For his latest documentary Syria: Across the Lines, Olly Lambert went undercover in the Orontes river valley in rural Hama, spending weeks living with both opposition and government supporters. Here, he reveals the risks and near-misses.
Why did you want to film both the rebels and supporters of the regime?
A large majority of the reportage coming out of Syria was footage of young men with guns in and around Aleppo. I felt it wasn’t really showing the whole picture. Then when I was researching the film I came across this one particular valley where Alawites were on one side and Sunni rebels were on the other. I’m always looking for the smallest window with the biggest view, and this particular valley offered that.
How did you manage it?
I had to make two completely separate trips to Syria. To get to the rebels, I had smuggle in via Turkey. Then I went back to London, to Beirut, over to Damascus and up to an Alawite village that was less than mile from where I’d been filming previously. It was a 3000-mile round-trip because it was impossible to cross the frontline.
There’s very, very little communication between the two communities. For example, the regime are convinced that the people living a mile away have been completely infiltrated by Al Qaeda terrorists and foreign armed gangs. Of course I couldn’t tell them that I’d been living in that village for weeks and they haven’t been infiltrated. That’s the nature of the conflict now: both sides are convinced that the other is more and more extreme.
Were you on your own?
On each trip I had a fixer and they acted as translator and local producer. It was just the two of us.
What equipment did you take?
Because it was so dangerous, I had to be able to carry everything on my own with one lift – I couldn’t be going backwards and forwards. I had to take bulletproof vests, helmets, medical trauma and medicines kits, and two full camera kits. There’s no running water, let alone camera shops or cable manufacturers.
For security reasons we had to move houses regularly in case the regime got wind of where we were staying and targeted that area. I was relying on the hospitality of the villagers on both sides, sleeping in people’s front rooms on cushions.
Were they welcoming?
They were unbelievably welcoming. It was almost an occupational hazard how hospitable people were. Literally every house you passed would invite you in for a cup of tea of coffee, which my fixer said to accept. So you’d have tea for half and hour, take your leave, walk three steps down the road and somebody else would invite you in for tea. So for the first two or three days, I got very little done apart from go to the toilet a lot! But that really paid off because within two or three days, everybody in the community knew who the foreigner was with the camera: he’s been a guest in my house and he can be trusted.
On the rebel side, the villages are swamped with IDPs – internally displaced people – who had fled the really fierce fighting in the cities. So the village was really struggling with the influx of internal refugees and there wasn’t much space. But people could not have been more welcoming; it was really touching.
On the regime side, living with the Alawites, there was a lot more suspicion; hardly any foreigners had been to the village that I was filming in since the uprising. They needed a lot of reassurance about who we were and what we were doing. But once that was out of the way – again – they could not have been more welcoming.
How did you convince the regime to let you film?
We had to be escorted by two regime security officials up to the Alawite village. At first I was hesitant about having them with us because I thought people might see us as part of the regime and be nervous. In fact, the opposite was true.
The Alawites have a really profound fear of the future: that they as a people, as a sect, are going to be wiped out. One guy actually said to me “you either win or you die.” So they were very nervous that I was a spy or from a foreign government, and that they would get into trouble for hosting an illegal alien.
The security officials were able to reassure the Alawite villagers that this person was ok: the regime knows that he’s here and you are free to talk. Then you almost couldn’t stop them talking because they were desperate to express all their fears and anxieties about what’s happening in their country. Those voices are very rarely heard, particularly in Western media.
Western media often presents conflict zones in terms of goodies and baddies and it’s never as simple as that – and that was certainly the case here. When you meet the Alawites, you can see how they’re almost like brothers to the people I filmed earlier on the other side of the valley.
Did it change your view of the conflict?
Yes, in lots of ways. Despite everything that I’ve seen in the media, I really wasn’t prepared for the imperial-scale bloodshed that the regime is inflicting on its own population. Every day it was this extraordinary catalogue of death. The rebels are meting out violence to the Alawites in return, but it’s completely disproportionate.
On the regime side, what really struck me is the genuine fear of the ordinary Alawites civilians. They will often say that they’re fighting for the survival of Syria and genuinely feel that they are fighting to the death. That makes them a very dangerous force, especially as you’ve also got Sunni rebels fighting for victory or martyrdom. So you’ve this very nihilistic view on both sides.
Were there times when you feared for your own safety?
I’ve never come that close to getting taken out. I had four near-misses. Over the last ten years I’ve reported from about ten conflict zones but this was off the scale. It was a huge relief to come out.
I’m very fortunate; I could leave. What made the situation so awful for the people I was filming was that they were stuck. They were just moving around the country, looking for somewhere that was safe.
Syria: Across the Lines is on Channel 4 at 10pm on Wednesday 17 April