Managing Delirium

By Sam (surname withheld)

May 11, 20199 Minutes

In late 2011, a coordinated Syrian Army campaign was developed to kill and apprehend professional and citizen journalists whose works were reaching worldwide audience. By doing so, the Assad regime hoped to impose a media blackout on the war.

In my experience, everyone responds to high-pressure environments differently. ‘Am I going to die today?’ asked the cameraman tentatively. ‘No, I scheduled it for tomorrow’, I said with a laugh. He nodded, and then went back to his spot near the correspondent who was sleeping soundly, as he had been for most of the last two days. The cameraman’s way of dealing with our life and death situation was to seek certainty, the correspondent’s was to sleep excessively, and mine has always been to joke about it. I’m leading the security for a small, but very high-profile news crew, reporting on the fighting and atrocities in Syria. It’s early 2012, and the civil war is tearing the country apart and causing one of the largest humanitarian disasters of our age.

 

This is our fifth day of being relentlessly shelled by over one hundred Syrian army tanks and artillery. The tanks have surrounded a rebel stronghold that we were unfortunate enough to have entered whilst seeking out our story. And now we must move, be captured, or get hit. As the tanks inch closer to us, I know it’s time to make a break for the border while we still can.

 

Between the edge of a rebel-held town and the forest that will provide us cover on route to the Lebanese border, there is a wide-open field of some 1km in length. That field area is flanked by Syrian army on both sides – the same army that has been shelling us for the past five days and is intent on ensuring we don’t make it out of the country with news footage. For $200, I am able to buy the services of a Syrian rebel medic and his fibreglass topped pick up truck. This is our only way across the open range to freedom, and I silently pray he doesn’t double-cross us and trade us in for a lot more than we are paying him. Our team of five flattens into the bloodstained cargo bed of the truck and without a second’s hesitation, our driver begins racing through the streets and out across the open field area. For a few alluring moments everything is eerily quiet, and then… the ground begins to explode all around us.

 

In what is the most time-distorted minute of my life, artillery lands all around us and shrapnel sprays our vehicle as the ground shudders and convulses. We all attempt to stay prone in the truck but get bounced into the fibreglass roof, as a form of delirium takes hold. A paralyzing mix of expectancy, doom and acceptance all compete for our minds’ full attention. Time has no meaning for us as the truck takes more hits. ‘Did I leave it too late to exit the town? Will I see my family again? Was this operation worth it? Did I really need to come here again? This has to be my last crossing’, these are my thoughts. Before I can form any answers, we skid into the forest and are screamed at to exit the vehicle. Three boys, barely old enough to shave, await us with engines revving on their cheap Chinese motorbikes.

 

These are our escorts, sent by the smugglers we paid, to get us in and out of the country. What follows is too similar to an Indiana Jones movie to credibly write about. Suffice to say that we are shot at by the Syrian army pursuing us in jeeps, and our group becomes separated as the teenage bike riders split along narrow trails, racing at high speed through endless lines of olive trees. After an hour of weaving and barely staying on the back of the 150cc bikes, we somehow all arrive within minutes of each other at the last hurdle before the Lebanese border. One hundred metres of landmines and two, forty-metre high banks separate us from freedom. The smugglers have cleared a narrow path through the minefield and run confidently in front of us to the base of the banks. This is where we part company with our guides – with no thanks or ceremony. As our news crew begins a final manic sprint up the hills to the crossing point, we hear gunshots. I turn and then scream at the crew to keep looking forward, not to look back.

 

There is no benefit to be had in them seeing that one of the smuggler boys is now lying lifeless in the dirt. I have crossed back and forth into Syria sixteen times since the civil war started. In every single crossing, I’ve been shelled or shot at. It gets harder each time, and I do my best to avoid calculating the odds of taking another team into the territory. Without reporting and providing important intelligence from the inside, the western world would have remained mostly ignorant of the atrocities taking place in Syria. I think of the Syrian children, not so unlike my own three children, yet who live through hell each day. And it’s these thoughts that provide me with the reason to make that crossing one more time. However, I’ve promised myself that this next crossing is most definitely my last.


Sam

Served as a Royal Marine for seven years and a Police Officer for fourteen years, eight of which he served in SO19, the special firearms command. Since retiring from the Police, he’s led hundreds of high-risk security operations in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Congo, Namibia, Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania and Egypt. He is a special advisor and trainer for Frontline Mind’s Law Enforcement Programs.