GENEVA: Journalists and activists loyal to opposing sides of Syria’s civil war have managed something the negotiators at this peace conference haven’t – talking to each other.
Inside the wood-paneled negotiating room at the United Nations’ “Geneva II” talks, delegates for President Bashar Assad and the opposition fighting to topple him do not even address each other, only their mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.
But the media teams who followed them here are not being ushered in and out of meetings. They have been stuck together for hours, waiting on officials to make statements.
After days of ignoring each other, journalists began to make eye contact. Now, wary looks and polite smiles have given way to hand shakes and intense debate.
“You do not have an agenda or a plan to build the country. You just want the president out. This no longer convinces us,” a pro-government journalist told some pro-opposition activists waiting in a hallway outside the negotiating room.
“But the point is I can say that those people [the opposition] upstairs do not represent me,” one activist countered. “Can you criticize Assad or the government? Can you say they committed crimes?”
The group of journalists and activists ended their exchange by agreeing they all love Syria.
Their cordial conversations will not end Syria’s nearly 3-year-old war, but they show a measure of good will that official delegates here are nowhere close to offering.
Still, the activists and journalists in this article asked to remain anonymous, fearing rebuke back at home. Many insist these chats haven’t changed their disgust for the other side.
Nonetheless, they have kept talking. At the U.N. cafeteria, pro-Assad reporters pester their anti-government peers for details on northern Syria, where the rebels hold large swaths of territory and Al-Qaeda-linked groups are on the rise.
They are curious about life under Islamist rule.
Activists try to talk to pro-government media about massacres in opposition areas, about the disappearances of activists and the brutal tactics of the security forces who have so far ensured four decades of Assad family rule.
At an opposition news conference, an activist says it is rebels who are now fighting to push out the most radical rebel group in northern Syria, an Al-Qaeda branch known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
“That’s not true. We’re the ones fighting them. It is the Syrian army fighting them,” a state journalist interjects. “How did they get into the country? It is because you allowed them to enter through states which hate the Syrian Republic, your country. My country. Our country.”
“You have changed the flag too,” he adds, referring to the green, white and black flag that the opposition now uses in place of the red, white and black flag flown by the regime.
“Nobody cares about the flag” the activist shoots back. “We did that just to tease you.”
Debates here range from how the conflict started to what kind of future awaits them all.
Opposition activists push their argument that it was Assad’s brutal crackdown that plummeted Syria into this deadly spiral. Pro-government journalists insist it was a foreign conspiracy against the country.
Privately, both sides speak pityingly about the other side being brainwashed. “They are nice people,” one journalist from Syrian state media said. “It is a shame they are being manipulated ... We have all suffered under the state, we all have our stories to tell. But is it a reason to turn against the government and destroy the country? No.”
The rival journalists and activists exchange phone numbers despite their own skepticism.
“We will go back home and nothing will change,” one pro-government journalist said, laughing. Then he followed a group of pro-opposition outside for a smoke.
At the U.N. cafeteria, a pro-government journalist joins Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the opposition’s National Coalition, as he eats his lunch.
Smiling and chatting from opposite sides of the table, they look like old friends, but this is the first time they meet.
“You see, we Syrians talk to each other,” the journalist tells others at the table.
After a long debate, the two acknowledge mistakes were made on both sides. “Okay, how do we take this further?” asks a foreign journalist sitting with them.
The two look at each other, but can think of no answer.
Neither side knows how their communication could help to ease their country’s crisis. But for many, it is the first time they feel that the other side has heard them.
“I felt he was touched,” Ramadan said, as the reporter walked off. “I felt he understood what I said and believed it.”