Laurent Van der Stockt is a photographer who has covered conflict from Bosnia to Iraq to the Arab Spring. When it became nearly impossible for foreign journalists to legally enter Damascus, Van der Stockt, on assignment for French newspaper Le Monde, went to the city’s front lines. He spoke with Syria Deeply about the fighting in Damascus and capturing photographic evidence that plunged the international community into a debate over Barack Obama’s “red line” and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Laurent Van der Stockt: I’m like the Syrians who find the chemicals weapons issue a bit ironic. From the beginning of last summer it was a cynical joke. I said, “Damn, what is this red line? People are dying 100 times more from conventional bombardments and shelling. Is it legal to kill the population with 500 pound bombs?” I was not focused on [chemical weapons].
I was going to Damascus because no [journalists] had been going there, and the rebels had been approaching Abbasid Square (a symbolic target for its location in the heart of the city). It was first time they were in Damascus.
SD: What is the situation in Damascus and its suburbs now?
LVS: What we discovered was that Bashar [al-Assad] is really pushing hard. I was expecting that the FSA [Free Syrian Army] was getting a bit stronger, and it’s a bit the opposite. Now Bashar’s army is stronger and closing in more from countryside. It took only weeks to get in, but 1.5 months to get out because of that.
We were in Jobar district from April 3-15, then Zamalka district for three weeks [both inside the Damascus city limits]. We spent the last three weeks in the suburbs east of Damascus. We were mainly with the Tahrir al-Sham FSA brigade.
The FSA controls Ghouta [a region along the eastern outskirts of Damascus] and also a little area called Jobar, which is on the other side of the northern highway to Homs. It’s not like in the north where the FSA first controlled the countryside and had rear territories that allowed them to get ammunition, supplies and men. Around Damascus it’s the opposite: they don’t control the countryside, and there are lots of army bases all around. They are not in a strong position; Bashar is the strongest now. The Syrian army is really trying to cut off their supplies from behind.
SD: How did you come upon the chemical weapons story?
I could see gas masks all around and [the fighters] were all talking about this. Everyone was already having problems with their eyes. One day I did an interview with the commander of the little position. These guys are used to shelling, fighting, snipers. That’s their life. But chemicals, you never know. It has a real psychological effect. You cannot smell it or see it for certain. Sometimes there is not even smoke. You are in this area where there’s a lot of houses. So shells always fall behind, and you can’t see the shells explode, so you never know what they are shelling with.
At first, I didn’t even notice that I too was a bit affected. The guy I was with, a media man from the katiba [battalion], heard an explosion and said it was chemical weapons, and the same information was coming from the radio. Someone arrived with gas masks, but the guy I was with said, “This is gas. We have to go.”
I learned that a microbe of sarin on your skin is lethal: you die. But the wind also brings it, and you can be affected, and this is what happened to us. My pupils were retracted for three or four days. You have headaches and it becomes hard to breathe. These guys we saw at the hospital the day after had double the exposure – they were really bad. You start bleeding from the lungs. They don’t use it massively, but the real effect is that you never feel safe. And these guys have to stay 24 hours on the front line, and so they are really insecure.
We were really treating it with suspicion at first – not that we didn’t believe it was chemicals, but we knew there were no journalists there, and it would be a big debate. So we tried to collect as much data as we could.
I left the front line to join Jean-Philippe [Stockt’s reporter colleague from Le Monde], and we spent days going to medical points to meet with doctors and patients. There are no hospitals, just medical points, and they have nothing – it’s a nightmare. When you are badly wounded, you die. They can’t get their wounded out. In Jobar, there are no more civilians, but in Ghouta and Douma there are still civilians, so when they drop gas, civilians get it too.
We compared different testimonies, and now there is no more question in my mind. But we came back with the samples, because we knew there would be a lot of doubt.
SD: What were the biggest challenges you faced covering Syria?
LVS: Syria is very different. The problem is not your personal difficulties. It’s that this area is really under control and surrounded. It’s very difficult in this kind of place to do a serious journalistic work. Everything is complicated: to move around, to find someone who speaks English, to get some gas for a car. We were working in Jobar and Ghouta. I was on this front line for a week, going every day. I could not go anywhere else because we were a bit surrounded, and it was not easy to go back to the other side of Damascus. To work 10 days you need two months.
