A Disappearance in Damascus

by Deborah Campbell

September 27, 2017

Chapter 1


ALONG THE TWO-LANE HIGHWAY from Syria’s capital city of Damascus, where it approaches the border with Iraq, anti-aircraft batteries scanned the dome of noonday sky. Here and there an army tank rumbled over hot sand along a barren landscape that looked like the surface of Mars. Next to the highway, a crop of bored young Syrian soldiers slouched on boulders around a commander making diagrams on a chalkboard propped up against another boulder.

Gripped by the anticipation I always feel when I am about to plunge into an unknown situation, I was greeted by a weathered road sign that broke the tension. It read, in English, Happy Journey. A lovely sentiment—I had to take a picture. It was the peak of Iraq’s civil war, and absolutely no one was travelling into Iraq on a happy journey; a million and a half refugees had already fled the other way, to Syria, and they were happy for nothing but to be alive. In the sliver of shade the sign provided from the scorching sun, people stood with their suitcases, gazing back towards the country they had left behind.

Beyond them, past a giant parking lot, more Iraqis were streaming towards me into Syria, disgorged from buses and SUVs. In the early days of the exodus there had been time to make arrangements, to sell houses and cars and belongings. Now the entire middle class was on the run: the doctors and professors and librarians, the filmmakers and painters and novelists, the engineers and accountants and technocrats—the people who thought things, made things, kept things humming. Half the professional class had already left, and two thousand more funnelled through this unimpressive desert crossing every day. Some looked dressed for the office, women in high heels and oversized sunglasses, men in pleated dress pants and button-down shirts, as if they’d walked out of work, grabbed the kids and the cash, and just left.

Watching them, the very people I’d come to the border to talk to, I almost didn’t see the border guard as he emerged from a makeshift checkpoint and stepped in front of the car I’d hired. The checkpoint, despite the barred windows, was more shepherd’s hut than blazing emblem of officialdom. But officialdom it was. He waved my driver to park in the dirt to the side. As I was getting out—jamming my notebook into the bag that carried my camera and audio recorder, rooting around for my passport, ignoring the furnace blast of heat—a large white press van pulled up beside me. The door slid open and an American TV news crew stepped out.

It was rare to meet other journalists in Syria so I was surprised. I had been doing my best to stay under the radar, to avoid undue attention, and here I was arriving with the cavalry. Waiting in the shade cast by the checkpoint while our documents were taken away to be examined, I asked the cameraman, a frenetic thirtyish guy with a shaved head, where he was based.

“Dixie,” he said.


He laughed. “That’s our code for the ‘Zionist entity,’ as they say around here.” Jerusalem, like Beirut, was a hub for the international press. “I spend most of my time on the beach in Tel Aviv.” For this short-term assignment the news team was staying at the Four Seasons in Damascus. They had taken the same highway from the city to the border crossing this morning that I had.

I glanced in the direction of the immigration building where we would soon be competing to interview the new arrivals. I hate reporting in packs. “Do you ever go into Iraq?” I asked, indicating the refugees.

“Only when I have to,” he said. “To justify my paycheque.” When reporting from Iraq, the network made sure its staff was heavily guarded. This was good for the staff but bad for journalism. “My bosses want me to leave our base, but I refuse. I’m not gonna get killed so they can get a story.”

I couldn’t blame him. Next to us was a high concrete wall topped with barbed wire from which wind-blown scraps of plastic fluttered like tiny flags. Beyond the wall was Iraq. Like the refugees, most of the press were getting out of there. Iraq had become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists: they were being hunted, kidnapped, blown up, found in ditches with bullets in the backs of their heads. A few made headlines—Steven Vincent, abducted by men in police uniforms and shot execution-style, his female interpreter shot three times and left for dead; Jill Carroll, kidnapped by masked gunmen, her interpreter murdered—but local staffers, whose deaths barely registered, did most of the reporting now, and even they couldn’t be seen with a notebook, much less camera equipment.1

The cameraman ventured inside the checkpoint in search of a toilet, so I chatted with his producer. The producer was tall and steel-jawed, just in from Washington, DC, clad in chinos and button-up shirt in the style known as “business casual.” Despite the heat he looked depressingly perma-fresh. I had spent several years in the Middle East, reporting from Gaza or Cairo or Tehran, and more remote places where I never saw another journalist. I was suddenly conscious of the jeans I’d been living in since arriving in Syria more than two weeks ago.

I asked him how he’d convinced the Syrians to let them film the crossing. Since invading Iraq in 2003, Americans—journalists at least—came in for special scrutiny in Syria. Getting press credentials for a high-profile news team would require lengthy negotiations and serious clout. I did everything possible to avoid such formalities, but then again, I wasn’t hauling around a camera crew.

