As It Happens

Lyse Doucet reflects on Syrian war: 'I've never seen such an intensity of desperation'

Lyse Doucet, the BBC's Chief International Correspondent, reflects on five years of reporting extensively from Syria, covering the humanitarian costs of the conflict and the world's response to it.
In this March 23, 2011 file photo, anti-Syrian government protesters flash victory signs as they protest in the southern city of Daraa, Syria. (Hussein Malla/AP)

When protesters in Syria's southern city of Daraa took to the streets in March 2011, there was a sense that change was afoot. The Arab Spring, it seemed, had arrived in Syria.

But so much has changed in the five years since those first pro-democracy protests against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. That early defiance on the streets would soon be replaced with the daily sounds of shelling, hundreds of thousands of mass casualties, and an existential search for Syrian nationhood.

Since the conflict began, at least 250 thousand people have died. Eleven million — half the country's population — have been displaced.

Lyse Doucet is the chief international correspondent for the BBC. (BBC)

Lyse Doucet was in Daraa during those early pro-democracy protests five years ago. Since then, the BBC's Chief International Correspondent has been reporting extensively from the country, covering the humanitarian costs of the conflict, and the world's response to it. Last week, Doucet returned to Daraa to try and take stock of the last five years of war in the city where it all started. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about her experience. Here is part of their conversation.
In this March 29, 2011 file photo, Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad supporters demonstrate their support for their president in Damascus, Syria. It began innocently enough with a short phrase spray-painted on a school yard wall by teenagers in the southern Syrian city of Daraa: "Your turn is coming, doctor." The doctor referred to President Bashar Assad, a trained ophthalmologist, and the implication was that he too would fall from power like his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. (Muzaffar Salman/AP)

Carol Off: Lyse, when you were covering events five years ago, when this war began in Syria, could you have imagined that you would, five years later, still be covering it and you would be looking at the worst humanity crisis since the Second World War?

Lyse Doucet: No one, most of all Syrians, ever expected Syria would turn out like this. Turns out, in such a way, that the very existence of Syria is at threat. Where is Syria five years on? The most brutal, the most vicious of any of the uprising across this region. Possibly the worst of the tangled wars, 17 countries involved in Syria's war, so much so, this isn't Syria's war anymore.
Fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a parade in Raqqa, Syria. (Raqqa Media Center/AP)

CO: I remember, there was one report you gave, when there was a kind of feeling, "Well who are these people? They're trying to get into Europe. They're just looking for a better life." And you said in a report, quite passionately, "I've never met a Syrian who wanted to leave their country." What did you encounter of the people who were fleeing?

LD: Remember what Syria was before the war. It was a middle income country. Good roads, decent schools, self-dependent in pharmaceuticals, a country with rich heritage, the finest cuisine in the Middle East, exceptional hospitality and infamous repression. But it was home for Syrians. Why would anyone want to leave their home and become a refugee, including taking a perilous journey in a rickety boat across the Mediterranean? But Syria became a place, where so many Syrians said, "this is no longer a place to live — this is a place to die."
In this Nov. 18, 2013 file photo, a Syrian refugee woman walks near the tents of a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal. Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria's uprising began in March 2011 from the southern city of Daraa. (Bilal Hussein/AP)

Syria is a war where the truth is just as hard to find as peace. So many people have so many different stories of what happened there.- Lyse Doucet, BBC's Chief International Correspondent
A Syrian refugee girl sits in a classroom at a Lebanese public school where Syrian students attend classes in the afternoon, at Kaitaa village in north Lebanon. UNICEF says that one-third of Syrians under the age of 18, or about 3.7 million, were born since the civil war began in 2011. (Hussein Malla/AP)

CO: There was something I heard this morning, during the ceasefire, a man describes the sensation of, for the first time since he can't remember, having electricity and running water, and hearing the sound of birds. That alone was something like ecstasy. Is there any feeling at all that that experience will be more widespread?

LD: Your question underlines how there's so much in our lives that we take for granted. Millions of Syrians wake up here in the morning and they're not sure if they will have electricity that day. They're not sure they're going to have water. They're not sure if they're going to have a hot meal, cold meal or any meal at all. In large parts of this country, before this partial imperfect truce, didn't know whether they, their children, the people they hold dear, would live till the end of that day. These are the lives that are lead by millions of Syrians now. A country where half of the population is either forcibly displaced inside Syria, forced to become refugees outside, or dead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To hear more of Carol's conversation with BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet, including archival tape and excerpts from in-the-field reports, please click on the Listen link above.

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