The world has watched Syria’s agony from a distance. For tens of thousands of Syrians, though, the civil war is unfolding with intimate horror: families destroyed in an instant; once-peaceful villages ripped apart by sectarian rage; neighbors confronting neighbors across a no man’s land of hatred, suspicion and terror.
FRONTLINE’s Olly Lambert is the first Western filmmaker to spend an extended period living on both sides of Syria’s war—and to document, on camera, the realities of everyday life for rebels, government soldiers and the civilians who support them. Syria Behind the Lines is an unforgettable portrait of a disintegrating nation and of the dividing lines between communities and between life and death. The program airs Tuesday, April 9, at 10 p.m. on WMHT.
For five weeks in October and November 2012, Lambert crisscrossed the Orontes River valley in Idlib province, a once-peaceful area in Syria’s heartland that is now a perilous sectarian front line. On one side of the river, the rebel Free Syrian Army holds Sunni villages whose residents are calling for the fall of President Bashar Al-Assad. On the other side, less than a mile away, villagers from Assad’s Alawite minority remain fiercely loyal to the government and gladly host army checkpoints that fire shells and mortars into neighboring Sunni villages.
In the regime-held village of Aziziya, we meet schoolchildren who chant, “Whatever Syria requires of us, we are ready, boys and girls,” as well as loyalist villagers and Ba’ath Party members. We enter checkpoints where Assad’s army carries out its shelling, meeting Syrian Army commanders—including one who mans the gun position that had fired on Lambert and a Sunni farmer only weeks before.
Across the river, in the rebel-held village of Kansafra, Lambert lives in the very houses the regime is targeting. Here we meet farmers who are shot at when they try to check their crops, and a young rebel soldier who used to think nothing of crossing the river to play with the friends he is now fighting: “We used to be like brothers before the revolution,” he says. In the village, too, are refugees who came to Kansafra seeking safe haven but found nothing of the sort. Instead, they are left to grieve as their families become the latest victims of regime shelling. In a devastating sequence, Lambert films a regime air strike that hits civilian homes barely 300 yards from where he is standing, killing 17 people, mostly unarmed women and children.
Both sides in the conflict think they are working to make the country safe for their families and for the future. Both sides blame each other for the death, destruction and fighting. Both sides express longing for a return to peace. And, as Syria Behind the Lines reveals in stark, gripping detail, both sides believe that peace can only be achieved if they are the victors.
Premieres Tuesday, April 9, at 10 p.m. on WMHT