This week we mark a sombre milestone, with the 10th anniversary of the protests that ignited the Syrian civil war. Like so many conflicts, it is hard to pinpoint an exact moment when the descent into all-out war became inevitable; but for me personally, my mind returns again and again to a trip I made with CNN to Zabadani, a mountain town near Syria's border with Lebanon.
It was at the beginning of 2012, and we were accompanying monitors from the Arab League, trying to investigate exactly what was going on in the increasingly impenetrable shadows of the growing conflict.
Weaving our way through army checkpoints on our way into the town there was a clear sense that we were entering a war zone. We encountered civilians, families fleeing on foot with only basic possessions.
As we entered Zabadani’s centre, thousands of anti-Assad regime protesters and townspeople greeted us as though we were their saviours. While my colleague Nic Robertson filmed a piece to camera, I found myself hoisted on to the shoulders of the crowd, carried along with the monitors in a moment of wild celebration at our arrival. We soon understood why.
“Every morning there is gunfire," one woman explained to us. We were told two or three people had been killed, as many as sixty injured. Water, electricity and phone lines had been cut off. “They are killing us!” a man shouted to us, imploringly. The town was essentially under siege.
The Arab League monitors tried to get details of what was going on amid the bedlam. We heard that a group of military defectors had assembled around 70 Free Syrian Army fighters in the town, although we couldn’t see them.
Then, as we tried to leave, the atmosphere suddenly changed. Sensing that the departure of the monitors would leave the town exposed to the surrounding regime forces, people angrily blocked our way. Our group was forced down to the dangerous front line, towards soldiers who were not expecting us.
There was a tense standoff. The monitors waved their orange coloured jackets to signal who they were. Soldiers approached us, and seeing our cameras, brought out the body of one of their dead. “Film this!” they demanded. “Is this the freedom you want? Is this what the world wants? Is this the Syria you are looking for?”
Finally, barriers were cleared from the road and we were allowed to leave. As we did so, machine gun fire rang out around us. We accelerated across a sort of no-man’s land, past the regime soldiers to safety. It wasn’t clear who was firing, or at whom.
Looking back at the footage now it seems at once impossible to believe that a decade of bloody war would grab Syria by the throat, and inevitable. Syria's conflict has been characterised by confusion, frustration, intransigence, obfuscation and cruelty. All of those were on display in Zabadani that day.
A few things changed in my life in the ensuing decade. I withdrew from my role as a field producer, became CNN’s London bureau chief and took charge of day-to-day newsgathering for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region and now internationally. This meant that I was sending teams into Syria rather than joining them myself, and that brought with it a different dimension of fear and frustration.
The fear was down to the fact that there were times when Syria became an almost impossibly dangerous place for journalists to work. The targeting of reporters was nothing new; we had seen it since the Balkan conflict in the 1980s. The risk that a journalist could be captured, tortured and even murdered in an unspeakably horrifying way, combined with the constant risk of indiscriminate use of air strikes, barrel bombs and even chemical attacks, meant that every assignment needed fresh levels of meticulous safety planning.
The frustration, as any of my colleagues will tell you, is that sometimes those risks were just too great. Among the worst aspects of the Syria conflict from a journalist’s perspective is the fact that so many stories were left untold. Worse still though are the memories of friends, colleagues and fellow journalists who never returned from assignments. Few conflicts have ever needed journalists as much as Syria has, and few have been so deadly for our profession.
The difficulty of maintaining audiences’ interest in the Syria story has also been an immense challenge. Even amid the horrors of chemical weapons attacks, indiscriminate bombings and other callous cruelties, there is a point at which audiences become fatigued. As the conflict mutated into perhaps the greatest refugee crisis the world has ever known that challenge became even greater.
Something else changed for me personally over the past 10 years; I got married and now have two children. Looking back at the footage of our Zabadani report this week I was struck by some of the faces in the crowd that greeted us with such joy: children, some as young as nine or 10, jumping excitedly in the melee, or toddlers in their mothers’ arms.
A new report from the International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday revealed the "profound psychological toll" the conflict has taken on Syria's youth. Over half of the 1,400 young Syrians interviewed across Syria, Lebanon and Germany experienced sleep disorders, while 73 per cent experienced anxiety and 58 per cent experienced depression, the ICRC said.
The experience of those young people impacted by the conflict is characterised by frustration, solitude and distress, the report outlined. They need psychological support, economic opportunities, access to education and health care.
Many of those children I saw that day in Zabadani are now adults. Their lives will have been forever changed by what was still to come. All will have experienced hardship and loss; some may not even have survived. My colleague Arwa Damon will this week profile a Syrian child in a new piece for CNN, a boy born in Idlib at the outset of the conflict, who has known nothing but the war.
The story of Syria is as important now as it has been since that day. The region and the world have been changed forever by this most brutal of conflicts, and even while the world faces new and profound challenges, we must never allow our eyes to stray from the plight of a country and a people that have suffered so very much.
Thomas Evans is vice president, international newsgathering, and London bureau chief at CNN