NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We usually hear about the civil war in Syria from cell phone videos posted by anti-government activists to YouTube or government press releases from Damascus. Usually, those stories can't be verified because very few journalists have been allowed in.
Today we speak with two women who have had unusual access to life on the ground in Syria this past month, very different experiences and two very different Syrias. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently spent time with the rebels in the north, who have established something of a shadow government in some places along the Turkish border, while Janine di Giovanni got a rare visa from the government and wrote about the Syrian elite and a life of elaborate weddings, school choir performances, the opera, pool parties, a life that's vanishing before their eyes.
If you have questions about life in Syria now, give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Later in the program, an Olympic preview with NPR's Tom Goldman. If there's a sport or an athlete you are passionate about, email and tell us why. That address again is email@example.com.
But first a tale of two Syrias. NPR's Kelly McEvers is on a visit to Washington from her base in Beirut and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to meet you in person.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Oh, thanks, nice to meet you, too.
CONAN: And tell us about life in the rebel-held village of Atima.
MCEVERS: Atima, yeah, that's a - it's like a way station for the rebels. Once you cross over from Turkey into Syria, this is sort of the first place you stop over. You sign a book, you say here I am, and then you sort of plan your trip from there.
What was really striking was that - you know, sort of how much of this area the rebels actually hold. I mean, this is a swath of territory. It's sort of an unofficial buffer zone that the Syrian rebels have set up there along the Turkish border.
It's always kind of morphing and changing. If you were to look at a map, it would never be the same thing from one day to the next. The government might take this town back, and the rebels might gain it back the day after that. But for all intents and purposes, you know, they do hold this territory, and it's territory that allows them to do several things: move injured people into Turkey and get treated in Turkish hospitals; move weapons and money back into Syria so they can continue their fight against the government; and basically to just sort of build up the morale of the people in these areas, give them a sense that they've got some momentum that they actually hold territory.
CONAN: And are they trying to displace the government? Are they trying to provide the services the government never provided?
MCEVERS: It's really interesting to see how they're trying to kind of step in where the government has basically disappeared. In some of these little towns, you'll - you know, there's basically like one municipal building, it's a post office or a police station. And the rebels come in, and they set up shop. They might repaint the walls with the rebel flag, you know, put the - place the commander in the lead desk of the main office and sort of serve as the de facto town authority.
When people have problems, they come to the rebels to resolve the problems. That said, things like water and electricity, those are still, you know, piecemeal being provided by the government. The water, the electricity might be on for three hours and then off, same with like land-line telephones.
But as far as food and any other kind of living, you know, services, people are basically providing for themselves.
CONAN: And is this a poor village? What do people do there?
MCEVERS: Some of the different villages we went to, we started in Atima, and we moved on from there. What a lot of the people do now is they work for the revolution. I mean, a lot of the men who used to be, you know, carpenters or have, you know, cement factories or - and a lot of them are farmers and still are farmers, have now basically joined up to fight for the revolution.
So they're trying to - you know, that doesn't necessarily make you a lot of money, so I think a lot of these towns are kind of at the basics now, just trying to survive.
CONAN: And listening to some of the stories you broadcast this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and MORNING EDITION, this was an area, well, the rebels say the government forces are too busy at the moment in Damascus and Aleppo and places like, they're too thinly spread, but there also seem to be living fear that they will be back.
MCEVERS: Absolutely. There's a real sense right now that yeah, the government forces are way too strapped and committed to holding the major cities, the key cities like Damascus and Aleppo and even some of the other cities in Syria, to really pay attention to these rural areas.
But that said, yeah, we would see, I mean, government tanks, government helicopters coming in and trying to take back some of these towns, especially the ones that are very strategically placed right on the Turkish border because you've got the sense that if the government could take those back, then that buffer zone would be cut off from Turkey, which again is sort of the lifeline for the rebels.
I got a sense in one of the towns that basically if the regime decides - if it makes up its mind, you know, to take one of these places, it can. It's still got more firepower than the rebels do, and it could if it wanted to.
