Twenty-eight journalists have been killed in Syria this year, making the country the world’s deadliest place to be a reporter, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Nearly half of all the journalists killed worldwide in 2012 were slain in Syria, including top foreign correspondents like Marie Colvin of the London Times.
Another celebrated journalist, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, died in February of an allergy attack during his trek out of the country. NBC’s Richard Engel and his crew, no strangers to hostile reporting territory, narrowly escaped being hostages of the Syrian regime this week. Freelance reporter Austin Tice remains missing. Is Syria just too hazardous for journalists? We asked four veteran observers of the conflict to tell us what it’s like to cover the riskiest beat in the world.
When the Arab Spring first rumbled into Syria, it was clear that it would be a different story than the other revolutions seizing the Middle East.
At the time, correspondents of all hues were scattered from North Africa to Yemen, covering what in essence were “good news” stories. The narratives were simple: Collective empowerment was breaking down tyranny. The downtrodden were clawing back dignity. Absolute power was contestable after all.
It was hard not to soak in the heady scenes of Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Tripoli, Libya’s Green Square, or to champion the resilience of Bahrain’s vocal masses. All three stories seemed enjoyable to cover. But they were curtain-raisers. Even then, Syria loomed large as the main game.
As far back as March 2011, when the Syrian revolt began, I sensed that what was about to take place in the heartland of Arabia would come to define careers and potentially reshape the region’s geopolitical landscape. Nearly 22 months later, Syria is still doing both.
At least seven of our colleagues have lost their lives, along with dozens more citizen journalists. Many more reporters have been captured. Some have been maimed. And at least six remain missing as of mid-December.
Early on, the Guardian, like other outlets, determined that there was no substitute for being there — despite the tangible risks. Ubiquitous cellphone videos and data feeds were useful at times, but were sometimes manipulated to support often irreconcilable narratives rather than clarify what was happening on the ground.
I have crossed into Syria seven times. I would have done so more often had I not first spent four months waiting for an official visa, which would have given me access to areas controlled by the regime.
Despite five applications, that permission has never come. Since the beginning of the uprising, we have received only one 10-day visa. That has kept Damascus — an essential element of the story — off-limits for us. But we have made it to most other points of Syria and tried to convey how war was slowly ravaging the country.
Each of my seven journeys has been different. Homs province in February was the first foray, a difficult journey from northern Lebanon through orchard land that is now locked down by the regime.
Jabal al-Zawiya, an area in the northern Idlib province, was next — an impossibly beautiful patchwork of farm land, green-water rivers, and concrete villages built into grey hillsides. Then came the Aleppo countryside, the Idlib plains, and three trips back to one of the world’s oldest cities, Aleppo itself — the crumbling center of which remains ground zero of the battle for Syria’s destiny.
War has hardened Syria and many of the people I’ve met along the way. It has forged alliances and broken others. And it has forced people to make choices.
In my past two trips to the north, I have noticed a cohort that was not there in the beginning. Jihadists, who were until mid-summer a bit player, know they have status and a stake in what emerges from Syria’s ruins.
Those who started the fight know full well they can’t finish it without help from the well-armed ideologues. “I’ll dance with the devil if I have to, then fight with him later,” my battle-hardened front-line friend, Col. Abu Furat, who was killed this week in Aleppo, once told me.
Abu Furat was a true nationalist. He was a secular Syrian who had stayed true to the ideals of the revolution’s early days, back when Syria’s uprising reflected the rest of the Arab Spring. When he died, I began to worry for Syria more than I have at any point this year.
There are, of course, many thousands of others like Abu Furat — committed nationalists whose desire to oust tyranny has its limits. Their voices need to continue to be heard above the clamor.
I fear Syria like I have feared nothing else in seven years of covering the region. It is not a crippling terror, more a deep abiding concern. I fear that both the undercurrents of this conflict and the issues at stake are so profound that perhaps nobody can manage them.
I will keep going back. Like my colleagues, who also remain committed to covering the story, I will likely continue to be viewed by the regime as a subversive threat. I wish I could predict a better year for Syria. But I can’t. The next 12 months will likely prove historic. And tragic.
In President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, it is often said, “For every friend you have a hundred enemies” — so intricate and ubiquitous is the web of informers and state security personnel that his regime has spun over the last 40 years.
In early February, Marie Colvin and I were assigned by The Sunday Times to cover the Syrian uprising. Our brief was to focus on the deteriorating situation in the besieged western city of Homs. The first obstacle we faced was simply gaining access to the country. During the Libyan war, the press had been welcomed and accommodated with a fervor that surprised many journalists. Syria offered no such comfort: Official visas were rarely issued and were often unwanted, due to heavy restrictions imposed on journalists by the state. We chose to enter illegally to gain access to Homs and other areas that we knew were prohibited by the regime.
The Syrian state, we had every reason to believe, would kill us if it could. In Beirut, Lebanese intelligence tipped us off to Syrian radio intercepts ordering that journalists who were caught in the Homs region without a visa were to be executed on the spot. Their bodies were to be arranged in such a way as to give the world the impression that they had been caught in the crossfire between rebel and government forces.
