Rita Daou, AFP
Last updated: 30 December, 2011

Dogged Syrians film Arab monitors’ every move

Arab peace observers touring crisis-hit Syria have been closely tracked by intrepid activists who, armed with camera-equipped mobile phones, provide the only glimpse into spiralling violence.

The videos captured by civilians have been one of the few sources of information for the rest of the world of what has been going on inside Syria as the state enforces a media blackout on a revolt now into its 10th month.

Accompanied most of the time by regime security agents, the Arab League mission team of 66 monitors, which arrived in Syria on Monday, have nonetheless still been harried and hounded by the activists.

“My general, by coming here you will be able to tell the world about the massacre in our district which has been going on for the past five days,” one young man tells the mission chief, Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, in a YouTube video shot in the flashpoint city of Homs on Tuesday.

“The regime has been hiding the attacks because you are here,” he says as a group of residents tags along.

A tank is later visible at the end of a street on which the observers are standing in Baba Amro district, with debris scattered around them.

The Arab observers face a daunting task at times fraught with danger.

“The circumstances under which the Arab observers are working are very difficult,” said Khattar Abou Diab, political science professor at Universite Paris-Sud.

“They are under pressure from all sides, with Syrian authorities watching their every move and activists persistently presenting their demands.

“These are certainly not ideal work conditions.”

The peace mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria after weeks of stalling. It calls for the withdrawal of armed forces from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence and the release of detainees.

Since arriving in Syria, the observers have been trailed by anti-Assad activists filming their visits to protest hubs such as Homs, Daraa and Idlib and posting videos — sometimes very telling — online.

In one video, a group of young men urge two Arab observers clad in bright orange vests to enter a mosque in Homs to see, as an anonymous activist filming the scene says, a five-year-old “martyr”.

The camera then follows the observers into the mosque, where a child’s body is laying on a carpet. One of the observers takes pictures of the corpse in stony-faced silence while the other says a prayer.

Another video shows General Dabi listening intently as a mother tells the story of how her “unarmed” 23-year-old son was killed by tank fire.

In the background, gunfire can be heard along with chants of “There is no God but God” and “Assad is the enemy of God.”

A third vivid clip shows a group of observers walking through Baba Amro district, thought to have been closed off to the mission, as heavy artillery can be heard in the background.

Against the sound of gunfire, calls of “Traitor, traitor, traitor” can be heard.

The chants against the military grow louder until a massive crowd of protesters comes into view, seen jumping in unison as they call for Assad’s ouster.

A group of observers first entered Homs on Tuesday, when some 70,000 people flooded the streets and were met with gunfire and tear gas, forcing the monitors to cut short their visit, according to activists.

The United States and Human Rights Watch have warned Assad against trying to hide the facts from the monitors, and Paris charged that the team was not being allowed to see what was happening in Homs.

Human rights organisations say that more than 100 civilians have been killed in Syria since the observers arrived, at least 27 of them dying on Thursday alone.

But the presence of the Arab observers has not been without controversy.

General Dabi sparked the ire of some activists earlier this week when he told AFP the visit to Homs was “good” and that Syrian authorities were cooperating so far.

Some have criticised Dabi’s role at the head of the mission as he served under Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed in the Darfur region.

Abou Diab for his part noted that the Arab plan should not be limited to the work of the observers, adding that the public statements made by the team did not constitute a final report.

“We should judge them based on their acts; we should judge them on whether their report is objective or not,” he told AFP.

But for activists risking their lives to protest against the Assad regime, the Arab League mission nonetheless offers much-needed hope, no matter how small.

“The Arab League’s initiative is the only ray of light that we now see,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The presence of the observers in Homs broke the barrier of fear,” he told AFP.