CONAN: And there are, in the meantime, though, services that are provided like hospital services, first aid, trauma surgery, obviously a necessity. We've heard so much about those rebel hospitals in hidden corners of places like Homs and Hama, at least they're out in the open in these villages that you visited.
MCEVERS: Right, yes. Throughout this uprising, as it has become more of an armed conflict, the rebels would set up these kind of - these secret, clandestine MASH units, you know, basically anywhere - in somebody's house, you know, in the corner of some shop, wherever they could, you know, mobile field hospital.
But now in some of these areas where I was, where they hold this territory, I mean, they'll just take a private hospital and say this is now a rebel hospital, this belongs to the Free Syrian Army, it's run by the Free Syrian Army, and when Free Syrian Army injured fighters come in here, they get priority, and we're going to treat them.
And so people know that that's the place to go.
CONAN: If you have questions about life on the ground in Syria, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll begin with Lindsay(ph), and Lindsay's on the line with us from Watertown, New York.
LINDSAY: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I was just wondering, I'm a nurse, I work in a nursing home in Watertown, and how are women affected by this? And are they active in the fighting, or are they just providing support?
CONAN: What can you tell us, Kelly McEvers?
MCEVERS: We have heard about a couple of women's units of fighters. I didn't see them. It may be more of a propaganda thing than something actually on the ground. We've seen a couple of these sort of, you know, homemade videos where women are holding guns and saying we're going to avenge the deaths of our brothers and fathers and uncles.
More what the women are doing is what women, frankly, in these villages traditionally do, which is take care of things like the food and the children and the home. And, you know, when a village is held by the rebels, the women and children are able to stay. When the regime does make up its mind that it's going to shell a village and try to take it back, the women and children sadly have to flee to Turkey and live in refugee camps.
LINDSAY: And is Turkey supporting this influx of refugees?
MCEVERS: More than any other neighboring country to Syria, Turkey has really taken the lead on providing, you know, pretty decent refugee camps for people crossing over. People are crossing - you know, Syria is bordered by many countries - Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, as well - they do not have the resources that Turkey has, and Turkey has made it a real priority to take care of them when they get there.
LINDSAY: Thank you very much for taking my call.
CONAN: And Lindsay, thanks for calling. Joining us now is Janine di Giovanni, a journalist, the author of the book "Ghosts By Daylight: Love, War and Redemption." Her piece, entitled "Life During Wartime," ran in the New York Times on July 22, and she describes life in Damascus, and she joins us now on the phone from her home in Paris. Good to have you with us today.
JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: I'm very well, thanks. We just heard Kelly McEvers describe village life along the Turkish border. Describe what it was like at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus.
GIOVANNI: Well for me, I've covered many, many wars in the past 20 years, more than a dozen, and every time, I've always been with the rebels on the side of a rebel force. So to actually have a visa and be on the other side, on the government side, was for me incredibly rare.
There were very few journalists there when I was there. The Russians are let in more freely than Western journalists. I have no idea why they gave me a visa, but they did, and for me what was extremely interesting, having reported so many wars and have lived in so many cities that have been under siege and are at war, was that it was a feeling as though it was the end of the Roman Empire.
I mean for me, the bubble had not yet burst, even though the car bombs were going off, sticky bombs were going off. People were fleeing, people were beginning to leave their homes, but it wasn't yet a situation anywhere near let's s say a Sarajevo or a Grozny or even Proscenia or Freetown in Sierra Leone, where people were actively feeling that they were at war.
However, I think there's always a moment when this dawns on people, that very soon the life that they know, which is an ordinary life, and Damascus after all is an incredibly civilized, refined city where people go to the opera, where there's quite a bit of money amongst a certain class, and also interestingly enough where many of the elite have several passports.
So they're able to leave when they want to leave. The rich have already gotten their money out of the country, and it just very much had a sense that it was on the edge, and it was about to go. And I stayed at the Dama Rose because U.N. monitors were there, and I wanted to have as much access to them as I could.