The hurdles began even before we entered Syria: As we approached the Syrian-Lebanese border, we had to traverse the strongholds of Hezbollah, which backs the Assad regime and created internal barriers to anyone who attempted to cross without their permission. Our illegal entry into Syria was facilitated by gunrunners working in liaison with rebels of the newly born Free Syrian Army (FSA). We had to cross minefields and pass within a hundred yards of Syrian army patrols even before our reporting work commenced.
Once inside Syria, it was immediately clear that no area was safe. There was no conventional front line, and no safe area to fall back on. The conflict was being fought all around us.
All movement was heavily restricted. Scouts had to check the roads ahead every 300 feet for regime patrols, and any movement was only possible with FSA escorts. This dependence made it difficult to cover both sides of the conflict — and meant we needed to be extra cautious when verifying claims of torture and murder by Assad’s forces.
Our route into the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, where rebel fighters were making a furious stand, was a roughly 2-mile-long storm drain — the only lifeline open to residents for vital food, medicine, and ammunition supplies. It was also the only evacuation route for the hundreds of critically ill civilians wounded in the ferocious shelling campaign.
Once inside Baba Amr, the rules of war ceased to exist. The elite 4th division of the Syrian army, commanded by Bashar’s brother Maher, waged a ruthless siege against the city. Assad’s army made no pretense of targeting military positions — there were none. In February, the fledgling FSA was a purely defensive group — born of a need to protect civilians during demonstrations. As such, it had no capability to take the fight to the Syrian army. The sustained and systematic shelling of this tiny Sunni neighbourhood killed and injured thousands of defenseless civilians.
As journalists, we became targets in the regime’s attempt to crush Homs by any and all means. On Feb. 22, journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were deliberately murdered in artillery strike that also wounded Edith Bouvier and me. The Syrian regime had come to view us — the survivors of this attack — as some of the only credible witnesses to the slaughter that it had unleashed on civilians in Baba Amr. It would do everything in its power to make sure we didn’t get out of the country alive.
Front lines, such as they exist now, are fluid and unstable. This can be both a blessing and a curse for any journalist reporting from Syria. On more than one occasion, we spoke to military and security agents who continued to fight for the regime by day — but at night would pay clandestine visits to safe houses, brief FSA commanders on their current operations, and return to fight for the regime the following day. As journalists, we relied heavily on those who provide our food, transport, and protection. Such dependency means you inevitably forfeit the ability to roam the battlefield.
And looming over all these challenges, of course, is the very real risk of death for the journalists covering the war, and those who choose to help them. This uniquely dangerous environment has forced journalists to change the methods we use to report on this conflict — and altered the stories we can tell from the front line.
It was Feb. 23, 2011, and the Middle East was heaving to the pulse of people power. Egypt’s autocrat had resigned two weeks earlier, Tunisia’s had dictator fled in mid-January, and Libyan opposition fighters had just seized control of chunks of the east of their country. I had entered Syria clandestinely to see if the forces roiling the region had reached this confidently authoritarian state.
I was in Damascus on that day, eating greasy kibbe meatballs, the only customer at a small fast food outlet across the street from the Libyan Embassy. It was a vantage point that allowed me to watch several branches of the Syrian security apparatus prepare to intimidate a peaceful vigil called in solidarity with the Libyan people. I ate slowly.
The rows of black-clad policemen, anti-riot police in their olive green uniforms, and the clumps of not-so-secret police made it obvious that the demonstrators weren’t going to get anywhere near the embassy. Equally obvious was how the gathering would be dispersed: As I joined the 200 or so protesters in a nearby park, I watched as they were kicked, beaten, and insulted. Some were hauled into mini-buses parked off to the side and detained. Passersby scurried away, afraid to offer help even as some demonstrators pleaded for it.
This was President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at its strongest. The fear it then struck into all Syrians would not last: Several weeks later, on March 15, 2011, protests would break out against the regime itself, marking what is widely considered the beginning of the uprising.
I have spent most of my time since then documenting events in Syria — entering the country undercover many, many times to watch the slow disintegration of a formidable regime and the emergence of new power structures. Though based in Beirut, I’ve been on a Lebanon-Turkey-Syria loop for the better part of two years now.
I do it because I’m curious and deeply invested in the story, not because I’m some sort of an adrenaline junkie. I want to know what happens next, to know the people who are effecting change and those affected by it. I also need to be certain I can verify sources. I do not use sources I don’t know — who are merely voices on the other end of a phone, who may or may not be in the town or city they claim to be in, and who may or may not be reliable. (The lack of a daily deadline has afforded me that luxury.)
And so, as the world learned Syrian geography with each new massacre, I used my cultural and linguistic fluency in Arabic to try to glean insights into what was happening on the ground. I keep a low profile, always work alone, and, as an Arabic speaker, have no need for a translator. I can blend in as much or as little as I want to — it’s a spectrum I can move along depending on who I’m with, where I am, and the security situation in that particular area.
