Out of hell – Klester Cavalcanti, Brazilian journalist, arrested in Syria

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Klester Cavalcanti

Interview by Anne-Louise SAUTREUIL (www.lepetitjournal.com – Brazil)

Klester Cavalcanti, 42, is a Brazilian journalist experienced. In May 2012, he decided to go to Syria to cover the war that puts the city of Homs with fire and blood. Despite its valid visa, he was arrested by the army and imprisoned for 6 days. In his cell, populated by 20 other prisoners, he formed a friendship and discovers the stories of his fellow prisoners Syrians. Among them is the translator of Rémi Ochlik young French photographer killed in a bombing in February. For Lepetitjournal.com, Klester Cavalcanti agreed to return to his arrest and captivity (interview in 2012).  

Lepetitjournal.com – Why did you decide to go to Syria? 

Klester Cavalcanti - In the month of May, I was watching the news on television, in newspapers, on the internet, about the war in Syria. At the end of these stories, commentators always specified that the information could not be verified because the Syrian government did not allow journalists to enter the country. As a reader and as a journalist, I was uncomfortable and frustrated to read stories whose information was not verified. It should be noted that many journalists who went to Syria, had alleged cover the war from Damascus. It was impossible because there are still four months, Damascus was still pretty quiet. It is in Homs, two hour’s drive from the capital, the heaviest fighting. I asked a journalist visa to leave Syria, and I got it. Saturday, May 19, I arrived in Damascus; I took the bus to go directly into the city of Homs.

Under what circumstances was your arrest?

K.C. – Arriving at the bus station in Homs, I took a taxi to the city center where I had to find my contact, a defender of human rights, opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But my taxi was arrested by the Syrian army. Despite my valid visa, they took me to the police station where I was interrogated. It lasted several hours. At one point, a police officer handed me a document written in Arabic. He wanted me to sign. When I refused, he lit a cigarette, and while another held me, he approached my eye and was crushed underneath. Then again, he approached his cigarette in my eye, and I felt my retina burn me. I told myself that I had to sign. The next day, they transferred me to the penitentiary in Homs. I was placed in a cell in which there were already 20 people. I did not understand what was happening; no one gave me any explanation.

How were you received by the other inmates? Were you able to talk with them?

K.C.-I was better received and treated better in prison than police. There was solidarity and respect among inmates. They knew I was a journalist and abroad. They tried to create links. When I left, they took me in their arms and partied. I was very lucky because there was a man who spoke English. Thanks to him, I was able to chat with other prisoners and discover their stories.

Were they, mostly, opponents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad

K.C.-Most were neither opponents nor criminals. Many had committed minor offenses because of the war. Residents who have no history of illegal things to get by. For example, one who spoke English had a clothing store in a mall. But in time of war, no one thinks to go buy clothes, life stops. He needed money to live and began to sell contraband cigarettes from Lebanon. Another man, worked in real estate, he sold and rented houses. He had more customers. As he spoke fluent French, some of the opposition was contacted and offered to act as a translator at a French photographer named Remi (editor’s note: Rémi Ochlik, French photographer killed in a bombing in February ) and was due to arrive in Syria. He accepted and spent a month with the French photographer. During a bombing, Remi was killed. Later, his translator was imprisoned as an enemy of the regime.
How your liberation is it held?

K.C.-For six days in jail, I knew nothing. Before leaving, I told my editor. If I had not given new May 23 (editor’s note: due to return to Brazil Date), they should get in touch with a touch of the Brazilian Embassy in Damascus. On the said date, no news of me, my writing phoned the man. He called a man of government saying a Brazilian journalist had disappeared. They found that I was trapped in Homs. I am released from prison on Friday. A policeman took me to Damascus, where I stayed three days because my visa was no longer valid. I had to wait until he gives me a new one. The city was quiet; I was able to walk, sightseeing. We were not yet in this area in a climate of war at that time. Nothing like Homs where I could see the destroyed buildings, explosions, people running in the streets.

Did you feel when you return?

K.C.-.I was not returned directly to São Paulo. As I said earlier, I stayed three days in Damascus waiting for my visa. Then I went through Beirut where I stayed another two days. I felt very happy to be safe. I felt a sense of peace and freedom. I could go out for a walk, I relaxed in Beirut. So arriving in Brazil, I was much calmer.

Are you disappointed not to have been able to achieve the reports you want?

K.C.-When I was arrested, yes. I had to work on two aspects of the war. I wanted to do an article on the daily life in this city that still counts 2 million inhabitants. I wanted to see how people lived this war every day. I also wanted to work on the clashes between government forces and opponents of the regime. I had to spend two days with them, that’s why I contacted the defender of human rights. When I realized that this would not be possible, I was very disappointed. However, in the prison, I discovered another aspect of war and gather some very interesting testimony. It would not have been the case if I had been placed in an individual cell.

What do you think of Brazil’s position on Syria? You think an intervention is necessary?

K.C.-Brazil wants to remain neutral. I think he should take a clearer position. He retired staff of the Embassy of Brazil in Damascus; it shows that he has no confidence in the government of Bashar al-Assad. But people are dying and should adopt a clearer and firmer position. It should condemn more violence the Syrian government. Now, what is a military intervention, I do not know if it’s a good idea. This could make things worse. Bashar al-Assad said he would use such chemical weapons in case of attack. This is an extremely sensitive issue.

Now you finish a book in which you tell your arrest and imprisonment. Why did you wanted to write your story?

K.C.-My editor asked me to write this book. Initially, I did not want to because I usually tell the stories of others, not mine. I do not want to talk to me. Then my editor convinced me by saying that I had to tell what was going on there and I was the only foreign journalist to be detained in the prison of Homs. He told me that if I did not write, he would ask someone to do a book of interviews with me about Syria. So I decided to accept and I will also create a website where I can put the videos and pictures that I brought from Syria. It is important to show what is happening there.

Have you kept in touch with the people you met in Homs?

K.C.-I still talk to them on Skype. He who was my contact in the Opposition asked a camera on his window. It turns 24h/24h and directs according bombing. He has sent me some videos that I will publish on the website that I am creating. Another of my contacts came out of prison. We also talk via Skype. They tell me that the city is currently extremely dangerous and extremely tense situation.

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