“We have a big fixer,” he said—a fixer being a well-connected local who could leapfrog them over the bureaucratic obstacle course and help them find the information they wanted. “What are you here for?”

I explained that I was writing a story on the Iraqi refugee crisis for Harper’s magazine. I wanted to see the war from the civilian point of view, to figure out what had turned an invasion predicted as a “cakewalk”2 into the bloodiest civil war of our times, one that was reverberating through the region. “Iraq is an atomic explosion,” a European aid worker in Damascus had told me, echoing the prevailing sentiment. “It’s a chain reaction that hasn’t ended yet.”

While most reporting focuses on those who “make history,” what interests me more are the ordinary people who have to live it. I wanted to put a human face to the war. As an immersive journalist, my work, the work I love, involves getting as close as I can for long periods of time to the societies I cover, most recently six months in Iran. But that was not possible for me to do inside Iraq. So I had come to Syria to meet the eyewitnesses. “I want to get a sense of where it’s all going,” I said to the producer, squinting at him through my sunglasses. I knew what had already happened.

The US invasion of Iraq had toppled Saddam Hussein, the strongman who had run the essentially secular Baath Party state for nearly a quarter of a century using methods of which Machiavelli would have approved. Even members of his own party feared him; many had joined only to save their own skins. On April 9, 2003, the day that US forces captured Baghdad—Saddam having escaped into hiding, to be plucked eight months later, like a derelict, from a “spider hole” in the ground—mobs of poor Iraqis walked out of the slums, saw no one in charge, and started looting whatever they could carry. They ransacked ministries, hospitals, schools, banks, libraries, factories, utilities, weapons depots—even the world-renowned National Museum, home to archaeological treasures that told of the birth of civilization.

“Stuff happens,” said US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, mocking the media coverage as a “Henny Penny—the sky is falling” overreaction to what he predicted would be a temporary blip: “Freedom’s untidy.”3 But the sky hadfallen. Within four years a tenth of the population had fled the country. Syria was the only country still letting Iraqis in.

The producer glanced over his shoulder at the bars on the grime-smeared windows of the checkpoint. “We’re not actually interested in the refugee story,” he confided, lowering his voice. The Syrian authorities, he explained, were eager to show the American public what a fine job they were doing, taking on the civilian burden of an Anglo-American war, so the television network was going along with that. But it wasn’t the story the crew had come for. What they were really looking at, he said in a low voice, was how Iraqi terrorists, hiding among the refugees, were using Syria as a base. The refugees themselves probably wouldn’t make the news. “We’ll shoot B-roll,” he said.

The cameraman with the shaved head emerged from the checkpoint. The lavatory, he informed us, was not exactly five-star. We were still clustered in the shade waiting to be allowed to walk over to the immigration building, since the producer had forgotten his passport at the Damascus Four Seasons. Eventually, with the help of a Syrian minder who had been assigned to monitor our activities, we were waved through.

Now we had to pay our respects to the Syrian general in charge. After crossing a dirt field, we were ushered inside the squat immigration building, where he was seated in a dim back office—a fat man behind a fat desk. We sat on chairs around the walls of his office as if waiting for the dentist. The news producer sat next to me, talking about the price of real estate in Washington. Did I know it had gone right through the roof? He counted himself lucky to have bought in when he did.

An assistant entered with a flagon of coffee. On a signal from the general, he poured an espresso-sized cup, passed it to one of us, waited for it to be drained, then refilled the cup and passed it to the next person, going around the room. I was reminded of taking communion in my aunt’s church as a child, but the news crew looked awkward, wondering what they might catch and whom they would offend if they turned it down.

The general ran through the numbers of Iraqis coming into Syria. Sixty thousand this month; between a million and a half and two million over the eighteen months since 2006. Damascus—holding out the promise of salvation by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR—was swelling with the largest migration the region had ever seen. There was concern that the Iraqis would bring their war along with them. If that happened, it could tear Syria apart.

It reminded me of the Damascus University professor of economics I’d spoken to the week before. He warned of coming radicalization should the war leave Iraqis destitute and without options. If the international community did nothing to alleviate their suffering, he told me, “we should expect instability and international terrorism that will affect not only the region but the developed countries.”4

“Questions?” the general asked.

We were as silent as schoolchildren awaiting a dismissal bell.

Released at last into the heat and tumult of the border area, I split off from the TV crew. There was only one minder for all of us, a small nervous man named Basil with a moustache too big for his face. The TV crew was more than enough to keep him busy.

