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Page last updated at 09:44 GMT, Monday, 26 September 2011 10:44 UK
Syria: 'Our weapon is the camera' in bloody revolution

By Jane Corbin
BBC Panorama

Hala Abdul Aziz
Hala saw her father being shot on Facebook from America

The town of Deraa in southern Syria is where the people's revolution began in March - sparked by the arrest and torture of a group of schoolchildren for scribbling graffiti critical of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Almost all foreign journalists are barred from reporting from Syria, but the people of Deraa continue to find a way to get their stories out.

I travelled along Syria's borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to meet the people who are risking their lives to smuggle out the truth of what is happening inside their country.

They have handed me videos showing acts of extraordinary bravery and defiance.

A young man who calls himself Abu Mahmoud has been hiding tiny cameras in cars and clothing to gather evidence of massacres by the security forces in and around Deraa.

In one video, protestors walked calmly towards the waiting guns of Syria's security services at a checkpoint. Suddenly, gunfire erupted from an army unit at the side and people could be seen falling in a bloody heap of bodies as others struggled to drag the wounded to safety.

"'The feeling was our weapon is the camera and making a record of all this," Abu Mahmoud said of his decision to risk everything to record what was happening to his people. "I was always fearing death but what kept me going was the spirit of the people."

Revolution 'live, online'

Nawal al Shari
This all began in Deraa and the regime's end will come in Deraa.
Nawal al Shari, mother of 15-year-old victim

Thanks to Abu Mahmoud and others in a loose network of activists, this revolution has been seen live online.

On the border with Turkey white tents have mushroomed as Syrians flee the violence, ending up in makeshift camps. Here, I met activist Omar al Muqdad.

In his computer are scores of phone videos that back up the claims that there have been crimes against humanity in Deraa.

"The state wants to take the revolution off-line and finish it by killing people," he said.

In one video, an ambulance is fired on by soldiers on the street while inside a driver and a nurse are dying as desperate people try to pull them out. Omar's footage was smuggled out and posted on the internet.

He believes the attacks on medical staff are an attempt by the regime to strike fear into people by showing them there are no boundaries when it comes to violence.

Syrian activists say that at least 3,000 civilians have died in six months of attacks by the security forces.

The Syrian government has claimed that armed gangs, criminals and terrorists are behind the violence and have blamed a foreign conspiracy.

The regime says 500 security forces have been killed in the past six months of violence and insists that the state of emergency in place for 30 years has been lifted and that it is now offering a national dialogue that will lead to reform.

To the people of Deraa these are hollow promises.

Facebook tragedy

In Washington, I met a woman Hala Abdul Aziz, a Syrian who lives in America and who had visited her family in March in Izra near Deraa, where the protests had spread.

Her father feared for her safety and urged her to return to America. On 22 April, Hala logged on to Facebook to follow events back home and found a graphic mobile phone footage showing 25 protestors in Izra shot by army snipers the previous day.

In the video, a man is shouting "this is a peaceful demonstration" as bullets ricochet around him. Children are among those shot in the street.

Omar - activist
Omar is trying to spread word of atrocities inside Syria

As was Hala's father. She saw him pass away before her eyes in the video.

"'It makes me upset and angry because my father was a brave and honest man who knew nothing about politics yet he was shot three times," she said.

In Turkey, I gained insight into what was happening on the other side when I met a young army defector.

Wasim is only 21 and he was a sniper in a unit sent to Izra in April when Hala's father was killed.

'Unarmed civilians'

Chain smoking nervously, Wasim showed me his military identification card and shared his story.

"Our officers told us the protest was a foreign conspiracy and so we wanted to clean out Deraa and Izra and get rid of the terrorists," said Wasim of his initial loyalty.

But, he said, when they arrived they realised the protestors were unarmed civilians, many of them women and children.

"Then the officers told us - there are no rebels or conspirators, only the people," he said. "They told us to shoot the people but we did not want to."

Wasim said he and some of the others aimed in the air or at the walls around them in order to spare lives.

"If you did not shoot, they would have killed you," he said of the army's Fourth Division, positioned directly behind them and led by the brother of President al-Assad and loyal to the regime.

Wasim and Jane Corbin
Wasim defected after he was told to shoot innocent civilians

Omar, the activist from Deraa, showed me a video of eight soldiers who had been shot in the back for refusing to shoot unarmed protestors.

Local townspeople had helped them to hide or escape. Wasim also managed to escape from his sniper unit and flee across the border.

In a safe house in a bordering nation, I met one of the highest ranking defectors from the army - Colonel Riad al-Asaad, a Sunni like most people in Syria.

But 90% of the Syrian army's officers are Alawite, from the same minority sect as the president's family. They are die hard Assad loyalists.

The colonel and other officers have defected to form the Free Syria Army. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, he is not confident that Syria's regime will fall without bloodshed.

"We are counting of defections and there are large numbers occurring every day," he said during our meeting. "But this regime cannot be taken out except by force and if they do not agree to go peacefully we will have to take them out by force."

'Handsome prince'

In Deraa, many children joined the protestors.

Nawal al Shari is a tragic figure swathed in black who showed me a photo of her son and told me that 15-year-old Thamer was "like a handsome prince" in her eyes.

He was on a march to bring food to the besieged citizens of Deraa when he disappeared.

Five weeks later his body was returned by the security forces - tortured and mutilated beyond recognition.

''Don't these people have children?" she asked. "Aren't they human like us?"

Nawal said her family's sacrifice of their beloved son will be worth it in the end.

"The people of Deraa have suffered but God will grant them victory," she said. "This all began in Deraa and the regime's end will come in Deraa."

Panorama: Syria - Inside the Secret Revolution, BBC One, Monday, 26 September at 2030BST then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer .



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