Walking the blood-stained streets of the Middle East
Washington - Blood stained the sidewalk in midtown Damascus where I had stood only moments earlier. A mortar shell had fallen on the corner where I had been in line to buy a candy bar from a kiosk. The attack killed one man and maimed another, both of them customers. The kiosk owner survived unharmed, though his shop was in shambles.
I hovered at the scene, shocked at my own good fortune, wondering about the last thoughts of the man who was now dead and why was I among the last few strangers to have seen him.
It would be an hour or two before it occurred to me to phone in a report about the attack to my editor at the Reuters Beirut bureau. Such news would normally be “snapped” — it would go out on the wire as a newsflash. But mortar attacks had become so ubiquitous by then that it was no longer news. We “snapped” it anyway and I wondered if anyone would read it.
War can have a dual effect in that it numbs the senses while simultaneously leaving you in a heightened state of alertness.
When I was based in Syria, I used to take two- and three-week breaks, usually in Lebanon, to recalibrate and return with fresh eyes to Syria. During the breaks, it took me some time to feel “normal”, to tolerate traffic noise and large crowds or engage in mundane conversation.
This is where relying on local reporters who never leave the scene can run into problems. After a while, neither aerial attacks nor mortar shells nor the morbid death notices that name entire families will catch your attention. This inevitable lack of perspective will chip away at your ability to do your job as a journalist, even as events weigh heavily on you.
We live in a world where not all deaths are equal, not only because the death of locals in any armed conflict quickly becomes a morbid tally of mind-numbing statistics but also because we judge killers and their weapons of choice differently.
Death by beheading trumps death by gunfire. A one-time chemical attack is more memorable than the daily barrage of barrel bombs, even when the latter has killed — and continues to kill — exponentially more civilians. An Islamic State (ISIS) militant filming a gruesome murder of civilians invokes vicious condemnation in a way that is different from when a US-operated drone mistakenly kills civilians.
This is the unspoken value system of our readers, editors and ourselves that journalists must reconcile, whether they are local or an outsider, though there are differences.
A Western reporter might be viewed by warring factions as “innocent”, someone uncorrupted by local tribalism and therefore a neutral party. Just as likely, this Westerner can be viewed as a spy, a plant or an affiliate of whatever allies her country of origin might be supporting. An “innocent” Westerner might be perceived as an easy target for kidnap for ransom or propaganda.
One self-professed interrogator who said he worked in one of Bashar Assad’s prisons and boasted about how prisoners “not lasting very long” under his hands best captures this sentiment. Asked how he thought the war in Syria would end, he shrugged and said: “The West will never let the Islamists come near us. We’re Alawites, a religious minority and the West will instinctively protect us.”
Rightly or wrongly, it is a common belief in the Middle East, and a story constantly peddled to Western journalists, that the West eschews all things Muslim and aims to protect women and minorities.
On the other hand, local journalists might be perceived through the lens of the conflict. When I travelled throughout Syria from government-controlled areas into rebel strongholds and back, I played different hands. One time I was a Sunni Muslim, so the rebels would trust me. Another time I was Druze, so the government soldiers would not become suspicious of me. Next time I was Christian, so as to explain my presence at a church inside a contentious area. I was lucky in that my name and “place of origin” on my national ID card came with no particular stigma and I was able to camouflage myself with ease.
But I could not hide my Syrian accent. During one of the few stories I reported from Lebanon, Syrian refugees who had originally expressed an interest in telling their story to my Western colleague immediately recoiled when they heard me speak. In their mind, a Syrian identifying herself as a journalist, hovering near Hezbollah country in Lebanon, could only be one thing: an informant for the Assad regime. I did not try to convince them otherwise. I walked away from the story and left it to a Western colleague.
In a war, there are always “good guys” and “bad guys” but a committed journalist treats them equally, allowing all voices to emerge in the reporting. The reader decides where the blame falls.
The problem arises when one side succeeds in owning the narrative of the entire story because it is in control. Israel managed to do this for years when it maintained that Palestinian areas were “unsafe”, limiting international journalists to the story inside of Israel proper while suppressing the Palestinians’ side of the story.
The Assad regime periodically gives entry visas to members of international media, usually for a maximum of ten days. During such a short time period, a journalist usually writes a “mood story” about Damascus and perhaps about another government-controlled city, like Homs and the coastline.
The regime knows that the journalist cannot possibly get the real story during such a short visit and travelling into rebel areas from government areas is prohibited and too dangerous on smuggled routes, so the story becomes restricted to the regime side. The reporting we get from rebel areas is usually from rebel activists, which makes it biased news.
Unfortunately, this is now the coverage of the war in Syria and as war reporting becomes more dangerous than ever for journalists, it will become a typical model for other places of conflict, such as Yemen and Libya.