I approached a crowd of several hundred Iraqis lining up outside the immigration building. Fathers held babies, fanning them with pink residency applications. Weary toddlers rested their heads on their parents’ shoulders. I walked over to a skinny teenager whose black T-shirt had a single word in English across the front: TERMINATION. He was from the southern city of Basra, where he said Shia militias were murdering barbers and shopkeepers who sold ice, since ice cubes and a clean shave did not exist in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

“What about cars and automatic weapons?” I asked.

Evidently the militias were okay with that.

He said his dad used to be an official in Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, so the militias wanted his life. “But they don’t need a reason. They kill anyone.”

Behind him quavered an old woman who had pulled her scarf across her face, not out of modesty, but for fear of being recognized. A month earlier, unknown militiamen had killed two of her sons and three brothers-in-law. Her husband had been driven mad with grief. I wanted to assure her that they could not get to her now. But that was unclear—I was hearing stories of militants who followed their targets across the border and killed them in Syria.

At the far side of the immigration building, a man was pacing agitatedly outside the barred window of a jail cell. Back and forth, back and forth. He looked inside the bars, said a few words, passed through bits of food, and paced. On the other side was his wife, caught trying to cross into Syria on fake documents. Real passports could of course be bought too, but at twice the cost. A man who arranged such things told me that for a thousand US dollars he could get me an authentic Iraqi passport in three days, and no, it was not a problem that I could not pass for an Arab among the blind.

In the lineup snaking out of the immigration building into the dust-choked yard stood three burly middle-aged men, engaged in the endless task of jostling for a patch of shade beneath the lone tree. Engineers from Iraq’s state oil company, they told me their lives had been threatened. All of the oil workers, they said, were being kidnapped or killed. It was part of the battle for control of the country’s most valuable resource; this, they and many observers believed, was the real reason for the war. “Not Saddam,” one of them said. “Twenty-five years ago, Donald Rumsfeld was shaking his hand.” That was when the two nations were allies against Iran, and Rumsfeld was Ronald Reagan’s friendly emissary to the Iraqi dictator.

Grizzled and weary-looking, the engineer had to check off one of three reasons for entering Syria—business, tourism, or “other.” He claimed to be a tourist. “I’m here to take a holiday,” he explained, “from the sound of rockets, bombings and explosions.”

His colleague interjected. “The Iraqi people are romantics. We like poets, songs, nature, and nowadays we hear nothing but explosions and bombings.”

I too had come to Syria on a standard-issue tourist visa. It’s what I usually do when reporting from places where journalists are viewed with suspicion. To request an official journalist’s visa is to advertise your intentions to those whose job it is to get in your way. In the old days they would have to follow you around, but now they can watch your computer and listen to your phone. They can restrict your movements, decide where you can go, whom you can talk to, how long you can stay, and make trouble for whoever talks to you. Over the past seven years of international reporting I’d learned that the wisest course is to keep your head down and ask permission from no one. That way no one knows what you’re up to, and they aren’t obliged to think up ways to stop it.

In the letter accompanying my visa application I explained that I was a professor who had studied classical Arabic and wished to see what remarkable sights Syria had to show me. This wasn’t a lie. I teach at a university, had studied if never mastered Arabic, and Damascus was a place I’d always wanted to see.

To everyone I met, unless I was interviewing them, I was just a tourist here. To the idle curious; to the sultry neighbour in the apartment below mine, on her second marriage, who told me her life story over tea; to the talented family of artists I befriended after stumbling upon their craggy studio built into the ancient city walls; to the taxi drivers shooting the breeze (or gathering information, maybe)—to all of them I was simply a professor on holiday. I was just interested in art or archaeology or architecture or history or Sufi poetry. Which indeed I was.

* * *

A bus with purple velvet curtains had pulled into the dirt parking lot, its passenger windows shot out. Leaving the trio of engineers, I went over to inquire, clambering up for a look inside. The driver told me it had happened in the early hours of the morning in Baghdad; US forces were on patrol and simply strafed the area.

The cameraman I had spoken to earlier ran over to check it out. He poked his head inside the bus but decided it was not worth filming. “This stuff happens all the time.”

“That’s true.” The driver nodded sagely. “It happens all the time.”

* * *

It didn’t use to happen all the time.

Understanding how the invasion of Iraq led to such a chaotic civil war requires some knowledge of the nation’s demographics. Iraq is composed of three main groups: Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds, along with a patchwork of small minorities, some of whom have lived there for thousands of years. The two main branches of Islam, the Shias and the Sunnis, are no farther apart than Protestants and Catholics, which is to say, far enough. The Shia are the majority in Iraq (more than 50 percent, which would win any ballot-box competition), but Sunnis, Saddam Hussein among them, have traditionally held power. (Indeed, the broader Middle East—aside from Iran and Syria—has long been in the hands of Sunnis, who are nine-tenths of the world’s Muslims.) Nevertheless, the Iraqi people lived mostly at peace with their neighbours. So much so that by 2003 nearly a third of the population had intermarried, and most major towns and cities were mixed.

