Gaëtan Vannay Articles translated into English
Gaëtan Vannay is a Swiss reporter who spent 10 days in the city of Hama before it was assaulted by the Syrian army at the beginning of August. He writes about his experience and observations. Some articles are in French, but they were kindly translated by @PrincessLayl. You may freely use the translation as long as you give the proper credits. Usage of the Main articles requires permission from the author himself.
Hama, a symbol of revolt
Hama is a city wounded by the oppression of Assad’s regime. In one week, 300 people died in the attacks from security forces, which are now besieging the city. However, a journalist managed to get in. Gaetan Vannay, reporter for Radio Suisse Romande, talked to RMC.
Hama in Syria, became the symbol of bloody repression from the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Within a week, hundreds of people died in the city. Tanks are positioned in strategic places of the city, nothing gets in or out of the city anymore.
140 people were dead on July 31st
Since March 15th, 2100 people died in Syria and July 31st the army launched a wide operation against Hama during which 140 people were killed. Gaetan Vannay was there: “It started on that Sunday morning, at 4:30 am. Tanks took up positions all around the city and Hama inhabitants had organized a surveillance of these troops in order to know what was about to happen, and anticipate what finally occurred, because everyone suspected that these tanks would enter the city at some point. At 4:30 am, these watchmen gave the signal, which was the scream “Allah Akbar”, God is Great. At that moment, inhabitants had put up barricades in the city, along the big axes, to slow down the tanks”.
“A poor defense system”
Gaetan Vannay also noted the will of Hama inhabitants to not let the city be invaded by security forces without doing anything: “The barricades were quite derisory, made of construction material, bricks and scrap metal, one or two wrecked cars, or tires that were set on fire as soon as the signal was given to let off a black smoke, that weighed upon the whole city that Sunday morning. (…) Obviously this defense system was derisory. Tanks entered, took up positions in strategic places of the city’s daily life, in crossing points. From then on, soldiers shot with light weapons on Hama inhabitants that they saw passing in their line of sight. They also shot with heavier weapons, these big machine-guns placed on tanks. Now and then, they would also use the tank itself to shoot homes.”.
Bashar Al-Assad talks about armed terrorist gangs. Are terrorists running the city?
“In the 10 days I spent in the city before the tanks entered, I arrived in Hama on July 21st, I only witnessed 10 days of daily demonstrations, in the evenings, except on Friday, when they took place in the afternoon, and were completely peaceful, perfectly organized to stay that way, structured in order to remain like that and without overflows. There were even organization committees and in these committees, there were people here to calm down families that had already lost people, martyrs, like they call them here, to tell these families, angrier than others, that wanted to take up arms, that they wanted a peaceful revolution: ‘we don’t want any weapon, we don’t want any outbreak’.”
“I didn’t hear any gunshot”
“Personally, I haven’t seen any gang, in these 10 days. I only saw peaceful demonstrations. I didn’t hear any gunshot. The first ones I heard, were when tanks entered the city and not a single Hama inhabitant told me about such gangs or such terrorist like the government of Bashar Al-Assad calls them. From my experience, from what I lived, arguments presented by the government of Bashar Al-Assad are completely fallacious”.
In Hama, the martyr city,”each drop of blood is worth our sacrifice”
HAMA (SYRIA), SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT– Chief of the Radio Suisse Romande international service, Gaëtan Vannay is one of the very few journalists to have been inside Hama. He entered Syria clandestinely on July 20th (this country’s authorities don’t deliver visas to journalists) and relates what he saw in this city, theater of big demonstrations, where he worked until August 1st, the day after the murderous assault launched by the regime.
Ahmed, who looks like a boxer and under a fake name, shrugs. “I was arrested because I wa s demonstrating.” He doesn’t remember the exact date, but it was 83 days ago. A counter is working in his head ever since the torture he suffered into the hands of security forces, and will keep counting until Bashar Al-Assad steps down. “Each drop of blood from a child, a young man, a woman, a martyr, is worth us sacrificing ourselves.” No need to talk about reforms.
Ahmed was released after he signed and left the fingerprint of his right thumb on a blank paper, after a confession – duly recorded – according to which he had been armed and paid to demonstrate, after guaranteeing that, from now on, he would support the regime.
