this land.

LIAM BARTLETT: Every sunset here is also the setting for another nightmare. There’s a massive Syrian artillery base not far from here, and the town of Da Tarizza behind me is well within range. When the bombing starts, it’s random and totally indiscriminate. For the people here and in dozens of towns just like it right across Syria there’s a constant terror - will it be tonight? Will it be me or my family? That’s five. For Da Tarizza, it’s a long and terrible night. The full damage is revealed in the daylight. For Alaa Shamma, it was a miraculous near-miss. The artillery shell struck metres from where he, his wife and two children were sharing a bed. Alaa took the brunt of the shrapnel.

LIAM BARTLETT: Incredibly lucky, because look – the shrapnel through the roof here.

KHALED: They are trying to kill as maximum they can from civilian. This is their target.

LIAM BARTLETT: What does he hope to achieve? There’ll be nothing left to rule.

KHALED: He know that. His purpose is to destroy this country.

LIAM BARTLETT: And his leg is broken? And in this war-torn land, even the innocents are targets. Injured in a previous bombing, this little boy has just had to endure another.

KHALED: Can now you imagine that situation of a small child who is not understanding what is going on? They are all the time putting their fingers in their ears and shouting please, take this sound out of our minds, out of our brain.

LIAM BARTLETT: Little wonder that nearly 1.5 million Syrians are trying to flee their country. It’s hard to imagine, but these are the lucky ones. There’s about 7,000 here in this makeshift refugee camp just on the Turkish border, about 400m that way - pretty much one family under every olive tree. 40km in that direction, President Assad’s warplanes are still launching their violent assaults. And the people here have taken the shirt off their back and not much else in order to flee their villages. Really the only choice they have is to sit here and wait, and hope.

REFUGEE: They shoot us by fighter, rockets, yes, and bomb. So much bomb. They kill the people. They kill the trees.

LIAM BARTLETT: You are not getting any help?

REFUGEE: Nobody help us. Yes, nobody help us.

LIAM BARTLETT: And he’s right. No-one is helping them. There is no hope in Syria today, only fear, and death.

KHALED: They have to stand up and to say stop this killing. Stop killing the innocent people. If we will not protect the innocent people, the small children, we can’t call ourself as a human.

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