They were, of course, frozen, which is what we saw in Sarajevo 20 years ago at the very beginning of the conflict, that they were unable to move, Hugely frustrating for them because they're meant to be the eyes and ears on the ground of what is happening, witnessing what is happening.
For me working there, even though I'd been told in Beirut by many of my colleagues who I've worked with for years no one's going to talk to you, it's going to be impossible to work, it wasn't. I found people did talk. Of course, it - there was dealing with the Mukhabarat, but I'm...
CONAN: The secret police, yes.
GIOVANNI: The secret police. I mean, I've done that for years working in Iraq during the time of Saddam, and you understand when you can talk, when you cannot. When a waiter comes near your table, you do not speak. When you try to meet activists, you have to do it in a very cautious way.
CONAN: But your reporting was very much like reporting from the top deck of the Titanic with the band not quite yet in life preservers.
GIOVANNI: Yeah, I mean, I don't - it's an awful analogy, actually, that I don't want to make because it was - for me it was very tragic to go, for instance, to the opera, which Damascus has the second-finest opera house in all of the Middle East, and it - you know, to see it a quarter-full.
And those people that had come were brave because they had come out at night, which is dangerous. There was already bombing. They came out - they had to go through checkpoints, which is always - if you're not used to it, armed checkpoints are very unnerving. And they still were trying to maintain a kind of normality, which is for me what I've always seen as kept, during wartime, people sane.
Even in the worst shelling, the worst kind of sieges, the people who managed to make it through Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Kosovo, whatever, are the people that tried to hang on to the normality of their lives. And I think that this was really striking for me, incredibly so.
There were two faces of Damascus. On one hand, there were the car bombs, and there were the activists, and there was the people I'd meet secretly, and there was my trips to Homs, and there was, you know, basically the on-the-ground, the real war. And then on the other hand, I would be sitting in my hotel on Thursday afternoons, which is the start of the Muslim weekend, and there'd be these wild pool parties with the U.N. a floor above me, you know, trying to work.
So it was very schizophrenic, to say the least.
CONAN: More than a year after the first protests and violent crackdown, we're talking about life now in the Syrian civil war. If you have questions, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about life on the ground for Syrians these days. And the Obama administration today warned that government forces appear to be lining up for a massacre in Syria's largest city, Aleppo. A State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. has grave concerns about reports of air strikes and tank columns moving on that city, which she described as a serious escalation in the government's battle against rebels.
The U.S. also says thousands of people are fleeing the city after six days of fighting, lives interrupted by a battle the city had largely avoided for the past year. Our focus today is on the people of Syria. If you have questions about life in Syria now, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's also at npr.org.
Our gusts are NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers; and Janine di Giovanni. Her piece, "Life During Wartime," ran earlier this month in the New York Times. She also wrote the book "Ghosts By Daylight: Love, War and Redemption." She's on the line with us from Paris. And let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Daniella(ph), Daniella with us from San Antonio.
DANIELLA: Hi, Neal, thank you guys for taking my call. I have a question for Janine. I guess I was in Damascus two years ago, the summer before the Arab spring broke out, and what my family and I noticed was a regenesis happening in the Old City in Damascus. A lot of the old, rundown buildings or government officials' palaces were being redone as very luxurious hotels, and there was a big, burgeoning arts movement.
And I was just wondering how that's been affected since the war started and kind of which side these foreign developers have come down on.
CONAN: Janine di Giovanni?
GIOVANNI: Yes, Daniella, it's a great question because actually, it was one of the things that I really tried to do, that I had the luxury of doing was in the Old City, there were these incredibly beautiful, old buildings, as you said, which had been renovated into sort of boutique hotels.
And the tragedy of it was that they were empty, and they had actually cut the prices of them to very, very low. The art galleries, there were some extraordinary artists. I went to one workshop and gallery and studio of Mustafa Ali, who is one of the most prominent sculptors in Syria, and...