A city victim of the repression
Ever since his liberation, he is more active than ever in the Syrian opposition. He knows by heart the most improbable roads to get in or out of Hama without being spotted by the army and the regime’s security forces surrounding the city since the beginning of July. Despite this encirclement, except for the daily meeting of demonstrators calling for the leaving of Bashar Al-Assad, Hama inhabitants try to live the most normal life possible, “in the independent Republic of Hama”, jokes an opponent.
“When you’re walking inside a tunnel, you don’t see the light at the end yet, but you know that you’re walking in the right direction. I’m sure I’m walking in the right direction”, he confided. And things can hardly get any darker today for the inhabitants of Hama in Syria, victim of the repression after weeks of demonstrations against the regime.
Saleh Al-Amwi, called a “revolutionary”, is a religious figure very respected in this city of the center of Syria, a member of the organization and coordination of demonstrations committee. Respected in those circumstances, not only for his young age and his wisdom, but also because he was in the streets from day one, points out a militant.
All the opponents met in Hama share this conviction, this determination, even after the entry of army and security forces tanks in the city on the morning of Sunday, July 31st. The majority of opponents were too afraid to demonstrate that night, a few militants gathered Monday night, by neighborhoods, to display their will to not be intimidated. But meeting on the central square, Al-Aassi square, would have been simply deadly.
“Should we continue without weapons?”
Saturday, August 6th, the Syrian state television was showing pictures of the city of Hama deserted by its inhabitants, but littered with after-war debris. The voice-over of a journalist was announcing the army’s success in eliminating “an armed rebellion launched by terrorists”. On August 2nd, this same television channed was already reporting these “armed gangs terrorizing the population”, making opponents scream behind their screens, most of them sheltered at home this night while the Syrian army was shooting with its tanks on the 2 main hospitals of the city.
For monthes, regime opponents were applying themselves to maintain a pacific movement despite the repression. Saleh Al-Amwi worked personally on calming the families of “martyrs”, convincing those wanting to arm themselves to take revenge not to do it. When the tanks entered in town, the few men who went out in the streets carrying weapons to defend the city were firmly asked not to use them.
But the temptation is strong. On a derisory barricade made of brick and scrap metal supposed to slow down the march of tanks, Sadi (a fake name) asks, pointing at the armored vehicles: “Should we continue without weapons?” Inner fight between the will to maintain a peaceful revolt and a feeling of powerlessness against the regime’s strike force. Sadi, with his impressive stature, climbs on a moped and rides through the city to inform and get informed. This amateur poet is in the heart of the opposition movement. Some of his poems have been published, but not the lines criticizing the regime. Those never got out of his very narrow circle of trustworthy friends.
Sadi’s final destination : an ordinary house in the center of Hama. They’re only a few militants to know about this place where the few available pictures of the Syrian repression are put online. On the outside, in the city streets, young people are taking the risk to die in order to catch from the closest possible the progress and positions of tanks, the shootings on a population disarmed by security forces. Some lost their life to this. The memory cards are exchanged quickly and discreetly, from hand to hand, ending up in this nerve center for regime opponents. Young people are putting the pictures online, communicating via Skype (telephony via Internet), trying to get in touch with demonstrators from other cities.
“Hama is not alone anymore”
Several networks are crossing, collaborating to gather and transmit information, facing the black-out imposed by Syrian authorities. Some images come from army or security forces members, who film them and sell them, out of greed. They’re very expensive. Demonstrators take the risk of getting in touch with the authors and buying these documents, often the most graphic ones, showing the bad treatments inflicted upon arrested people. Indeed they can only be filmed by involved people.
While Hama was home to some of the greatest gatherings (tens of thousands of demonstrators – and not hundreds of thousands like militants asserted), the incursion of regime forces put an end to those gatherings. “But Hama is not alone anymore, and it’s the biggest difference with 1982” said an inhabitant happily – despite everything – a 54-year-old whose 7 children are militants.
10’000 to 20’000 people were killed that year, in Hama, in the ferocious repression of an uprising against the regime. The extent of the massacre was only known long after the events. “I’m very proud of my kids, they want to earn their freedom and their dignity. After living 1982, I never would have thought people would dare demonstrating”
Today, deprived of telephone and Internet, opponents are reduced to silence in Hama. But Homs, 47 kilometers from there, took the streets again despite the repeated assaults of regime forces during the month of July. And in other cities of the country, slogans in support for Hama are being chanted by demonstrators. “We will demonstrate throughout all Syria until our last drop of blood”, affirmed Ahmed. Somewhere in a repressed Hama, his mental counter was still counting.
