“Two people posing as journalists tried to kill him, you won’t get access to him.” I’m sitting in a Sydney coffee shop with a Syrian contact. “Nobody knows anything about him.” I retort.

He's a hard man to pin down… Colonel Riad al-Asaad of the Free Syrian Army.

He slowly sips on his coffee, one of the many he’s had since I first proposed getting access to the leader of the Free Syrian Army. “OK, let me see what I can do.”

A few months later I am in Antakya, Turkey, interviewing the almost anonymous Colonel Riad al-Asaad. Reporting for SBS’s Dateline program, I have been granted rare access to him at a military camp where he is protected by Turkish security forces after several attempts on his life. The camp is meant to be strictly off limits to journalists.

After making their checks, the Syrian opposition decided I was a known entity ... not an assassin in journalist’s clothing.

When the stakes are high, paranoia runs rampant. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for journalists reporting on the battle against the regime to operate freely in the region without being accused of being a spy, but as war intensifies in Syria I wanted to get an insight into the rebels’ battle to take control of their country.

From the outset of the conflict, there have been many reports of journalists who’ve had to leave Syrian opposition strongholds because of mistrust that snowballed into direct threats against their lives. Simply doing your job and playing devil’s advocate can get you on their wrong side.

Surely, in their minds, if you ask questions about failings or weaknesses of the rebel army and the opposition then you must be working for the “other side”? Many don’t understand that’s part of the job.

While in Syria, I couldn’t film freely without being accompanied by one of my rebel hosts. Townsfolk were suspicious, even then. Who is she? Why does she want to film this square? This butchers shop? These cars driving past?

I was taken through a secret network of caves and tunnels running underneath Syria’s Idlib province, the first journalist to ever film inside the passages used by the rebels to escape attacks by the regime, and to secretly move men and supplies.

One would think it would be unlikely here to encounter suspicious locals, but they found us. It was only at the insistence of the rebel leader showing me around this labyrinth that they relented and I was able to continue filming.

This sort of paranoia is leading to more and more incidents that put the lives of journalists at risk.

As I crossed back to Turkey from Syria, a British and a Dutch journalist were kidnapped by a jihadist group in northern Syria near the border. Accused of being spies, they were held for several days before Free Syrian Army rebel fighters intervened and they were freed.

Even in recent days, rebel and activist networks in Syria’s northern provinces have circulated a warning that a European journalist working for a well-established network is in fact a spy with regime links. The journalist is already inside Syria and unaware of the campaign against him. His editors have been notified.

After crossing back into Turkey, I meet with Colonel Riad once again for a final interview, filming what I can within his tent enclosure then bidding him farewell.

Unable to film freely in the Turkish military camp where he is based, I was anxious to get some footage to describe it in my story so I decide to film it from afar from a watch tower about a kilometre away. A safe enough distance, or so I thought.

After just five minutes, four or five Turkish soldiers begin to mill about the bottom of the watch tower.

They take me back to the camp for questioning. The usual… names, passports, which network do you work for? What are you doing here?

I apologise of course – I thought I was far enough away - but that’s not enough to allay their suspicions.

Ten minutes into their questioning, the English-speaking intelligence agent comes back with a sudden decision. “It’s OK this time, next time you will be in trouble. You are free to go,” he tells me.

I don’t wait for him to repeat it and I get in the car. The car door is still open and he leans in before I come to close it.

“By the way,” he says, pointing at me. “We know everything about you.”

There it was again. I had become known, perhaps due to my days of filming with Colonel Riad. At least, that’s what the paranoid part of me says.

Yaara Bou Melhem is a video journalist for SBS’s Dateline program. Her report, ‘Inside Syria’s War’, is on Dateline tonight 9.30pm on SBS ONE

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24 comments

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    • Mahhrat says:

      02:08pm | 31/07/12

      Don Burke’s doing well for himself…

    • AndrewS says:

      10:15am | 01/08/12

      haha exactly what I thought when I saw the picture!

    • AdamC says:

      02:20pm | 31/07/12

      It seems to me that the metaphorical arteries of the Middle East pulse with conspiracy theories.

