The road to Palmyra
We have been trying for a week to reach Palmyra, a city in the Syrian desert famed for its ancient Greco-roman ruins, that government forces have just retaken from the Islamic State. Late one night, the call finally comes. We leave at seven the next morning. Disappointingly, so do a group of other journalists, the full number of which becomes clear when we head out of Damascus in a file of minibuses and 4x4s.
We cruise past checkpoints where Syrian flags fly high and posters depict the face of Syrian President Bashar AlAssad who, contrary to many Western media portrayals, is not hated by all his people, many of whom remain fiercely loyal to him.
The main road, just 15 kilometres outside Damascus, is closed, running through territory still controlled by opposition forces, and we take a series of diversions, skirting the edges of Syrian towns and villages decimated by fighting. When we head east, towards the desert, which was IS territory for nearly a year, other road users melt away, leaving our convoy of journalists and military personnel alone on the road, except for the odd military truck trundling past in a cloud of dust.
We are being led to Palmyra by a Syrian Army General who halts us in the desert for a pep talk about following orders and not wandering recklessly around once we reach Palmyra, which is rigged with explosives – a parting gift from retreating IS militants who left IEDS in properties across the city.
Back on the road, the General steadily overtakes the whole convoy, to regain his position at the front. And what does a victorious General from the Syrian Army drive? Like all discerning military men, of course, he drives a sleek shiny black Land Rover.
It is a Freelander 2 HSE – one Land Rover model about which I know next to nothing – but, according to the official Land Rover website, is adept at tackling the toughest terrains. “On tarmac, gravel, sand or snow, Terrain Response makes sure your drive is responsive, steady and controlled,” it declares. If the engine is as pristine as the exterior, I imagine the Terrain Response in this Freelander is in good working order. Apart from snow, the General puts it through its paces, over broken tarmac, blown apart by roadside mines, the coarse sand of the Syrian desert and loose gravel on a mountain pass with which our little minibus struggles.
Just five days ago, Palmyra was an active conflict zone between the Syrian Army and the most infamous terrorist organisation of the 21st century. I remember the Land Rover advertising slogan ‘Go Beyond and think that this trip could epitomise it.
The Freelander cruises ahead of us, leading the column of journalist-filled vehicles towards the medieval citadel on Palmyra’s outskirts that overlooks the war-torn city. At the summit we pile out and the photographers line up along the edge of the precipice to take near-identical shots of the columns of black smoke rising from the modern city, where bomb disposal teams are detonating hundreds of booby traps and IEDS.
I hang back and try to line up a shot of the Freelander with the medieval citadel rising behind. An officer making a descent down the steep hill on foot pauses, casting me a suspicious look.
“I love Land Rovers,” I say with a smile, repeating the phrase in what I hope might be comprehensive Arabic. He frowns. “I have same Land Rover in England,” I lie, since my Lightweight is a world apart from this shiny vehicle, but I do not have enough Arabic to go into details. Thankfully.
“Me and Land Rovers from Britain,” I throw in, for good measure. His face relaxes into a smile, but he taps the white number plate, with its dual Arabic-indic and European numerals, and shakes his head and a forbidding finger.
My translator says: “Thom, stop disappearing all the time,” she says, with a tired smile. “This is a dangerous place and you’re my responsibility.” The officer talks rapidly to her in Arabic and she turns to me and asks if I have Photoshop. I can only use the picture if I blur out the number plate. Reassured, the officer says: “You are welcome in Syria,” and continues his descent down the mountain.
It seems somehow fitting to have been led to this liberated piece of Syrian land by a Land Rover. But, although Palmyra is a battle the Syrian Army has won, the country’s ruinous civil conflict is far from over.
“What does a victorious General from the Syrian Army drive? Like all discerning military men, a shiny black Land Rover”