My work would not be possible without the immense generosity of the many Syrians who have welcomed me into their homes or bases like a daughter or sister, who have shared their stories, their hopes, their fears, and their meals with me. Many have done so at risk to themselves — especially in the early days when people still spoke in code on the phone for fear of eavesdropping, and the regime was going house to house in some areas looking for dissenters. I travel with Syrians, I sleep where they sleep, live as they live, learn about their lives. I don’t want to tell the story any other way.
Unfortunately, I was blacklisted early on by the Syrian regime, labeled a spy working for several states and — laughably — a weapons smuggler. As a result, it’s simply too dangerous for me to explore the views of regime loyalists, lest I be detained during the course of my reporting. I regret that this part of the story is closed to me. Still, that’s not to say the regime’s opponents have all been welcoming: The accusation of “spy” still flies around easily. I usually talk my way out of that, and if that doesn’t work, there are many influential people in rebel circles I can quickly call on to quash it.
Over the past 21 months, there have been close calls, run-ins at regime checkpoints, shells that fell a little too nearby, things I wished I’d never have to see, friends or contacts who have been killed. Still, I consider it a great privilege to cover Syria during these tumultuous times, and I intend to continue doing so as best I can for as long as I can.
Covering Syria as a young, freelance journalist is deeply challenging — and in the view of some, deeply foolish.
Syria is considered among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work. Yet the main challenge for me is simply getting into the country. Practically speaking, this uprising is a very cash-intensive conflict to report on, and publications that I am willing to take risks for are less and less willing to accept freelance reporting from inside Syria — much less send me in on assignment.
This is not because newspapers are uninterested in what is going on in this part of the world. Rather, it is because of the shrinking budgets in U.S. journalism and the high degree of danger inherent in reporting from Syria.
But whatever the cause, reporting has suffered as a result: Journalists have been forced to rely on YouTube and Skype calls with faraway activists — hurdles that have directly affected the picture of the conflict shown in the press. This lack of reporting has allowed for only a very small number of narratives to be presented to the public, diplomats, and top officials in government. Reporting from Syria is certainly dangerous — but our ignorance of the country can endanger us even more.
The challenges only multiply once you make it into Syria. All bets are off once you cross the border: At any moment, a regime jet can target your car or obliterate part of a town you had considered relatively safe. The rebels are also massively outgunned, which means there is almost no safety for those reporting alongside them.
I learned that lesson the hard way. In August, I was in Aleppo, embedded with a group of rebels who were headed into a firefight. The rebels were showing a new level of organization and resourcefulness, and I wanted to see how this carried over to the battlefield.
Despite their increased coordination, they were spotted by a regime jet, and we suddenly found ourselves under attack from its rockets and machine guns. The two truck-mounted “dushka” heavy machine guns the rebels possessed were largely useless against the speeding aircraft. Yet the rebels were enthralled. Even under attack — or perhaps especially when under attacked — their morale was sky high.
Journalists, like generals, need to know when it’s time to retreat. With the gruff reminder of one editor resounding in my head — “you can’t file if you’re dead” — I decided the situation was too dangerous and got out, only to discover the rebels guiding me back had forgotten the keys to the car. It took hours to eventually get out of the city, looping through the countryside to avoid regime aircraft. Upon arriving, a deathly stillness permeated the village where I was staying. A regime air strike had just killed more than 40 people in a nearby village.
The conflict in Syria today has changed radically from when I first met a group of villagers calling themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the side of a muddy hill in Syria’s northern Idlib province in December 2011. Happy to find a Western journalist, they excitedly welcomed me. They tried to impress upon me that they were not Islamists, despite their beards, and appealed for a Western-backed buffer zone in northern Syria. Today, after seeing what they believed to be a humanitarian request denied, some of the same rebels I met a year ago have little time for Western journalists. Elsewhere, Western journalists have angrily been accused of being spies and even kidnapped.
As the conflict has spiraled into a regional war, the increasing complexity of rebel forces — and the difficulty of verifying almost anything — has constrained international action on Syria. It takes time and perseverance to get the real story: Syria’s rebels, by and large, are increasingly media-savvy and often will only allow a designated spokesperson to deliver a pre-formulated message.
Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda-linked rebel group recently designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, is no exception to this. I remember clearly a morning when one of their commanders, who seemed to be the go-to press spokesperson, was woken up to speak to me in Aleppo. Unsurprisingly, he denied most of the allegations thrown at the group by the West. At times, he seemed sincerely confused by them.
It was only by sitting long enough to get into conversations about religion and the horrible practice of war that I was allowed to interact with other members of Jabhat al-Nusra. They asked: Why were car bombings unjustified when bombs dropped by regime jets opened swimming pool-sized craters in villages? At the time, there was less hostility toward Americans: When they heard I was looking for a commander from an affiliated rebel group, three burly Jabhat al-Nusra fighters drove me in a van pockmarked with bullet holes to find him.
I gained insights from these experiences that I couldn’t have earned with any number of phone calls. No matter the challenges, many observations can only be made by being there — a practice Syria shows journalists are forgetting.
Photo: Lebanese American journalist Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, died in February of an allergy attack. Shadid ‘changed the way we saw Iraq, Egypt and Syria over the last, crucial, decade,’ said one former colleague. Photograph: Ho/AFP/Getty Images