On behalf of Prensa Latina news agency, Miguel Fernandez was the only journalist from the Western world accredited to work in the Syrian capital of Damascus for nearly a year. After returning home to Havana, Fernandez gave Sputnik News an exclusive interview in which he reflects back on what he experienced in the war torn country.
Fernandez first gets into the single biggest lesson he learned, which is that the people of Syria don't give in, they don't stop pursuing the dream of having a prosperous country.
"Seeing how these people don't give in, that they dream about a prosperous country, is the biggest lesson that Syria gave me"
Miguel then reflects back on when a colleague of his first arrived in the city, and as the journalist took him around the city, everything was seemingly so normal that his friend asked "where is the war?"
"Fear is the first thing that war creates, that fear which forces people to be on guard. However, Damascus broke that pattern. When my colleague arrived I took him around the city and he noticed that buses and taxis are traveling around, people are sitting in cafes and going shopping, children are going to school. He asked me, 'where is the war?'"
"I said, I will show you before we leave for Cuba. And after less than a day, when we were traveling in a taxi, a mortar shell fell in front of us, onto a group of people, some of whom died, and there was chaos all around."
"I looked at that and I said – that is war. That resistance of the Syrian people, the unwillingness to accept the hardships of war, has inspired me."
The most harrowing moment for Fernandez was during the fall of Palmyra to the terrorists in May 2011 [later to be taken back from ISIS, and even recently held a concert that was put on by Russia's famous Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra]. Fernandez reflected on a time in which monuments were destroyed, and children under Daesh leadership were made to kill captured Syrian soldiers.
"Palmyra is one of ten UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria, an oasis in the desert, full of mystical stories. Seeing how the Arch of Triumph and other monuments were destroyed. A terrible scene that I will never forget, was when children under the leadership of Daesh killed 50 captured Syrian soldiers who were on their knees."
"For me, that was the saddest moment, because I felt that the war was not only against Syria, but against the world, our culture, our values, our heritage. When I say ours, I mean civilization. These elements (Daesh) are savages. They can destroy a monument in the same way that they cut a child's head off."
Fernandez also recalled how differently the Syrian people view Russia and the United States, and that the Russian participation did not feel like an intervention at all. Importantly, Miguel discusses the stark differences between the precision and effectiveness of the US vs Russian air strikes as well. Notably that US airstrikes were not coordinated and often hit Syrian infrastructure, as opposed to Russia's strikes, which destroyed more Daesh infrastructure in 30 days than the US had been able to accomplish in a year's time.
"I am fair with blue eyes, so they often confused me with Russians and affectionately greeted me. Syrians believe in Russia because for a long time they were in conflict with the US and some European powers and Russia was the only friendly power."
"I was there when Russia entered the war in September 2015 and Syrians did not perceive it as an intervention, but as support and a sign of solidarity," Fernandez explained.
"For over a year before that the US had led an international coalition that didn't show any results. The Americans carried out bombings but Daesh spread even further, and seized new positions."
"Those airstrikes were not coordinated and often hit Syrian infrastructure, hospitals and schools. The Russian airstrikes didn't, because they entered the war at the request of Damascus and their activities were coordinated in order to be effective and not bring harm to civilians."
"During the first 30 days of bombing the Russians were able to destroy 40 percent of Daesh's infrastructure, which the US and its allies hadn't been able to do for a year."
Fernandez ended the interview with a story of a Syrian soldier who complimented him by breaking bread and sharing it with the journalist, as a tribute to what the soldier said was Cuban bravery.
"One of the soldiers, he was over 50, bearded, dirty, covered in powder and slush, he came to me, broke his bread in two and offered me half."
"I refused, because I had already had breakfast at home and had no idea how many hours he had gone without eating. But my translator told me to take the bread, explaining that he wanted to share the bread with me because I am Cuban and he had always been told that Cuban soldiers are very brave and that if he shares the bread with me, it will bring him luck in the next battle."
"I shed a few tears, because I am not a warrior, and I was very touched that he had such an impression about my nation,"
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With all of the speculation and observations from the pundits on television, who have never stepped foot inside the war torn country of Syria, it is helpful to get a first hand account of what's taking place on the ground. What one may find, is that those that sit around and parrot the "Russia Bad/US Good" narrative all day may not be exactly providing the complete picture.