      I have not really been paying much attention to the Syria conflict, to be honest. I see no upside for the West whichever side wins. Actually, I am not sure there is much upside even for the Syrians themselves.

    • Hamish says:

      02:35pm | 31/07/12

      Completely agree AdamC. I have no faith the Assad regime will be replaced by anything of benefit to The West or the Syrians themselves. Indeed most likely the opposite.

    • Hamish says:

      02:37pm | 31/07/12

      That and trust a journalist to turn a story about a war into one about their own safety.

    • M says:

      07:41am | 01/08/12

      How petty hamish. She’s risking her life to cover this and that’s what you have to say?

    • MtH says:

      02:22pm | 31/07/12

      I am afraid these rebels are treated with too much hope and respect. Already they are offended by simple questions as the journalist points out. In a Dutch demonstration in favor of the rebels the men and women were separated. Nothing indicates this is not another radical muslim group trying to seize power, Just like the fundamentalists 30 years ago. Prepare for a massacre after they have won. Assad is a dictator, but he is no intolerant radical.

    • Greg in Chengdu says:

      12:37pm | 01/08/12

      MtH your pessimism is spot on, The Syrian rebels are no better than their leadership. But I would like to make one point it won’t just be one Islamic extremist group trying to get control but dozens, Al Qeida will be there along with Hamas Al shebab and any other group with people willing to go. When Assad is killed or runs then all these factions will turn on each other for control.
      This is going to go on for a long time

    • subotic Z. Brannigan says:

      03:02pm | 31/07/12

      Oh you Syrians, you’re lucky men. Soon, you’ll all be fighting for your country. Many of you will be dying for your country. A few of you will be put through a fine mesh screen for your country.

      They will be the luckiest of all.

    • Grey says:

      03:58pm | 31/07/12

      Dear Ms Melham,

      I think you gild the lily slightly, the Free Syrian Army fall over themselves to accommodate the western media.  After all, if they are unable to topple the regime themselves, who else is going to step in to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.

      But lets wait for a few thousand more deaths before we send in the drones.

      In the meantime I love tunnels, so I will be sure to tune into tonight.

    • Gregg says:

      05:29pm | 31/07/12

      I reckon Yaara, you could do very well next time to do a bit more homework before leaving home and you may have more appreciation for the different factions in the middle east, a land formerly ruled by many different Sheikks and you only have to have a look at supposedly more settled places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan to see how many Sheikks and Princes there are.
      With Shittes, Sunnis other sects and Baathists etc. borders drawn up post WW1 have not helped there to be total brotherly love in the brotherhood of Islam in the lands of Islams and then as you’ve discovered, there’s us infidels.

      You ought to be thankful you have been able to return unscathed.

    • Simon Trent says:

      06:19pm | 31/07/12

      God damnit some of you folk are so misguided with contempt. Yeah I’m looking at you Gregg. Maybe if you could be even bothered to click on Yaara Bou Melham authors link, you’d find I think the reporter has plenty of experience in the region. I think she’s aware of the cultural diversity of the region.

      I’m going to tune in because the conflict for the most part has been under reported. And for all the moaning about the lack of true journalism in the media it beggars belief that you chose to be sarcastic. So stop being a smart arse and jog on.

    • Greg in Chengdu says:

      12:51pm | 01/08/12

      Gregg maybe you should do some research yourself, its only a click away on the same page:
      “In 2011, she was named Young Australian Journalist of the Year by the Walkley Foundation for her reports for SBS’s Dateline program from Syria, one of the highest honours that can be bestowed on young journalists working from Australia. She also took out the International Journalism category at the prestigious Walkley awards that same year for her series ‘Struggle for Freedom’ on the Arab uprisings.

      I’m sure she knows the situation there and the groups involved better than you mate and if you take a look at her name I think you’ll find she has ethnic ties to that area as well.

    • John says:

      06:17pm | 31/07/12

      The rebels are nothing but United States Mercenary’s working for the interests of Israel. There reports the so called free Syrian army are Sunni Arab populations not native to Syria. It’s seems like Saudi Arabia is paying their mercenary costs while in Washington, London and Paris, they are give tactics to this mercenary army. These guys are no threat to Assad without the backing of the west. It’s seems like Israel wants Assad gone, and told europeans and Americans to their dirty work.

