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A firefighter douses a building in Damascus after mortar shells reportedly fell on the residential area of Al Bikhtiyar.
A firefighter douses a building in Damascus after mortar shells reportedly fell on the residential area of Al Bikhtiyar.

A journalist takes a road from Damascus after five years

The National's Syria correspondent, Phil Sands, the only foreign journalist in Syria since before the war began, leaves a country that is barely recognisable with a heavy heart.

The National's Syria correspondent, Phil Sands, the only foreign journalist in Syria since before the war began, leaves a country that is barely recognisable with a heavy heart.

Crossing out of Syria and into Lebanon was much easier than I feared and somehow came as an anticlimax.

A tired looking immigration official, surrounded by cigarette smoke and the usual chaos of a border post, stamped my passport and pushed it back over the counter without a word.

President Bashar Al Assad watched over us, in the form of a photograph in a grimy frame on the wall, now more than ever a mandatory feature in all government offices still under regime control.

I had lived in Syria for more than five years, my home a small flat in a middle-class suburb on the southern edge of Damascus, a once quiet place slowly being dragged under by war.

I'd stayed on as The National's correspondent after the start of the uprising in March 2011, despite the growing difficulties of being a reporter in Damascus as the crisis spread.

Like many Syrians, my time was increasingly consumed with the dull practical problems of living in a collapsing country. My ability to do my job as a reporter was being slowly strangled by an increasingly dirty war which, among other things, has spawned a multitude of security checkpoints that required unobtainable special permissions to pass through.

By the time I departed the country at the end of last month, a simple, short trip from the rural edges of Damascus into the city centre had become an unpleasant adventure, a passage through the ill-defined front lines of urban warfare.

Like everyone else who lived in my neighbourhood, I arranged my affairs before each trip into the city on the assumption that I would not return home. All of us moved around Damascus only if it seemed essential enough to merit the risk.

It wasn't my choice to leave Syria. Still, I was not dramatically expelled by the authorities or chased out by threats and danger, in the Hollywood fashion of journalists in war zones.

Instead it was humdrum bureaucracy that forced my departure. Three months after I submitted my press credentials for renewal, the Syrian authorities still had not acted on them.

Without a press pass, I couldn't rent a flat, couldn't register at the interior ministry and couldn't move with a modicum of confidence through checkpoints. The lack of paperwork put me under de facto house arrest, leaving no other choice but to pack up my life in Syria.

If the journey between Damascus and the frontier with Lebanon was utterly uneventful - my bags were not searched, my identification papers never left my pocket and I didn't even queue for long at the border - the 5-kilometre journey from my flat to the taxi pick-up point in central Damascus was nerve-rattling.

No driver would collect me because of the firefights, air strikes and shelling that often closed the roads south of the city, so I hitched a ride in with a friend in his battered van.

We were stopped at a checkpoint at Nahar Aisha, where fighting often breaks out, by a soldier who decided foreign journalists had no right to be in that part of town and that my camera tripod was really a weapon mount.

His Pepsi-drinking commanding officer weighed in and decreed that my immigration papers - all in order but due to expire before the end of the month - had lapsed a year ago.

After convincing them the tripod was benign and that the clearly marked date on my papers meant they were valid, the army officer concluded I had manufactured the papers myself, expertly faking the immigration documents.

I stood there in despair, fearing my friend and I would be arrested. Three tanks were parked nearby and the surrounding buildings were in a state of slow motion collapse, their structures ruined by heavy machine gunfire.

The thickening tension then quickly and unexpectedly evaporated. A minute later we were back in the car, shaking hands with the officer and being wished a safe onward journey.

My friend explained what had happened. His ID card had the name of his home village, a community in Sweida province inhabited exclusively by members of the Druze minority.

The army officer, an Alawite - another of Syria's minority groups, from which the regime's ruling clique is drawn - liked the Druze and saw them as allies in a battle against Sunni Muslim rebels, who in his view are terrorists.

That interpretation of wartime alliances in Syria saved us.

"We were lucky. We got through because I'm Druze," my friend said. "Everything is sectarian now. If I were Sunni, I'd be in jail and you'd be in trouble."

The sectarian divisions that are ubiquitous in Syria now extend even to the roads. The road into Damascus is partitioned by concrete blast barriers, with the right-hand lane officially designated for civilian traffic and the left-hand lane for military and government traffic.

But Alawites always travel on the left, regardless of their job, and so it has been universally dubbed the "Alawite lane" by locals. It's a sadly tidy metaphor for an evolving conflict that has destroyed so many lives, and that will destroy so many more.

It has now been two weeks since I left Syria, although it feels like longer. From the safety and comfort of England I find it hard to imagine the place I lived in or to properly recall the depth of the desperation, cruelty and fear afflicting it.

My final nights in the country were sad, in a gentle, inevitable way. Time had suddenly run out on me, and I rushed to visit friends and say goodbye.

I was travelling out with two small puppies, strays that I'd taken from some children as they prepared to throw them to their deaths in a deep irrigation pond.

The puppies were going to new homes in the US, to the delight and frustration of my Syrian friends, many of whom want nothing more than to flee the country and start new lives elsewhere.

They would jokingly practice howls and barks, drawing up absurd plans to disguise themselves as dogs and hide away in the puppies' travel cases, stowaways on a flight to safety.

On those final nights my impending departure loomed as another yardstick marking Syria's descent into a darkness from which it may never fully emerge.

If I represented a connection with the outside world and a small mouthpiece for Syrians, that tenuous link was now breaking.

I assured my friends that I wanted to come back and would do so as soon as the authorities got around to approving my press credentials. I promised to keep in touch in the meantime.

"We all know you won't come back. There'll be nothing for you come back to. The country will be destroyed," said one of them, the Druze man who risked so much to help me through the checkpoint.

When he said the words, we were sitting in a basement restaurant weakly lit by torches because of a power cut. The shadows were not the only reason for the atmosphere of menace.

At a table in the opposite corner, drinking whiskey, were unshaven young men in ragged combat clothes, their rifles on the floor. These young Syrians, whose lives are now dedicated to a merciless street game of kill-or-be-killed, personify the months, if not years, ahead in Syria.

"It's good you're leaving, it's time for you to go, it's too dangerous now," my friend said. "There's nothing here for you anymore. There is nothing here for any of us."

psands@thenational.ae

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