Besides envisioning a peaceful outbreak of democracy once Saddam Hussein was toppled, Washington’s war planners hadn’t thought ahead. Brutal dictator though he was, what they failed to consider when they decided to remove him were the dire consequences commonly observed whenever a strong central power is removed without adequate civic institutions in place. In a diverse society that lacks such unifying structures, there are two tendencies when authority breaks down: a disintegration into communal groups and violence. When governments falter, people turn to anyone who can provide security and basic needs, by whatever means.

With Saddam Hussein felled by George W. Bush’s invasion and regime change, Iranian-allied Shia were handed power, along with the Kurds; Sunni Arabs were sidelined, lumped together as if they hadn’t also suffered under Hussein. Even worse, and with far-reaching consequences, were two orders issued by the Americans under their chief administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, a former ambassador to the Netherlands who had no prior experience in the Middle East—or any conflict zone for that matter. Taking instructions from a secretive Pentagon agency called the Office of Special Plans,5 Bremer purged Baath Party members from national institutions including schools, hospitals, ministries and corporations, firing a hundred thousand of the country’s white-collar professionals, a Sunni-dominant class.6 He then dissolved Iraq’s army, police and intelligence services, leaving half a million men trained in nothing but war suddenly jobless and afraid for their lives.7

The purge amplified as Shia death squads began showing up after dark in Sunni neighbourhoods; torture chambers were run out of the Interior ministry. Before long a thousand bodies a month, most of them ordinary Sunni civilians, were piling up in Baghdad’s morgues. Ex–Baath Party officials and ex–army officers were the first targets of the death squads and were first to flee the country, followed by the intellectuals and anyone who had worked for the US coalition forces.

Then, three years after Hussein’s removal, came a devastating bombing that launched the civil war in earnest. In February 2006, the golden dome of an eleven-hundred-year-old Shia shrine was blown up in the ancient mixed city of Samarra. The bombing was blamed on an Iraqi al-Qaeda franchise, a new group of fighters from Iraq and surrounding Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, bent on bringing down the Shia-led government.8 Later that year, al-Qaeda joined with other Sunni extremists to form the Islamic State of Iraq, the precursor of ISIS.9

Before the bombing in Samarra, there had been lists of specific targets, but now any man or woman found to be Sunni or Shia, or a minority—Christian, Mandaean, Yazidi, Palestinian—could be stopped on the way to work, their identities inferred from the names on their ID cards, and tortured to death, or simply gunned down in their homes. At the UNHCR registration centre in Damascus, where crowds of refugees lined up each morning at dawn, clerks took down their reasons for fleeing. “I get sick from the stories,” a fresh-faced young Syrian clerk had told me. She meant it literally: she sometimes had to excuse herself to throw up. But with neighbouring countries refusing them refuge (Jordan had already taken half a million or more), Syria was the last exit from the killing fields.

* * *

Driving back the way I had come, I watched the setting sun burnish the desert pinkish-gold. Power poles loomed over desert scrub and green patches of irrigated farmland. The highway was calm, my driver silent and brooding; he found the refugees worrisome. “Speaking as a Syrian,” he had earlier told me, “we don’t want their war to come here.”

The refugees would be following in the same direction, many of them bound for a crowded suburb of Damascus where rents were particularly cheap: Sayeda Zainab. Little Baghdad it was being called now. I had been to that neighbourhood a couple of times already. Home to the largest community of Iraqi refugees in the world, it would make an ideal base to research my Harper’s article on the crisis.

I wanted to immerse myself there, in the lives of the people, but how would I do it? To enter a traumatized community, I needed to find someone the community trusted who could make introductions; I needed a good fixer.

As the lights of Damascus beckoned, it occurred to me that I might already have found that person.

Copyright © 2016 by Deborah Campbell


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DEBORAH CAMPBELL is an award-winning writer who has reported from many countries around the world, including Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Mexico, Cuba and Russia. Her work, much of which involves spending long periods of time in the societies she covers, has appeared in Harper’s, The Economist, The Guardian, New Scientist, and Foreign Policy, and she is the recipient of three National Magazine Awards for her foreign correspondence. A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction. Campbell has guest lectured at Harvard, Berkeley, Zayed University in Dubai, and the National Press Club in Washington. She teaches at the University of British Columbia.