Dash to enter Damascus with rebels shows government still in control

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 31, 2012 

— My disguise was at least six sizes too small: a scarf, a veil and a black gown known as a niqab that was supposed to reach the ground, but didn’t. It would have to do.

"Come on," my guide said impatiently. "Like this. You’re a woman, not a man."

I tried to pull my shoulders in, looking down at the ground in my best, very poor impression of a conservative Arab woman. Nothing about my 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame was discreet.

My guide gestured: "Checkpoints there and there, left and right." I raised my eyes in the direction he pointed, and quickly decided that I’d rather just look at the ground. My guide took my hand and led me out onto the six-lane highway we’d be crossing on foot. I was at least 6 inches taller than he was.

We made it across the highway and met up with a waiting truck. I climbed into the cab and nodded without comprehension as the driver fired off a string of questions. I thought he might be asking me where I wanted to go. I mumbled my best answer: “To the Free Army in Damascus." I hoped that it was enough.

I’d been trying for weeks to get into Damascus. The rebels I’d been traveling with had promised over and over again that we’d be there soon. Finally, after days of turning me down, they agreed to let me try to get in.

This would be no triumphant entry, however. Government troops seemed to have beaten back, at least for now, the rebel offensive that erupted after a bomb killed four senior military advisers to President Bashar Assad nearly two weeks ago. Finding myself in the capital made me re-evaluate the rebels’ prospects for a victory soon. The city is huge, just huge, and seizing it will be an enormous undertaking.

But first, I had to get in.

We wound our way through the hills that form the capital’s northern border, down into the suburbs below. Through my veil I watched what seemed to be bustling city life around us. The government seemed completely in control

We pulled off to the side of the road, and a man I’d never met opened my door. "Come with me." He led me to his car. Another woman – a real one – was in the passenger seat. She looked about as uncomfortable as I felt. We drove through the Damascus suburb in silence. Finally the driver stopped. "There. Checkpoint. You walk."

I stepped out of the car into the sweltering heat, utterly conscious of my oversized hands and feet protruding from my ridiculous garb. Another man, a new one, led the way. One foot in front of the other. Nothing for it now but to walk, and hope. I hadn’t felt this many eyes on me since the first day of high school. I kept my gaze locked on the ground. One foot in front of the other.

From somewhere behind us – close – an authoritative command sliced through the ridiculous charade. “Stop!” My guide quickened his pace. “You, stop!” I didn’t turn to look, but whoever it was couldn’t have been more than 20 feet behind us. We kept going.

Two shots rang out in quick succession, chipping the plaster off a wall to our right. My guide shouted in English, “Go, go, go!” I didn’t have to be told. My feet already were flying.

Damascus Olympics.

The street was agonizingly long and murderously straight. More shots. I didn’t bother to try to figure out where they landed. We cut a hard left, dived down some stairs and found ourselves in a tunnel-like back alley. “Go, go, go!” From their doorsteps, women and children looked up at us curiously as we pounded past.

Suddenly the alley dumped us into a crowded, bustling intersection. From the corner of my eye I could make out the checkpoint we’d so poorly attempted to evade. “Now, walking,” my guide said. I tried, and failed, to resume my charade and quiet my breathing. I sucked huge gulps of hot Damascus summer air through the sickly sweet perfume of my veil. I bumped into a woman; she looked up at me pointedly. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

We were across the intersection. Time to run again. “Go, go, go!”

Finally we saw our car. It had passed through the checkpoint unsuspected. I dived through the propped-open door as the driver floored it. A few minutes later, my breathing was almost under control. We pulled over and “Abu Mohammad,” the mastermind of this harebrained scheme, was waiting for us. He greeted me warmly. “Take that thing off,” he laughed. “It does more harm than good.”

Driving through downtown Damascus, Abu Mohammad was in high spirits. He pointed to a walled compound on our left. “That’s the Mukhabarat, the secret police. Want to go see it?” I demurred. “No problem.” He pointed off in the distance. “Over there, Bashar’s house. For now.” He got quiet. “We’re going through a checkpoint. Small one. Don’t look at the regime army.” Packed in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we made it through the checkpoint unchallenged. “Good, good,” he said, visibly relaxing. “Now we’re fine.”

Picking up speed on the highway, Abu Mohammad pointed to the blackened facade of an official-looking building. “A few months ago, there was a bomb here. And last week, fighting.” A few traffic circles later, Abu Mohammad said the words I’d been waiting to hear. “It’s safe now. This neighborhood is free. That guy behind us is Free Army.”

In the safe house, iftar – the sundown meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – was being set out. The gathered fighters laughed and joked, the not-too-distant sounds of artillery and automatic weapons fire punctuating their conversation. Our host smiled: “Welcome to Damascus.”

Tice is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @Austin_Tice

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