As It Happens

10 years of bloodshed have left Syria a 'broken country,' says war correspondent

Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News has been covering the conflict in Syria from the early, hopeful days of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News says she still wonders what became of some of the people she's spoken to

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters pose together for a group photo with flags of the Syrian opposition in the rebel-controlled town of Tal Abyad in Syria's northern Raqa province, on March 15, 2021, as they mark 10 years since the nationwide anti-government protests that sparked the country's devastating civil war. (Bakr Alkasem/AFP/Getty Images)

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Ten years ago in Syria, police arrested a group of children for spray-painting anti-government graffiti. That small spark lit a fuse that eventually exploded into one of the worst humanitarian tragedies since the Second World War.

On March 15, 2011, Syrians protested peacefully in support of the boys who were detained and tortured for expressing their support of the Arab Spring uprisings spreading through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 

Syrian President Bashir al-Assad responded with a brutal crackdown, and the protests became an uprising. Then the uprising became a civil war. 

More than 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, according to the most recent statistics from the United Nations. Another 5.5 million have fled. 6.2 million are internally displaced inside Syria.

And throughout it all, Lindsey Hilsum has been covering the story. She's the international editor for Channel 4 News in London. Here is an excerpt of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What is the reality on the ground today? What has the war in Syria done to that country?

It's torn it apart. It's a broken country of broken people. And so millions are displaced within Syria, and millions have fled. About six million have fled. And there is now an economic crisis.

Assad has regained control of most of Syria with his Russian allies and backers, which he couldn't have done it without them. He would have been overthrown. But it's the Russians who ensured that he remained in power.

You know, there's an old phrase. It's from [Roman historian] Tacitus. In Agricola, he wrote: "They created a desolation and called it peace." That's what Syria is now. It's a desolation.

I know you can't read President Assad's mind or anyone in the regime, but what do you think he believes he accomplished in these 10 years?

They survived. The regime survived. That's it. There's nothing else. Survival.

Lindsey Hilsum is the international editor for Channel 4 News in London and author of In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin. (Submitted by Penguin Books)

When you were following what you thought was perhaps a revolution that might end in a change, being part of that spirit of Arab Spring, at what point did you realize that this was not going to happen, that you were covering a full-scale war?

I think the point at which the revolution morphed into war was early in 2012. And that was brought home to me very brutally when my friend, the war correspondent Marie Colvin, was killed in Homs.

This was when Homs had been one of the towns where the rebellion against the government had been at its most intense. And there were many thousands of young people marching in the streets. And then the government attacked. And then the young protesters picked up weapons, and then Gulf countries started to send in weapons. And it began to be more Gulf countries versus Iran and Syria. 

Then this area, Baba Amr, became a rebel-held area, and it was besieged. And Marie managed to sneak into that area. And the siege was incredibly brutal. It was, you know, Syrian government mortars attacking all the time, attacking women and children and people as well as rebels in that area. And that was when Marie and a young French photographer, Remi Ochlik, were killed by by Syrian mortars.

And that was when I realized ... there was no chance for a peaceful and successful rebellion. This was war at its most brutal.

What effect did the death of your friend and the death of such an extraordinary reporter ... have on you?

I had a profound effect. I mean, I didn't go to Syria for another year afterwards. I just couldn't quite face it.

Marie believed very much that being an eyewitness and being there was what we do. And I agreed with her, and I agree with her. I think that, you know, that's what journalists should do — that we should be eyewitnesses and we should be there and see with our own eyes what happens to people in war. But obviously, when one of your best friends dies doing that, it gives you pause.

Reporter Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in a Syrian government shelling attack in Homs on Feb. 22, 2012.

What effect did it have on you seeing what happened to children in Syria during this war?

Look, this stuff always has an effect on you. You can't deny that. But, you know, that's neither here nor there, is it, compared to the effect that it's had on Syrians?

And obviously, the main effect was that so many chose to leave. So that in the summer of 2015, when ... Turkey opened the borders and let people cross into Greece and up, so then we had that wave upon wave and wave of Syrians ... leaving.

The extraordinary thing was how they travelled in hope. Because they had been in the most terrible situation. And they really did believe that they could start new lives in Europe. And I think that many of them have.

They want to go home. Because, of course, everybody wants to go home. But there is a generation of Syrians that have come to Europe, particularly to Germany, and have learned the language, and some of these people are extremely well educated. I mean, I've met so many engineers.... Maybe one day things will change in Syria and they will have skills and they will have abilities and they will be able to go in and build their country.

Many of them didn't make it, right? I mean, many of them did. But you actually saw the consequences of what some of those people went through as they tried to escape and find ways of getting into Europe. What do you remember about discovering that truck?

We had been travelling ... through Europe with refugees — Syrians, Afghans, you know, people from all over, actually. And then we were driving from Hungary up through Austria, and we saw a truck out the side of the road. I didn't know what it was. It had a chicken sign on the right hand side. I didn't take much notice.

And then we got a call from the editors saying that there's news of a truck full of refugees who had died at the side of the road. And I thought, "Well, was it that truck?" So we circled back, and then we drive past it again. And I hate to say that I knew immediately it was that truck because we opened the window ... and you could smell death.

And so we knew that those were refugees who had been loaded into the back of a truck for frozen chicken in Romania.... They had been pounding on the roof as they began to suffocate, and ... the driver hadn't heard them and then the driver had run away.

It's absolutely terrible, but it's a testament to the desperation of people that they'll risk anything.

The bodies of 71 people were found in this back of this truck in Austria in 2015. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

The people that you left behind, the people who were in places like Aleppo that you covered … do you think about where some of them ended up? Are there any particular people you think, "I wonder what happened to them?"

I remember there was a ... half-built building in Aleppo, which was like a doll's house, you know, that you could see into it, because it had the floors and it had the pillars, but it didn't have walls. And people were living there. 

And we went up and we were filming … and there was a particular family, very nice family, had two little girls ... who I think were six and 10. And they were just such sweet girls. And they very much wanted to show me how they could count. The little one could count up to 10 in Arabic, and the older one could count up to 10 in English. And so they did that for me and for the camera.

In 2014, when I was in Europe amongst refugees, I was always looking for them. I was always looking for them. But of course, I didn't find them. I once sent somebody back to that building to try and find out what happened to them. But of course, they'd gone.

Girls wearing face paint showing the colours of the flag of the Syrian opposition attend a demonstration in Idlib on March 15. (Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP/Getty Images)

I do remember one thing on a train. I was on a train going through Macedonia, and looking in the carriages. All the adults were just fast asleep, exhausted. You know, they'd been walking for days. And there was a little girl. She must've been about nine. And she was standing ... there, watching the world go by. 

You could just see this was so exciting for her. I think about some of those kids as well, for whom the world is new and exciting. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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