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Reporter Describes Apprehensive, Frightened Mood In Syria


And now to Damascus, where we reached the BBC's Jeremy Bowen, who arrived there yesterday. Speaking to us on a somewhat shaky line, he described the mood there as apprehensive.

JEREMY BOWEN: People worried about what might be coming. I think the regime is apprehensive because the most powerful military force in the world is talking about attacking along with its quite powerful allies. And so that, of course, is making them nervous.

They've said that they - they've said to me that they have some contingency plans, moving people out of headquarters buildings and so on. And I think on the street, in terms of the people, it might feel like the whole effect of being attacked by America and by its close allies.

BLOCK: Are you seeing visible signs of this fear that you're talking about? Are people stockpiling food and supplies, things like that?

BOWEN: Yes, there's a bit of that going on. I was at the bakery today, and we were working there with, I have to say, correct accreditation from the government until some very jumpy, armed government security people stopped us. But we were there long enough to find out from local people that, to start with, it was much more busier than usual there.

They have great, big state-owned bakeries, and the Syrians eat an awful lot of flatbreads. And people were complaining that they weren't getting hold of some of the bread because black marketeers, people who are trying to scam them, were getting hold of the bread first and then taking it across the street and selling it for two or three times the price. So I think that's all signs of tension and strain.

BLOCK: Are you hearing people, Jeremy, expressing particular concern about possible chemical weapons stores being targeted and that the chemical weapons themselves, the gas, would hit Damascus, people there would be affected?

BOWEN: Yeah, it's a common worry here. People are concerned about that, and a few people have raised it with me. And I think what they think, what they're concerned about, is that if those chemical weapons stockpiles are targeted, that they might not all get destroyed in the explosions that followed, and in some way chemical agents could drift to places where people live, and then more civilians could get hurt as a result of that. That's a common fear here in Damascus.

BLOCK: Do many people have gas masks?

BOWEN: They certainly don't do mass distributions of them, as far as I know here, in the way that they do in other countries, not least in Israel next door. So I think that, no, they don't. And so I think what there is is some fear here.

At the time, I watched a lot of the YouTube videos that were put up when the chemical attack happened. And those people in those rebel-held parts of the Damascus suburbs had apparently been told that if there was a gas attack, not to shelter in basements, as they do in shelling, but to get as high up as they can because some of the chemical agents, they're hoping, would sink down, being a bit heavier than air.

And some of the doctors and medical teams in those field hospitals said that that's what some people managed to do, but, in fact, others still went to the basements, and they suffered particularly badly.

BLOCK: Hmm. Have you been able to talk with anybody in Damascus about what happened in those Damascus suburbs and what they think happened? What's their view of what went on?

BOWEN: Yeah, I've been talking to a few people, actually fairly much at random on the streets, and there were different opinions. There were a couple of girls I was talking to when they were having lunch, university students, young women. And they disagreed, actually. They were having a debate between themselves, and one of them said, look, I think the government did it because that's what they do.

And she said - this girl said, I support the Free Syria Army. And her friend - her sister, as a matter of fact - said, no, no, no. I support President Assad. She's completely wrong. In fact, my belief is that the Syrian army protects us, keeps us safe, and you can't trust these people.

And, you know, these were two young women, dressed in a very Western way, and the younger of them was saying, look, the rebels will come here. They'll force me to wear a veil. They'll force me not to look the way I want to look, and I'm completely against that.

So that line (technical difficulty) regime is something that people here have really fastened on, and that argument is that it's a straight choice between secular government, whether you like it or whether you don't like it, of President Assad, or an extreme Islamist al-Qaida-type administration.

BLOCK: OK. Jeremy Bowen with the BBC in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Jeremy, thanks so much.

BOWEN: And thank you too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.