DANIELLA: I think I was there, actually.
GIOVANNI: You were there, and so you saw his amazing - his workshop, his studio. He has a colony for young artists working. And he had put together - you might have seen it, actually - an exhibition in Damascus last year, which was called "Guillotine," and it was his take on basically what will happen in the future in the Middle East.
And I think for him, for artists, for musicians, all of the musicians I met from the opera or one night I went to an extraordinary concert, which was a private concert given in a very, very beautiful - it was an ancient mill which had been restored into a concert - kind of a concert hall.
And two musicians played, and it was just - they played Bach and Beethoven, and it was just for me incredibly moving because I just felt that throughout any war I've ever been in, the one thing that people could see them through, in a sense, was music and art, and it just had terrible connotations for me to see just Stalingrad and the musicians continuing to play despite their fierce bombardment.
So I think the artists, the writers, the musicians, are still trying to work, but I'm not sure how much longer that will continue. I mean, for me I think it's going to be a very bloody and long, protracted war. I don't think it's going to end quickly. I think it's going to go on, and I foresee the artistic class of people probably leaving to go to Lebanon, Turkey, Paris, wherever they can get out to.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Daniella.
DANIELLA: Thank you.
CONAN: And Kelly McEvers, it's interesting reading Janine di Giovanni's stories, that these wealthy elites in Damascus, sophisticated lovers of music and the arts, also supporters of a brutal dictatorship, and they fear that if that dictatorship is overthrown, a very different, fundamentalist government will take over in Damascus.
Based on what you've seen in rebel-held territories, are they right?
MCEVERS: It's an interesting question. I think the people that these Damascenes would see when they went to the province, the province in the north where I spent time, they would probably be surprised at how religious and how conservative they are. They're certainly not like the elite of the city.
Art does not factor into their life as much as prayer does and as much as custom and tradition, but that said, these are not hard-line Islamists, either. I mean, we were able to speak to women. Women came out of the house, you know, they walk around the streets, they don't cover their faces. Of course they're veiled because these are Sunni villages, but women play a part of society.
They mix around in the towns. You know, even the fighters themselves, they think there's a big range of their devotion to religion, as well. I mean, some of them, you know, were drinking. Others were, you know, very serious about praying five times a day. And there are some reports that even jihadists have infiltrated the rebel movement, although I have to say that if they have, it's a very small number.
So I think there have to be, understandably, some concern on the part of the people in the capital that, you know, what would this new government look like. I mean one of the institutions that we saw replacing the disappearing state was a system of courts, some judges who had been appointed by the rebels to hear cases of the townspeople and resolve disputes.
Well, what law were these courts applying but Shariah, the Islamic law. So I think that - even my translator at one point was very concerned. You know, he said - the judge we interviewed was telling us a story about, you know, sentencing a guy to 100 lashes for having sex out of wedlock. And my translator sort of groaned later, my translator who had spent a lot of time in Damascus, thinking I'm not sure I want a Syria where somebody's going to punish me for who I sleep with.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Thomasina(ph), Thomasina with us from Daytona Beach.
THOMASINA: Yes, I have a quick comment and a question. When the rebels began making demands about a year ago, President Assad agreed to meet some of their demands, but they wanted complete control of the country. I believe Assad was right in retaliating to keep his sovereign country out of the hands of unknown elements.
You know, Assad supported Bush 41 in the first invasion of Iraq. Assad has strongly opposed the Muslim Brotherhood. And he took in tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees fleeing from Bush 43's war. Now, my question is: Do the middle class and Assad supporters now feel in danger from the rebels, who I am sure will want to retaliate to them?
CONAN: Janine di Giovanni, what do you think?
GIOVANNI: Well, I think Kelly has a very good point. I mean, I think when you say people are afraid, I think what they fear - I mean, I think they're intelligent enough to know that look, it's not going to be completely black or white. And I don't think it's really fair to say people support Assad completely.
