DARAA, Syria – The girl ran up to the camera, asking us to film her. But as soon as the mother saw it she violently yanked her young daughter away. The husband remained, eyes darting as he searched for words in English, then Arabic, finally not saying anything as the conversation drew the attention not just of passersby, but of the ever-present secret police.
This first failed interview at a busy intersection a short walk from this city’s courthouse set the tone for a day here, a deep fear of speaking to outsiders felt by the residents of Daraa, nine months after the Syrian uprising started here. Attempt after attempt to speak with residents on camera was turned down, as agents of the secret police loitered nearby. In a quiet conversation in a clothing store, a man who asked to remain anonymous for his safety, spoke of arbitrary arrests in the middle of the night and “many, many, many deaths.” Another, who dared to speak on the record, accused the Syrian regime of being “worse than animals.”
In an exclusive interview, President Bashar al-Assad promised ABC News that a team — and others, if they were granted visas — would be allowed to travel around the country freely to assess the ongoing “crisis,” as it’s called by the Syrian government.
“Did anyone tell you where to go or where not to go? Nobody,” Assad told Barbara Walters. “You are free to go wherever you want.”
After the interview, Assad’s office reiterated what he said and approved the request to visit the southern city of Daraa, just a few miles from the Jordanian border. It was here in March that a group of school children wrote on a school wall, “The people want to topple the regime.” The children — several in their teens — were rounded up, arrested and reportedly tortured by having their fingernails pulled out. The incident sparked large protests in Daraa that soon spread across the country. Both residents and the local governor say that no one has been arrested.
The road to Daraa is as one might expect during this time of unrest: lined with police cars, army checkpoints and roadblocks of barrels and rocks painted with the Syrian flag. The plan was to visit Dael, a village that has lately been one of the more restive parts of Daraa.
That would be impossible, Governor Mohammed Khalid al Hanous told us as we arrived in Daraa for a courtesy call. For your own safety. Armed gangs were roaming around, they just killed two policemen, he said. There have been widespread reports of attacks by the rebel “Free Syrian Army” of army defectors on security forces around Daraa.
Told of the president’s promise and offered a waiver of responsibility, he responded that “[Assad's] the one who gives orders and we try our best to obey.”
“However, this is a security issue,” he continued. “Your safety first, period.”
What that meant became clear as we left the governor’s office. Not only would our team not be allowed to travel to Dael, but our car would be joined by eight others full of uniformed and plainclothes police, as well as Syrian state media, which filmed and photographed us all day. (Told of the restrictions and security detail, a presidential aide in Damascus seemed equally frustrated and suggested the waiver.)
Our hastily-assembled motorcade took us to the first stop on our tour, an elementary school. The outside walls were covered in graffiti, much of it painted over but the president’s name, “leave” and “freedom” still visible.
Inside, we happened upon the ribbon cutting ceremony for the students’ art exhibit. Sixth-grader Zain proudly showed off his colorful drawings of gunmen killing soldiers, of terrorists posing as peaceful protesters. Nearby, the logo of the television network Al Jazeera — perceived to be vehemently anti-regime — was painted on a bloody skull. Asked where the school is where the children were arrested in March, a teacher said the story was made up, that the school doesn’t exist.
Sheikh Ahmad al-Sayasna tells a different story. He was the imam of Daraa’s Omari Mosque, one of the oldest in the world. We had been taken there earlier in the day to counter reports in the Arab press that security forces had attacked it. In the sunny courtyard, it did appear undamaged.
When the children were arrested, he and others went to the authorities to ask for their release, he said.
“These are kids, you can’t blame them, make them responsible for writing such things,” said the sheikh. He is blind and hard of hearing; our escorts agreed to take us to see him after several requests. We insisted they stay outside, but with us in the living room were two heavy-set men in suits and ties who said they were family friends. It would soon become obvious they weren’t.
“We went to officials to do something about it but they were deaf,” the al-Sayasna said, sitting on a cushion. “I heard that their fingernails had been pulled out, that they were exposed to torture and beatings,”
Asked about Daraa today, he replied, “the use of force continues.”
At that point, one of the “friends” filming with his cellphone piped up.
“When one side provokes, the other retaliates,” he said. “Change the direction of the questioning.”
No one has been punished for the children’s torture, al-Sayasna continued. “We heard that they [the police officials] have probably been removed but up until now, things have been going in directions that nobody knows…”
In the wake of the children’s arrests, Assad visited Daraa. The old governor was replaced by al-Hanous who points to his appointment and police officials’ dismissals as evidence of accountability.
“I don’t know what else has happened,” he said.
Rising up in his chair, his face flush, Hanous said the unrest is a conspiracy by Israel, the US, the European Union and the Gulf Arab countries (i.e. Sunni Muslim-dominated Qatar and Saudi Arabia). Another request to go to areas of unrest only upset him more.
“Among some of the protesters are armed gangs that have been shooting at protesters and security forces,” he said, an argument made by the Syrian government since March.
We agreed to a stop at the courthouse which was firebombed by the armed militants, the district attorney said. He guided us through charred rooms with piles of burned paper. Criminal files, he says, not civil. Evidence that criminals were trying to erase their past.
Exhausted by the constant security presence, we insist that we be allowed to walk around town alone. Both the police and our Ministry of Information minder acquiesce.
But it’s to little avail, no one wants to talk. And as we walk past shop after shop, we spot the secret police that have been with us all day. The one with the white collar popped, the squat one with the mustache.
Just as the sun starts to set and our mission appears futile, a soft-spoken middle-aged man approaches, speaking accented but fluent English.
I want the regime to fall, Ahmad Abdulrahim says, adding that around thirty percent of Daraa supports Assad. Indeed, another man just passed us and said loudly, “God, Syria, Bashar only.”
Abdulrahim “got a minimum torturing,” but his nephew was killed when he came to Daraa to “open the [military] siege” earlier this year.
“I believe it’s our duty to open the eyes of the world about this regime,” he responds when asked why he was taking a risk in speaking with us as the police watched. “It’s more than evil.”
Eyes brimming with emotion, he switches to Arabic. “This regime is worse than animals, even animals have mercy.”