Mountain village. Waiting. In the car, a steep road leading nowhere. From the bushes appear the two ferrymen that are going to accompany me.
2 hours and a half of walking hastily in the mountain, in the vegetation, in the dark, when you’re broken in two, in the clear glades. Bag on the back.
A warning, a patrol is passing by, a little higher on a path.
An hour on a motorcyle, with the lights off, including a dive in a bush to hide from a vehicle riding up, 2 hours of sleep in the hut of a olive field’s watchman.
5:00 am, over 2 hours of motorcycle in the direction of Hama. The motorcycle, 2 young people on it, without helmets, the most natural way to move when you’re hiding. Dark skin, black beard and hair, brown eyes, it helps to pass as a young guy from here.
Approaching Hama, we stop by the highway, hidden behind a mound, waiting for a car. In the vehicle, looking like I’m sound asleep so that no one asks me question at the check point, that is if we don’t manage to avoid them all.
Beginning of the afternoon in Hama, relieved, but it’s only the beginning.
Getting to know my accompanist-translator, mutual introduction – we’re going to have to trust each other.
Evening demonstration. Every night after the prayer, opponents gather on the city’s central square, a few hundred people.
Very organized to avoid any incident. Peaceful revolution.
Friday prayer, then the big demonstration.
500’000 people according to activists, 100’000 according to me.
No intervention from the security forces. Army and security forces have left the heart of the city, and are only present at the check-points set up on the principal entry points to the city.
Meetings and interviews in Hama. Making articles, but never appearing as being in Syria. Foreign journalists are forbidden in the country.
Can’t do a lot of interviews, only talking to trustworthy people, there are loads of informants in town. Every interview, every move, has to be done with caution.
Meanwhile in Homs, 40 kilometers from here, security forces and the army have entered the city, repressing. Every day, the will to go there, every day, the same conclusion: too dangerous.
The journalist’s frustration: finally being in the place they want to get you out of, but the precautions you have to take are such that they make your job difficult.
Strengthening of check-points with security forces around Hama. Tanks around the city, at the 4 main entry points, 15 to 20 ones at each place. And reinforcements on a hill, too far away to be counted, too clear to get close without being seen.
25 military trucks arrive, “GAZelle” type, near the military airport, apparently loaded with ammunitions.
City center, almost normal life, a little slowed down. Traffic also slowed down by the many obstacles put by the inhabitants on the road to slow down the security forces when they try incursions. Barricades and watchmen always in town to avoid getting attacked by surprise. The warning scream of Hama inhabitants: “Allah Akbar”.
Night demonstration: much more organized than yesterday, with more people.
Calculation of the square’s surface for Friday’s demonstration: 80 steps x 200, with 80 centimeters steps, with 5-6 people per square meter, with a few overflows in adjacent streets, with people perched on the roof: 100’000 people maximum. The half a million claimed by activists for the Friday demonstrations is just not possible. We’ll see in 3 days.
Towards the end of the morning, by coincidence of traffic in town, my car happens to be behind 2 security forces vehicles. Tense. Easy to recognize them: white Toyota, Jeep, or minibus, full of men exclusively, all wearing the shoulder strap for their weapon visibly. Sometimes they rent vehicles here to pass more unnoticed.
In the night, an alarm, false.
In the same night, saw videos of security forces passing a mountain village near Turkey where inhabitants helped refugees fleeing. A true butchery, and that’s not a metaphor: dismembered bodies, faces cut in two. Facing street fights with shootings, okay, but no being arrested by security forces, rather run away and being shot dead…
These videos, they’re re-sold by soldiers or security forces themselves. They film discreetly, then sell them to activists knowing that they want to document what is happening… And they sell them at a high price, hundreds of US dollars. Those who buy them are taking a huge risk, that is being arrested as activists when they buy, but as long as they pay…
Before the videos, we stop at a man’s place, he is looking after a child lost by his parents during a big demonstration last Friday. He’s not capable of giving his last name. The callings during the last evening demonstrations were inefficient, he may be from a village outside. His picture was taken, they’d like to issue a call via Al Jazeera Arabic. The kid is cute, woken up at 2:00 am for the picture, he didn’t even look sad and wanted to eat biscuits.
