17 Dec 2012

Damascus international: your flight to Aleppo is now departing

It is several days since we attempted the dual carriageway to Damascus international airport. And although the mortar and small arms fire along the airport road is not what it was, another shot-up vehicle lies slewed in a ditch which was not there yesterday.

In truth, it is not just fighting with arms that makes it difficult for a reporter to access the airport here, it is fighting for government permission to be allowed to film here.

This has taken several days. This morning I said to the Syrian Minister of Information Omran al Zohbi: “How come it takes a matter of hours to fix up filming with the rebels in Damascus – yet we have tried for eight days to film with the Syrian army without success?”

“Ha! That is because the rebels are not bureaucratic!”

Free speech?

There speaks a man with at least candour and understanding of the regime’s catastrophic inability to come to terms with free and open journalism.

In his interview, the information minister would go on to say they have given access to well over 300 foreign TV crews and they can operate here freely.

I do not doubt the truth of the first part of that statement. However, the second part is a total fiction and surely the genial and urbane Mr al-Zohbi, must be aware of this.

So, back to the airport. For days we have been trying but only now had permission to film there.

Upon arrival, at the edge of the airport, a man jumped in from airport security to assist us with filming and promptly told our cameraman to stop filming.

International departures

It was not an auspicious start. However, we gradually produced our camera and after some time were able to film an airport which – contrary to the impression that has gone global – is not just open, but functioning.

Small groups of passengers were duly being checked in for the Syrian Airlines flight to Doha at 2pm.this afternoon.

We chatted to passengers as they queued up and the consensus was that they felt quite happy to fly and that it was safe. As they saw it, the army had a grip on the place and it was secure.

True, there were occasional salvos of outgoing artillery fire from army positions close to the airport. Despite what the information minister says, we were certainly not allowed to film them. Nor the armoured personnel carriers crossing the runways out front from the terminal. And nor could we film the white saloon car which drew up close to the airport terminal full of men in civilian clothing but with Kalashnikov rifles.

Fear of flying

It seems the airport would normally handle around 50 flights every day during the winte. Around two-thirds of those have now disappeared. This is a combination of sanctions and the not unreasonable fear many airlines have of flying in and out of this airport. We were told that Iraqi Air, Algeria Airlines, Emirates, Fly Dubai, and two Iranian airlines as well as Syrian are still flying here.

We certainly witnessed the Syrian Doha flight departing somewhat late but departing nonetheless.

Officials say the airport never closed and indeed there is not a single sign of any fighting around the airport buildings themselves. Not so much as a pane of glass cracked, much less shattered.

Many beyond Syria will be interested to hear that we were told the daily morning flight up north to Aleppo is still leaving as normal.

We were not allowed to film from the roof of the airport in order to get a wider view, but it does appear that the real issue in recent days has been fighting across the airport road rather than at Damascus international itself.

On the way back, just a single gunshot rang out as we made the run for it along the dangerous stretch of the road. The signs say the speed limit for vans like ours is 90 kph. Our experienced driver, whom we will call “Hamid”, wisely chose a cruising velocity of 140 kph.

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