2 Jun 2012

On the trail of the UN monitors…

There is no such thing as an easy day at the office for a UN monitor in Syria. And it was not one today for the Togolese, Chadian and Senegalese officers mounting up in their brilliant white Nissan landcruisers and heading off up the road north from Damascus this morning.

And they were not alone. Their two-vehicle “convoy” was way outnumbered by the Damascene TV crews, who seem to spend the entire day filming the UN monitors driving, but rarely filming them when they do their jobs.

Of which more later.

Five miles or so along the road to Homs, and they pull off on the outskirts to Qara. The appearance of the UN vehicles is – like a TV camera – an instant invitation to an impromptu crowd scene – and when it comes to crowd scene-ing, few do it better than the Syrians. Shia, Alawite, Sunni – it just doesn’t matter, they will give it their all.

Within minutes, you can’t really see the beleaguered Togolese…or is the Chadians…or…well, you can’t tell, because they’re surrounded by everyone, from the bloke who seems to be the mayor, or says he is, to another guy who claims to run the hospital, to the local lad who’s just rocked up with a revolutionary flag and is trying to insert it into the radiator of the internationally-neutral Nissan.

Fifteen minutes or so of this, and the UN’s had enough. Notes have been taken. It’s transpired later that the locals said the last time the UN showed up to monitor the town, the town got shelled by the Syrian army as soon as blue helmets – BH – or casques bleus – had left the scene.

True or not? Who the hell knows? The UN leaves.

Followed as ever by those intrepid seekers of truth and discovery, the Damascene press pack. No way is the revolution any kind of news for them, it seems. No way is it going to be on the tele here. No way are they staying around. So they roar off, sticking cameras out of the window to film the UN going down the road south, having filmed them coming up the road north.

Leaving us to be led into the town by the lad with the flag, who’s now on a motorbike. Then there are three motorbikes beckoning us. Then a dozen. And before you know it, from nowhere, there are around 300 men and boys chanting “Allahu akbar” for all their worth, and all the other slogans I’m getting to know. There is the one about hanging Assad, the clapping one about how he must go, and the very rude one about the Russians and Chinese – always a crowd pleaser.

Watching our pictures some hours later as we send them to London from Syrian TV, an engineer helpfully points out to us that all of these people are al Qaeda. Yes, all of them. Which is curious, because on the streets of Qara, you can’t help noticing that the mosques and the church are virtually next door to each other. If you did miss it, virtually everyone you meet will point it out.

For the people of Qara, this is not a sectarian war, they insist, but a simple need for freedom and democracy. Their words, not mine. How far that runs across Syria, I have serious doubts, but there is no reason to doubt it here, as yet another man in this crowd comes up to tell me he’s protesting, he wants Assad gone, and he’s a Christian.

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