Officially, authorities are fighting armed gangs. A week being here, demos every night, the only arms I saw were in the hands of soldiers and security forces.
Other vidos this morning. In Daraa, dead people in the street, almost systematically shot in the head. Activists watch all these videos and go out to demonstrate in the street again, going on with their movement. “Our personal life is worth less than what we are fighting for”.
Departure for Homs, via Al Rastan, recorder hidden in the car’s motor, camera inside the driver’s seat.
Syrian ID card in my pocket, something that could eventually work in front of soldiers of the regular army, but not with security forces.
And pocket money, lots of money. My accompaniers are business men in construction, it’s business trip.
Al Rastan is located along the international road crossing the country, the army isn’t arresting all the vehicles circulating, we pass.
Stop at a ‘trustworthy friend’ ’s place, he knows the position of all the check-points of Al-Rastan. Walk around town to assess damages of the repression suffered a few days ago. I leave my recorder at this friend’s.
Al Rastan is surrounded by tanks, check-points are set up inside the village, tanks are installed in the streets. Shooting traces are everywhere, on the town’s water tower, on houses’ walls, inside houses. Some are new. 2 days ago, the army was shooting.
Talk with a man whose house is regularly targeted by shootings, the bullets have passed through the windows, lodged themselves in the rooms’ walls.
In a street of Al Rastan particularly exposed to tanks positioned in front of it, on a hill, not a single house is untouched. Residents also talk of lootings. In one of the houses I visited, there are no valuables left.
At the end of the street, a house, a reflection, a camera, 2 men behind an open window, security forces. Immediate departure, but the car may have been spotted. As soon as we’re out of the 2 men’s sight, I get out of the car, hide in a garden. A few minutes later, a young biker who was covering up the car ever since we entered Al Rastan arrives.
At the first intersection after I got out of the car, he was blocked by 3 cars of security forces, who got my accompaniers out of the car with the sound of Kalashnikovs. They want to know who this man was, they have pictures. The young biker didn’t stay any longer, and came to pick me up. On the bike, we’re heading towards another house in another neighborhood of the town.
Going back to Hama before the night. An old public bus to cross the town, I’m alone inside, and a van to get out of the town.
On the way, thinking “safety”, covering up everything that can be covered up. Are they going to talk? On the telephone, I tell our local accompanier, who was released –this is a rather good sign, but you never know– to destroy and make the recorder left at his place disappear without hesitation, for his own safety. I’ll stay at the house of the intercepted car’s owner, check that the apartment isn’t filed under his name, in which case I have to clear out of the place and get other residents out, if possible. Riding, thinking, anticipating.
At the entrance to Hama, excellent surprise, my accompaniers were released. They used their profession, said they were there to consider the reconstruction of what was destroyed by the shootings, that I was a colleague from another locality who went back and was taking pictures to evaluate the damages. They paid 500 dollars for the report written about the incident to be destroyed in front of them, and the pictures erased.
Meeting in the night with a man who was arrested by security forces because he was “against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime”. Torture, extorted confessions of being paid to demonstrate, attempt to obtain names of demonstrators – at the time of his arrest, at the beginning of the movement, people were still demonstrating masked behind a scarf. He didn’t give any name, his friends confirm. I was this close to fall into the hands of these people… He was released after promising that, now, he supported Bashar, of course it’s not true. He signed up and put his thumbprint at the end of a blank page. When are they going to bring this document out again? With what written on it?
Before the Friday prayer.
Relief and great frustration all at once after yersterday : it’s really difficult to work, impossible to check the information.
It illustrates the pressure put on the population too, a seemingly normal life, but always this threat of the security forces’ presence.
Once again spotted, apparently during the Friday prayer. Watched from the rooftop of an administration building, according to one of the men with me. Inconvenient, annoying, worrying, frustrating, not being able to work properly.
Four army helicopters flew over the city at the beginning of the Friday prayer… Over the city, but not above the central square.
