A Western Photographer in Hama, Syria
On his return from Hama, Syria, where he had traveled with the correspondent Anthony Shadid, the photographer Moises Saman spoke by telephone with his colleagues James Estrin and David Furst. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q. Tell us what you did in Syria and what you saw.
A. We saw a country that’s very much in revolt. We saw the army deployment inside Syria, which looked like an army occupation of a country.
We went into the city of Hama. It’s the fourth-largest city in Syria. It was interesting to us because it’s the only city where the security forces decided to withdraw after several deadly clashes with antigovernment protesters. Now, they’re basically outside the city. Inside, there’s no police, no army. It’s under the control of the protesters.
It was very tense — to be honest — and very, very difficult to work. We were taken in by some of the leaders of the protest movement. They were very nervous, especially of us getting seen by people who might be informers.
I mostly had to work at night and mostly from cars. I wasn’t allowed to roam around very much. The only thing I was able to do on the ground was join this protest that happened past midnight, which I hear happened every day. I was able to join the protesters for a half hour. Then I was whisked away in a car. The idea was to not get seen. There are a lot of informers for the regime still in the city. That could have created a huge problem for us and for the people who were taking care of us.
Q. So you had to go into and get out of Syria without being found?
A. That’s obviously what made it very, very difficult for me as a photographer. I’m going to have to have been seen at one point with a camera. It did help that my appearance blends pretty well with the local population. But the moment they saw me with a camera (and also, within the protest, everyone kind of knows each other), I was obviously a foreigner. When I was shooting the protests, people would come up to me constantly and nod. They wanted to know who I was and how I was able to make it into Hama. They haven’t seen any journalists. As far as I know, I’m the first Western photographer who has been able to enter Hama.
Q. Say more about the protesters’ reaction to you and interaction with you.
A. At first it was very friendly. They were very curious about who I was and what I was doing, in a friendly way. That was mostly the young people. The older people were a little more suspicious. They were talking to me in Arabic. I don’t speak Arabic, so that created another problem. That’s why I had to work very fast. By the time things got more complicated, I was able to leave.
Q. What was the mood while you were there?
A. I was there a little bit less than two days. The mood was very tense. This is a city that was pretty much leveled in the ’80s by Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president. This is the city where they killed tens of thousands of people in 1982. It’s a city that’s still very much wounded from that experience.
Now, since the recent protest and the recent clashes, the place was very tense and everybody very suspicious. The city is not liberated by any means. It had this sense of being a city under siege — very moody. Everybody knows that this is not going to stand for much longer and everybody is waiting for something to happen. I was able to get in and out. There were some military checkpoints, but it’s not like there were troops massing outside to attack. But it had that feeling.
Q. Given its history and its relationship with the regime, Hama kind of resembles what a Syrian city might look like if Assad were to fall. Did you get the sense at all that they were at the forefront of all this?
A.From what we heard, the protesters are somewhat organized. We heard they have teams that clean the city. We heard about some communal kitchens for the protesters. We weren’t able to actually see any of that. But it seems like people were pretty organized.
It certainly looked like a city where the government is nonexistent at the moment. There’s no security forces or police. But it was still very much a functioning city. The shops were open and some people were walking around in some places. But it had this strange sense of everybody expecting something to happen.
Q. How did you feel?
A. In a way, I was very excited to be there because it was such an important journalistic achievement to be able to work in that town and report on what was happening in this protest movement. At the same time, you’re always watching your back, trying to work very fast and not be noticed. Just the thought of being caught was very serious. It was a mixture of being very, very excited and, at the same time, nervous about something going wrong.
Q. How about the rest of Syria? What did you see?
A. We did see army deployments all throughout the part of Syria we drove through. Hama is about two hours from where we crossed. It’s a beautiful country, at least what we saw — a lot of farming fields. We went through the countryside right to the city. It was really beautiful.
Q. When you met the activists and demonstrators in more private circumstances, how did they respond to you. Had they seen journalists before? What did they want from you?
A. They’ve had contact with journalists, obviously. As you know, journalists are not allowed in Syria now, but they can call in or talk via Skype. As far as us being there on the ground, it was the first time for them. I think they took us with a mixture of curiosity and a little bit of suspicion. They were asking a lot of questions, like where did we think the movement was going. Also about American foreign policy and what Obama thought and what Americans thought about what was going on in Syria.
Q. Is there any moment while you were in Hama that stands out?
A. The most exciting moment was joining this protest — after seeing all these shaky YouTube videos from so far way, suddenly being there on the ground and part of that and seeing this youth movement. It was really made up of young people. It was extremely exciting. I’m probably never going to forget this, even though it was a very short time I spent with them. Just walking with them, marching with them and taking pictures. It was really an amazing moment.
Q. You’ve covered every angle of what some are calling the Arab Spring. How do your experiences in all those places compare?
A. This definitely has elements that Tunisia and even Egypt didn’t have. This is a regime that still wants to hold on to power and they are killing their own people. If I had to compare it with anything, it would probably be the beginning of the protest in Libya, in Benghazi, where there were army deployments killing people on the streets. This is happening in Syria every day. They’re still killing protesters every single day. We caught a small glimpse of this town. It felt like the beginning of something that’s probably going to take a while to really succeed.
Date : 19/07/2011