We would do nothing without [the FSA]. In the beginning it was hard. In the north they understood the advantage of letting an independent professional journalist work, to reveal the truth. They understood because they are used to it. In Damascus you have to meet people who are clever and open-minded enough. And they risked a lot for us. We felt like a heavy burden for them. But in the end you share the same experience. They were just happy to have a serious witness see their situation.
SD: What kind of risk was it to leave Syria with such implicating evidence?
LVS: At first I was scared with what I saw and what I was carrying, because we knew it was something that could change everything. So it was very dangerous. I was inside with my pictures, film, everything. The samples. I could not communicate that to everyone. We would become an amazing target, even in Jordan, so it became quite complicated.
My colleague and I had a long argument. Should we release everything when we were stuck in Damascus? Do we run the story and send it to the newspapers right away? But then we would be a bigger target, so we decided to not do it.
SD: How did you finally manage to escape?
LVS: You cannot leave en masse. You can only leave if you find an amazing guy who can cross the line in the night and can find his way. You can only cross like a commando at a certain time and place. So most of the people are stuck.
The exit plan changed many times. And it was not up to us, but the FSA. The problem is to find a car and someone who can cross the lines and the way. It was changing … at one moment we were thinking we were going to leave through Turkey. The plan was to go through Lebanon. We were worried about leaving through Lebanon with chemical weapons samples, but we got to the point where we were ready to take any opportunity.
In the end I decided to get out through the desert between Syria and Jordan. When we were dropped off at the border in the desert we were exhausted and a bit wounded. I hadn’t taken off my jeans for two months. We had no water or food and were carrying our bags. Then we got lost in a kind of no man’s land. If you look at the GPS border you are already on the Jordan side, but if you are on the ground you are in no-man’s land.
We continued to walk east and saw this little post, but didn’t know if it was Syrian or Jordanian. Imagine, after two months to be taken by the Syrians in the last 100 meters. It was like this for a month and a half. You’re carrying something big and are afraid to lose it or to be trapped somewhere. After a big long fight you’re always afraid to lose in the last seconds.
We decided to walk to the post – we had no choice.
Finally we saw the Jordanian flag. They were nice but we were illegals, so they had to check all of our bags. We waited two hours for the commander, and when he understood we were carrying samples he was a bit worried. I convinced him it was not a virus and wouldn’t contaminate anyone.
SD: How did you know where to take the samples? Who to trust?
LVS: For the test results to be officially classified as “chemical weapons” you have to fit a large number of conditions designated by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. And we learned that there is no place to make an independent analysis. All of the approved labs are government defense laboratories, so we were afraid not to be able to do an independent work.
We had to trust the French government and use the defense laboratory, and it was scary because if the test came out negative, we would never know if they were continuing to hide it.
In the end, the lab came out positive – 100% sarin – which was a surprise for us, and a good one. If it were the opposite we would never know if they had tricked us or not.
SD: What were the political implications of the story?
LVS: This story had a lot of consequences. Then the French [government] got a bit trapped because we published everything.
A day after, the French admitted chemical weapons had been used; Britain decided to do the same.
Then Obama had to admit it as well. To not make a big scandal, they admitted they had the proof for months. The only thing I know is that the whole world was at the desk of Mr. Obama very quickly after we came back. Then they decided to arm the rebels. So it was a game changer.
Of course the fact that we came back with the proof was not the only factor in this. The Americans would prefer not to see the conflict spreading around. It’s a huge war with big consequences. And the containment was broken with Hezbollah and the Iranians inside. This was just the last straw, to make the U.S. announce that these were chemical weapons.
SD: What was it like to leave the people you had worked with behind?
LVS: It was a very poignant scene when we set off. You have 100 eyes on you, and you know everyone behind those eyes is so deeply afflicted by the conflict. It’s been two years now and they no longer believe in the press or anticipate any miracles from the international community. But still, even in the midst of their nightmare, you cannot kill the hope. When we left with the samples it was like they dropped an SOS bottle in the sea. They put all their hopes in us.
The goal of journalists is not to change something. Journalism is about truth and the right of people to get that truth. Afterwards we understood this situation was quite unique. We did the journalistic job and saw the consequences. Of course I have to face it and understand it, but somehow it doesn’t belong to me anymore.