I think a lot of them, a lot of the ones I met, are basically apolitical. They just, they want to survive. They want to continue. They don't want the way that they live to change. I think it's a very common reaction in any - again, any kind of regime that I've ever covered, where it's about to fall, it's about to go down, and someone else is coming in.
Who is coming next? And specifically because the opposition is so fractured, and we really don't have a solid sense of any kind of political representation that's strong, it's not the same as Libya, where the TNC really did have it much more together than the Syrian opposition.
I think it's quite natural that people are thinking oh, OK, are we going to get a fundamentalist regime. The intellectuals, of course, know this isn't the case, it's not going to immediately turn into Shariah law, it's not going to go the way of Saudi. But they are getting fed a lot of propaganda, of course, which is always, in a closed society, in a closed country, where you don't get - well, you do have a media blackout, you'll always get a certain level of propaganda.
And what they're being told is that the rebels are being armed by Saudi, by Qatar, and being trained by CIA. So they're thinking, OK, what are going to have. We don't particularly like Bashar, but we don't - if we don't have him, who's going to come in, a Saudi-like government?
And what I heard a lot, which is actually quite a difficult one to argue with, is why do we have Saudi Arabia giving us lessons in democracy. And that is one that you have to sit, and you have to think about. But they don't foresee a Yemen-type situation, where Assad is going to be given a safe haven to go to because like Saddam Hussein, the circle is getting smaller and smaller of the places that he can go to, that if he does choose to go into exile, which I doubt very much he will, the countries, the options, the places he can go...
Britain won't have him. France, who usually takes every despot in the world, will not have him. Where will he go now?
CONAN: He has reportedly sent some of his billions to Russia.
GIOVANNI: Possibly, but there might be a time when that will close for him, as well, like Milosevic. That was a closed door for him. So it's getting to be an ever-closing circle, and I think that's people's fear. What's going to happen next? Who is going to lead us? What's our country going to be like? How are we going to live on a daily basis?
MCEVERS: And there's also the sectarian element to it, too. I mean, those who support the regime are largely from the Alawite sect, the regime is from the Alawite sect. It's a minority sect in Syria. By and large, the people who oppose the regime are Sunni Muslims, and that's about - make up about 70 percent of the country.
As much as, you know, you don't want to get into dangerous territory by predicting and assuming that the same thing will happen in Iraq - will happen in Syria - that happened in Iraq. You do see revenge killings happening already, and I know that - and also the Christians who sort of silently supported the regime, I know there is a worry on the part of those people that should these rebels take over - and it's not just rebels who oppose the government, it's also protesters and activists and all kinds of civilians on the ground - should they take over, what will the revenge look like? I mean, will we be punished for standing with this regime? And I think that's a really - a very real concern.
CONAN: And, Janine di Giovanni, one of the lines in your piece is that I found most compelling was you said that people who would have identified themselves just a few months ago as Syrians now identify themselves as Shias, Sunnis, Druzes, Kurds, as Alawites.
GIOVANNI: Yes. I'm glad Kelly brought up the Iraq model because one of the things General Mood, the chief of the U.N. monitors, said to me is you can never put a template on a war. And I really don't see it as an Iraq situation at all. For me, it's very much Bosnia. I mean, I foresee more ethnic cleansing, more fractured identity. And that's what saddened me the most probably, is that people who did say I am Syrian the way people would say I am Yugoslavian, then suddenly would say I'm an Alawite, I am a Christian, I am a Greek Orthodox, I'm an Armenian, I'm a Sunni Kurd, so I think that this is one of the things that is worrying for me.
And I try very hard not to put it into a template of Bosnia, of Rwanda, of, you know, it's very hard not to see a country with so many denominations, which is why it is so multicultural, multiethnic and fascinating, and in so many ways, probably why America is so fixated on it now and not on the Congo where, you know, there's also atrocities happening. But it's because a place - Damascus, in a sense, is a culture that people can identify with, and there's many Syrian-Americans. There's many Syrian-French.
