Syria and the risks of covering conflictsBy
‘We’re enemies of the state, these deaths show that’
Most journalists don’t go to war planning to die. But with each year that passes there seems to be more to think about, at moments even to worry. Every death of a close colleague gives pause for thought, and wrenching conversations with fellow travellers.
Last year, an old friend bluntly said to me in Libya: “We must assume some of us will die.” I repeated that to my editor this week. He stared me straight in the eye and said, “No, we don’t assume that.”
How do you disentangle real security concerns from a life lived in a certain way? Places like Kabul and Peshawar may be bywords for danger, but for journalists who have lived and worked there for decades, these places feel like home. Who would ever decide not to see old friends, favourite haunts, and stay with their compelling stories?
But a few months ago, the BBC asked me to look into a trip to a new al-Qaida stronghold. An intrepid colleague suggested the borders of Mali and Mauritania. It’s a region where I spent five years in the 80s, but I haven’t kept the contact I have in other places, and there’s a growing list of gruesome kidnappings. I found myself saying no. It didn’t feel right.
Still, maybe the proverbial feeling in your gut or courses in hostile environments aren’t enough any more. There’s rarely a “frontline” these days – the risks cut so many ways. A few years ago, I started carrying eyeglasses in my bag, just in case of a kidnapping. I occasionally check my mini first aid list, just in case my team comes under fire or drives over an IED. Every journalist makes their own choices, and seeks assurance in whatever they hold on to – be it faith, or hope, or some superstition. Marie Colvin’s mother told me this was how she saw her daughter’s life, “as an optimist … I guess she escaped so many near-misses I thought it would go on forever.” Tragically, it doesn’t.
It has got more dangerous for all journalists to do their job, not just for members of international news organisations, although their deaths get more publicity. It is all about control of the media battlefield, the wired world and the 24/7 news cycle and a big part of the conflict between the weak and the strong. In Syria, the regime is being hurt by the fact it can’t do things privately any more.
If you look at the time of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, news of his operation in Hama in 1982 (when the Syrian army massacred largely Sunni opponents) didn’t get out until afterwards. In Homs, things are now coming out practically in real time.
In El Salvador, in 1989, I was in my 20s, completely untrained and totally green. Journalists were killed there, but it was possible to operate by having a white flag and shouting “journalist, journalist” in Spanish. I used to dash across roads in areas where there was shooting but old hands said: “Don’t. They will think you are hostile”. From then on I walked slowly. Nobody had flak-jackets and journalists were generally accepted as non-combatants. Not now. With satellite technology you can pretty much file from anywhere. There is more temptation to stay longer in dangerous places. You used to have to go into somewhere, get the story and then get out again because you had to find somewhere to file, somewhere there was power and a telex machine or, in my case, a TV station.
When I first went to Afghanistan we filed from a local TV station with two engineers and 1,000kg of equipment. Now you can do everything with a backpack. You may still be nervous beforehand, but you get in, get the story, survive some close calls, push a little bit more and a little bit more. But you can’t push the law of averages indefinitely.
When I was starting out, I thought what we were doing was important and felt pretty indestructible. I am much more cautious now. I went to Syria – on an official visa to Damascus. I have huge admiration for people who have the guts to go to places like Homs.
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I have spent much of this week in tears. First Anthony Shadidof the New York Times, then my friend Marie Colvin. Her words in an address in St Bride’s, the journalists’ church on Fleet Street in 2010, echo around my head. “Is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?”
Ours was always a dangerous profession – Marie’s predecessor on the Sunday Times, David Blundy, was killed by a random bullet in El Salvador in 1989, aged 44. Yet the rise of satellite TV has made journalists more of a target, because every dictator, general or rebel commander can see that we’re uncovering what they’re trying to hide. The internet has made it harder to sneak in as a tourist if you’re denied a journalist’s visa, because the guys on immigration can Google your name. Nonetheless, it was the old-fashioned nature of what Marie did which made her vulnerable – daily news journalists zip in and out of the danger zone as quickly as possible, but she, with her weekly deadline, would go further and stay. That was was what made her reporting special.
Marie’s last deispatch, which combined meticulous detail with controlled anger and an ability to put the events in context, shows why foreign correspondents are needed. Her report means no- one can say they didn’t know what crimes the Syrian government is committing.
After she lost an eye reporting the conflict in Sri Lanka, Marie said: “My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.” A few hours before she died she told me: “This is the worst we’ve ever seen. And they’re getting away with it.” I’m trying to keep faith with her, but this week it’s harder than ever.
It is many months now since the mass demonstrations of the Arab spring morphed into civil wars. In Cairo last January, journalists had to dodge teargas and rocks, but by the time Libya’s revolution was in full force, the job had become considerably more dangerous. In Homs, as we learned this week, nowhere is safe from the barrage raining on the neighbourhood of Baba Amr for more than three weeks.
In these full-blown civil wars where journalists are often not allowed to report and are smuggled through “hostile territory”, bloggers and citizen journalists have provided much of the information, uploading thousands of videos and witness accounts. But it is the credibility of journalists such as Marie Colvin that gave a historical sense of what is going on.
In her last report, Colvin described the horrors of Homs. “They call it the widows’ basement,” she wrote. “Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment … Everyone in the cellar has a story of hardship or death.”
Like Orwell in Barcelona or Gellhorn in Madrid, Colvin’s words will immortalise the shelled city and the women and children in their dark basement long after Assad is toppled.
The Arab Awakenings have been the most extraordinary events of many careers, but by far the most perilous to cover. The historic shifts sweeping the region have opened a window on long-closed societies. And journalists bearing witness, rather than invading armies, have been storming the borders.
So far, at least five reporters have died in the field and several dozen have been captured or detained over the past year. In Egypt, thugs who no longer feared state control and paranoid officials have harassed, or rounded up, many colleagues. Several have been viciously assaulted.
In Libya a perpetually fluid frontline made the east of the country one of the world’s most dangerous places. It became difficult to know where Gaddafi’s forces lurked and whether the opposition could hold ground it had just seized.
Seasoned reporters, including four colleagues from the New York Times, were outflanked and imprisoned last March. A group of freelancers were also caught, one of them killed. Many among the hundreds of others in and around Benghazi had close calls.
Managing risk among the mounting variables that crumbling autocracies create has been difficult enough. But trying to report in the midst of a brutal old-order fightback has been harder still.
Syria represents by far the biggest challenge for many years. It is a story so significant that it implores coverage. There are no foreign observers other than reporters, no- one else to chronicle events that could shape Syrian society and the region for decades to come.
Though visas have been granted to some reporters, many others are operating behind deeply hostile lines recording realities that are vastly at odds with official narratives. We are enemies of the state and the deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik this week show we are being treated as such.
from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Martin Chulov