    • Andy Mack says:

      07:44pm | 31/07/12

      As usual, John is correct.  Thanks again, John.  I hope you keep contributing.

    • Greg in Chengdu says:

      12:45pm | 01/08/12

      Yeah i find that the sort of usual conspiracy nut opinion you get fro anti US nuts. The US didn’t start this and while they might be enjoying the fact that many of the worlds islamic terrorist groups and Juihadists are now heading to Syria instaed of Afganistan and Iraq I don’t think you can blame them. They have put more pressure on Assad than anyone else.
      Everyone always assumes the US are the bad guys even when they try and do good

    • John says:

      01:07pm | 01/08/12

      Enjoy Wonderland Greg! I certainly don’t live in your world. I have pretty much good understand who run’s the show in the west. I’ve been researching this for years and it’s pretty predictable. There is a lot of wool being pulled over people’s eyes, propaganda and western political bodies acting like a street gang against certain targets. The West is morally in the abyss. We are the bad guys. Just because the media feeds you this fictional realism, doesn’t mean it’s true. Wake Up buddy. We will essentially all wake up one day.

    • Greg in Chengdu says:

      01:52pm | 01/08/12

      oh ok now its a Zionist conspiracy, Good one John now you sound just like Adinijad in Iran Stalin and Hitler, its always those pesky Zionists fault isn’t it?

    • Bob says:

      06:11pm | 01/08/12

      John: Hate to break it to you, but there’s more to “research” than listening to Alex Jones and watching youtube. Whenever I come across someone who claims to have “researched” all this, that ends up being pretty much what it boils down to.

      Now, like Greg, I’ve also spent my fair share of time in countries that might charitably be called dodgy. If I had to choose between the Western sources of information, quality of governments, etc and the anti and non-western ones based on my personal experience, I’ll choose western in a heartbeat. Why? Because I’ve seen both. (There’s also something about having a rather large guard come up to stand next to a sign saying that Tian’anmen square is NOT to be used for political purposes and look menacing when he sees you reading it, or signs at airports (Shenyang I think) saying that taking political material in or out of the country is prohibited that shows you who the bigger man is)

    • John says:

      11:41pm | 01/08/12

      Bob says:

      Alex Jones is a shill, another actor in this slide show. Gold-stein type character from 1984. I suspect his CIA acting the part of the opposition.

      Evaluating the Chinese Media doesn’t make the Western One Legitimate. There is no democracy in west, and there is no freedom of speech. All Politicians and Expressionions essentially go via a filter.

      You think Obama who was born in Kenya has right to be US president? You think Romney is real president? or just another puppet actor in the Broadway shows called Democracy. 

      Come on, we all waking up to fake enemy’s(AL-CIADA), fake leaders, fake democracy, false flag terror attacks and propaganda media.  It’s all crap. Not a word of truth.

    • Greg in Chengdu says:

      09:59am | 02/08/12

      Al Queida is a fake enemy? wish I had known that when they were shooting at e in Afganistan I wouldn’t have been so worried. IDIOT!

    • Zaf says:

      06:22pm | 31/07/12

      Well done Yaara!  Give Aljazeera a run for its money.

    • Bob says:

      02:15am | 01/08/12

      For those supporting Assad, what do you expect to happen in a country mired in poverty where there is no peaceful means to change the government when the public grow dis-satisfied with it and no sign that peaceful means will be provided? The Al-Assads created this rebellion. No-one else. No government that truly thinks the people want it in should be afraid of a free and fair democratic election.

    • MarkS says:

      11:37am | 01/08/12

      “As I crossed back to Turkey from Syria, a British and a Dutch journalist were kidnapped by a jihadist group in northern Syria near the border. Accused of being spies, they were held for several days before Free Syrian Army rebel fighters intervened and they were freed.”

      Journalists are Spies. Their job is to find out things that some people would prefer was not known & communicate to other people, including to the very people that the first group was trying to hide the information from.

 

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