But I think, very slowly, we're going to see a fracturing of the society, so that people do break down into a kind of identification that they didn't have before. I mean, there's neighborhoods like Mezzeh in Damascus which was a mixed of wealthy Sunnis, wealthy Alawites, and I don't think you can put a label on it that it's - the government is, you know, mainly backed by this. Because I would meet entire families which were fascinating where the mother would be pro-Assad, the brother would be actually funding financially the opposition, the sister would be vehemently, a vehement activist who is protesting and going to prison, another sister was very pro-Assad. And you would get complete in one family political representation from every denomination.
So, I mean, for me, the tragedy of this is seeing a country that's about to be split wide open. And the fact that I don't foresee peacekeepers, I don't see blue helmets going in, and I'm not sure what could save this country.
CONAN: Janine di Giovanni, journalist, author of "Ghost by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption," she wrote a piece called "Life During Wartime" that ran in The New York Times on July 22nd. She also writes for Newsweek magazine. With us, Kelly McEvers, NPR foreign correspondent, normally based in Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Alex. Alex is on the line from Coral Springs, Florida.
ALEX: Hey. Good afternoon. Besides Alex, I'm also a rabbi, and my curiosity is there's used to be a significant Jewish community in Aleppo. I've met people in South America where I'm from and have they come across anybody and besides what they have told us already about Christian parishioners, are there non-Islamic religionists suffering any particular anxiety related to their unique identity?
CONAN: Janine di Giovanni, I know that one of the interviews you did in Damascus was set in a former Jewish home.
GIOVANNI: Yes. I met several Jewish families, as well as going to monasteries and meeting Greek Orthodox nuns and Aramaic, and nuns who still spoke Aramaic. I think the Jewish minority in Syria has really narrowed down. And, of course, there is a great concern amongst the few that are left because of the relationship with Israel, of course. So it's - there's a very grave worry as well overriding the entire region of whether or not Israel will strike Iran. And if that does happen, will Hezbollah, who, of course, backs the Assad regime, will they be activated in Lebanon, will they be called upon by Iran to pay back the favors that Iran has given to them? And as we know they're heavily armed.
So I think mostly when I would talk to people about their concerns about Israel and the general region, it was about whether or not Israel would strike Iran and what repercussions that would have. And also there's - as always in the Middle East, you always have a million conspiracy theories, which are - go from incredibly wild to some that you think, oh, well, actually, this might make sense. And there is another concern that that Syria will - this I believe is going to fight a proxy war for several different countries.
But I did speak to some people who said very clearly Israel wants us. They want us, say that, you know, as much as the Golan, they want us. And I think, again, this comes from echoes of fear, of fear of not knowing the future, of not knowing what will happen and of the general descending chaos.
CONAN: We'll end with this email from Eric(ph): In 1996, I spent approximately nine days backpacking through Syria, spending time in Aleppo and Damascus. While not minimizing the brutality of the Assad regime, I want to emphasize the point made by your guest about how beautiful and cosmopolitan Syria is and in particular Aleppo. Throughout my time in that country, cabdrivers routinely spoke English. Complete strangers invited me to participate in Friday prayer and then after to their homes for lunch. I was able to leave my backpack in the corner of the main bus terminal, go out for several hours and come back to find it where I left it. The country was made up of a mosaic of different religious and ethnic groups, all of whom treated me and seemingly each other with respect. And that is a world, as we're hearing from our guest, is apparently coming apart before our eyes. Janine di Giovanni joined us from Paris. Thanks very much for your time today.
GIOVANNI: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And Kelly McEvers, NPR foreign correspondent, normally based in Beirut, in on - got to Washington on one of the hottest days of the summer. Congratulations, Kelly.
CONAN: We'll see you back in Beirut. When we come back, we're going to be joined by NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman at the Olympic Games in London. If there's an event or an athlete you're particularly passionate about, send us an email or give us a call and tell us why. The email address is email@example.com. 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.