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Rodrigo Abd

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Syria has always been a tough place to cover for journalists. Confidently authoritarian with a ruthlessly formidable security and intelligence apparatus, Syria has long been one of the most policed of Arab police states. So when some Syrians defied their government to take to the streets in the southern city of Dara‘a in March 2011, the temptation to cover the story was overwhelming for many, including myself.

The story of the Syrian uprising is ultimately the tale of regular citizens silencing the policeman in their heads, breaking their own personal barriers of fear to speak, to demonstrate, to demand, to reject, to no longer be afraid, to live in dignity. It’s about what these people will do, what they will endure, and what they are prepared to become to achieve their aims.

It is also the story of a significant portion of the population that considers the regime of President Bashar Assad the country’s best option, because they believe in its Baathist secular ideology or directly benefit from its patronage or don’t have confidence in Assad’s opponents and fear what may come next. Understanding what this segment of the population will accept in terms of state violence, the narratives they choose to believe and their concerns is a critical component of the story, though one that is harder to obtain, given the paucity of press visas issued by Damascus.

The only way to tell the Syrian story, really tell it, is to be on the ground with the men, women and children who are central to it, whether in Syria on in the neighboring states that many Syrians have fled to. It isn’t easy to do — the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York City, has dubbed Syria the “most dangerous place for journalists in the world” — but it is essential. Nothing beats being there. There is no compensating for seeing, feeling, touching, capturing, living the story.

The images here are a testament to the power of being on the ground, of sharing and capturing a moment for posterity, of translating an element of a person’s life through imagery.

Take a look at the photos. Can you place yourself in these situations? Can you imagine what it must be like? What do you feel when you look at the images? Are you drawn into them, or are you repulsed? Can you relate to them, or are they too alien? This is the power of translating on-the-ground reporting to an audience. This is why we must and will continue to document the Syrian uprising from inside the country when we can, and we — members of the foreign press corps — are not alone. Sadly, as is often the case, local journalists (both professional and citizen) have disproportionately borne the brunt of the casualties in this crisis. Still, this story is not about members of the media and what we go through to tell it; it’s about the Syrians who entrust their testimonies, their experiences, their hopes, their fears, their images to us in the hope that they will help explain what is happening in one of the most pivotal states in the Middle East.

—Rania Abouzeid

This collection of testimonies is the third in a series by TIME documenting iconic images of conflict. See “9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” and “Afghanistan: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” for more.

Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Reporting by Vaughn Wallace.

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AP cameraman Ahmed Bahaddou and I sneaked into Syria from Turkey, traveling with the rebels’ Free Syrian Army. Our aim was to understand and cover the conflict in the country’s northwest region, as well as in the hard-hit Homs neighborhood of Bab Amr, under siege for weeks by government forces.

Almost as soon as we arrived, news broke of a massacre and the military victory of Bashar Assad’s forces in Homs. But after traveling in the country for about 10 days it became clear that the rebel stronghold of Idlib was likely to be the next source of news.

Saturday, March 10, was a horrifying day in Idlib. Ahmed and I had slept the night before in a hospital for security. The city was completely dark, making it impossible to drive in the city, and the sounds of the fighting could be heard everywhere.

Turky

Rodrigo Abd—AP

March 12, 2012. A Turkish man drives a tractor on a dirt road in Turkey, meters away from the Syrian border.

After waking up that morning, we began documenting the chaos as dozens of civilians and fighters brought the wounded and dead to the hospital. We could hear that the fighting was very close, with the sound of bullets whizzing nearby. Assad’s forces were taking control of all the neighborhoods and it was clear they were not going to welcome the presence of journalists.

It was time to leave.

In the last light of the evening, we saw fighters celebrating the destruction of a tank, and we ran with them, trying to avoid the direct line of fire. A sudden big explosion that spewed a huge grey smoke over a group of wounded soldiers created a terrific scene that I quickly photographed.

After we ran back to the hospital I encountered some of the most moving images of the conflict: a group of rebel fighters weeping over their dead comrades. They may not be my best photographs, but I think they tell a lot about the situation in Syria.

We left Idlib that night, traveling again with the Free Syrian Army. After walking in the dark in complete silence through a passage, we then hiked more than 11 kilometers to avoid military checkpoints in hopes of reaching a friendly city.

Anything we suffered to tell the story was nothing compared with what the Syrian people have experienced in nearly a year of conflict: broken families. Human rights abuses. Children severely injured. More than 7,500 people dead. The cruel realities of a country with a dark future.

Rodrigo Abd is a photographer with the Associated Press. See more of his work here.

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