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Column: My dealings with the Syrian government

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria for five years. Here he recalls his encounter with low-level government officials.

Stephen Starr

The following is an edited excerpt from Stephen Starr’s book Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.

IN JUNE 2011, I made yet another visit to the Ministry for Information on the eighth floor of the Baath newspaper building. On this occasion I was looking for a document that would allow me back into Syria if I wanted to leave. I knocked on one of two office doors that dealt with the foreign journalist contingent. No one answered and I walked in. There were four employees sitting on sofas talking, drinking tea and mette and smoking.

I called over to an employee I knew.

“Hello, Basil.”

“Oh, hi Stephen, how are you?” asked Basil, who asked me about English grammar each time I visited. He was chatting on the internet and playing games. The darkened windows were open and the sound of traffic from the Mezzah highway below floated up into the room.

He went out to ask another employee about my request, then returned and asked if I wanted some tea. I did. As I waited for the employee to arrive I spotted some newspapers piled up on a chair. I looked through them: the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, The Times, the Sunday Telegraph.

The employee emerged and told me what I need to bring: a letter saying I would be leaving and specifying when I would return, including my journalist details. Basil returned with the tea, and we sat there smoking. “Is there any chance I could take some of these newspapers?” I asked.

“Yes, go ahead,” he replied. I’m delighted to have scooped these rare sources of information. They are not easily found and if one can find them, each can cost about US$5 in Damascus – a hefty price.

Among the bunch, The Guardian had been opened and folded back to the world news pages. I looked down to see an article on Syria with one of the paragraphs underlined in blue pen ink. The paragraph stated how Syrian security forces had been shooting and torturing peaceful protesters.

‘They were keeping tabs on what was being said about the regime’

In a department where few worked and fewer appeared to take their work seriously, these employees were reading the foreign press. They were keeping tabs on what was being said about the regime. They were reading the above-mentioned publications – the ones they could get their hands on – and were highlighting the parts they found disagreeable. Later, Guardian journalists were refused entry to Syria.

Judging from what I had seen, I expected employees at the Syrian ministry for information to have little or no idea of what the international media was reporting about Syria. But such generalisations clearly proved false.

Generalisations have been sweeping in the international and national debate on the Syrian uprising. Some Alawites I know were fervently anti-regime. Some Sunnis would die for the president. Similarly, some of the government employees I dealt with went out of their way to be unhelpful, but others were quite the opposite.

In mid-September I went to the Hijra wa Jawazat (passport department) in Rukn Eldeen in north Damascus. I had been there several times before. One police officer even stopped me in the corridor to say hello and ask how I’d been.

The men here work under very difficult circumstances. They must spend hours searching through reams of papers looking for information about this or that Iraqi refugee. They must deal with the hundreds of arms that hang over their heads, mostly belonging to Iraqi refugees, those looking to find out if they must leave the country or are allowed to stay on in their new home, Syria.

They are all polite. One man granted me the all-important stamp allowing me to stay a month longer – without having to go back to the Ministry for Information for permission as I probably should have – because he knew me.

These were not the men who drive the Hummers, the Mercedes or the BMWs. They were more likely the people who drove taxis after work, searching out passengers on the streets of the capital until well after dark in order to make ends meet.

Stephen Starr is an Irish freelance journalist who lived in Syria for five years until February. He tweets @stephenstarr.

There will be a book launch for Revolt in Syria at Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin on Wednesday, July 11 at 6.30pm. All welcome.

Read: ‘Staying in Syria was too risky’ – an Irish journalist’s story>

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