And once again, number quarrel. My estimations are still around 100’000, activists’ are around 500’000, they even wanted to say a million. I feel like they made too high estimations on the early, less attended demonstrations, and now all their new countings are distorted.
Talks about a new attempt to go to Homs. But the organization will take several days, it’s going to be very difficult over there, if not impossible, to move around, given the number of check-points (with about thirty tanks) that are spread out in streets and neighborhoods, and interviews aren’t granted either, with the difficulty to move – even for Syrians to come to me, and the timing of the trip back will also depend on the situation.
My safety would be assured by 50% to 70% depending on the moments, on a scale where the 100% isn’t Lausanne or Genève but Hama.
To sum it up, a lot of time, a lot of risks, for a very hazardous journalistic result. I decide not to go.
Daily evening demonstrations in a city leading an almost normal life, “protected” – irony – by tanks and security forces located around the city. Attempt at an incursion last night by the security forces from the South, pushed away by opponents/activists, throwing stones. Apparently it was just a try, to test things out, see if the population is still watching.
Various Syrian organizations report 22 deaths yesterday in different clashes throughout Syria, as well as the daily disappearances. Hama, Homs and Al Rastan seem to have been rather calm today. Tonight, demonstration, just like every night.
Calm night, difficult morning.
Warning at dawn, around 4:30 am. “Allah Akbar” throughout the whole city. The alarm scream. Tanks of the Syrian army enter Hama, from the North and the East at first.
Not a specific neighborhood is targeted, but the whole city.
Hama covered in the dark smoke of burnt tires at check-points.
30 minutes later, a tank got 2 streets, right in the city center, light and heavy-weapon shootings. Saw the first killed and another falls to the ground but I don’t know in what state. The men of Hama are in the street, armed with knives, slings, sticks, a few rare weapons but other demonstrators say they don’t want that. There are ‘fights’ of that kind everywhere in the city.
Minarets call for blood donations.
Some activists riding bikes go to film the events, bring back videos and send them to the media.
A resident, on the regime: “they hate Hama”, this sums up the say, and may presume what is to come next.
Tanks are set up at the city’s entry, at 3 points, snipers are ambushed in town, at least 25 tanks of reinforcement are said to be on the way, from what I saw on television.
Over 100 people dead, unarmed people mostly, or armed with knives and sticks, Molotov cocktails too, to try to make tanks retreat back.
The injuries, those I’ve seen, aimed the head, the upper body… shoot to kill, obviously.
Naturally, no demonstration tonight.
”Should we use weapons or not ?” question from an activist… inner fight between the will of a peaceful revolution and the sense of powerlessness against tanks… Not my role to answer…
Anger at the international community, anger at the NGO, anger at the occidental media… They’re taking it out on me…
So frustrating not to be able to testify directly, but at the same time I really don’t want to become one of the elements the regime is hunting down in their raking of the city.
Change of accomodation in the night. Now in the middle of a popular neighborhood, trustworthy.
End of the night before the sunrise, from fear to laughter, with kids. A. and S., 4 and 10 years old, 2-3 words of French. Improvised language lesson at 2:30 am, sitting on carpets in a little street of a besieged city.
Political talks too. Absolute hate for the regime, wanting to go all the way.
Equality, dignity, freedom.
A few rare gunshots, calm city. Probably no demonstration tonight after “taraweeh” (prayer of the night during Ramadan), too risky.
Living and sleeping in the basement of a building under construction, with only one inhabited accommodation. Clandestine underground ‘hospital’ for first aid. Bandages, disinfectants, and not a lot more than that.
Impossible to got to the hospital to count the victims, I’m probably being watched – discreetly – by security forces.
Seen on TV, on the national Syrian channel, a report about armed civil gangs supposedly terrorizing Hama inhabitants. The regime justifying its repression. Syrians with me yelling at the TV.
Around 11 :00 pm, gunshots at 2 hospitals of the city.
Once again in the night, departure from Hama, almost in front of the army, no other solution.
Once again alternation between bikes and cars, day and night, before one last and long run to avoid the gaze of Syrian watchtowers on the frontier.
On the way, crossed paths with numerous Syrian soldiers and policemen who quit their post, disgusted by the repression. They’re hiding, fearing revenge on their families.
Interview with Vannay on AlJazeera Mubashar (in Arabic):