The risks of telling the Syria story

With nine journalists among the roughly 8,000 dead in Syria's uprising, Monitor reporter Scott Peterson explores the soul-searching inside the small community of war correspondents. 

By , Staff writer

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    In this Feb. 22 citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, flames rise from a house as a result of Syrian government shelling in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs.
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Foreign journalists are mourning their losses and weighing the risks of reporting in Syria, where 7,000 to 8,000 Syrians have already died in the yearlong uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad.

Events suggest worse brutalities to come: In the besieged city of Homs, Syrian forces today continued their bombardment for a 20th straight day on the rebel-held district of Baba Amr. One activist there claimed that 100 rockets had landed by midday today, and that 25 Army tanks and 35 armored vehicle reinforcements were rolling toward the city, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Added to the casualties are two more Western journalists, whose deaths yesterday highlighted the horrors of Homs in a way they never intended. Renowned American-born war correspondent Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times of London, and World Press Photo-winning French photographer Remi Ochlik, were killed, and several other foreign and Syrian journalists wounded, when their media safe house in Homs took a direct hit.

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The deaths landed like another bludgeon on the veteran foreign correspondents and photographers already gathered in Beirut to pay final respects on Tuesday to the gifted, prizewinning New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died days earlier from an asthma attack while leaving northern Syria after a week of reporting on the rebel side. The number of journalists, Syrian and foreign alike, who died during the uprising, has now reached nine.

Even as the Assad regime was strangling Homs, we journalists contemplated how to continue reporting on Syria without further loss of life. 

Syrian forces are almost certainly capable of pinpointing the location by electronic signatures from mobile and satellite devices. Reports circulated of Syrian military orders to find and specifically target the journalists' secret location, not long after emotive, live television reports exposed the suffering there in real time.

"I watched a little baby die today," Marie told the BBC from Homs Tuesday night, just hours before the shells and further disaster struck. "Absolutely horrific, a 2-year-old child had been hit.... The doctor said, 'I can't do anything.' His little tummy just kept heaving until he died."

It is a small group whose members have shared historic moments as varied as the 1991 Gulf War and conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. And of course Iraq, endlessly.

Like most of us who have willingly inhabited the world's war zones, Anthony and Tyler, Marie and Remi, were and are motivated by a powerful impulse to tell the stories of those who suffer and fight under the most appalling circumstances; to shed light into the darkest places.

'What is bravery, and what is bravado?'

Speaking at a memorial service for fallen journalists in London in 2010, Marie noted the dangers: "We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?" she said. "Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price."

Still, for many of us this is not "work" but a calling, as Marie's mother said of her daughter.

"She was determined, she was passionate about what she did, it was her life," Rosemarie Colvin told The New York Times yesterday. "There was no saying 'Don't do this.' This is who she was, absolutely who she was and what she believed in: Cover the story, not just have pictures of it, but bring it to life in the deepest way you could."

Brave. Courageous. Serial survivors of close calls. And more than anything else, humane.

Marie wore an eye patch to cover the loss of an eye to a grenade while trying to escape Tamil Tiger territory in northern Sri Lanka in 2001. Anthony was shot by an Israeli sniper in the West Bank in 2002. Last year he was among four Times journalists – Tyler as well – captured in Libya and abused for a week.

In Syria, too, the dangers are very real and help far away. The level of commitment now resembles the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq in 1991.

In that conflict, one BBC television crew was murdered by their guide while trying to sneak across the border, and a young Newsweek photographer was executed by Iraqi troops.

Like Syria today, those of us who got inside Iraq then had little choice but to ride the ebb and flow of the uprising itself. After Saddam Hussein's tanks pummeled our positions and his helicopters flew overhead, rocketing their way toward a bloody victory, I had to join colleagues on a mountainous exodus amid 1 million fleeing Kurds.

The war reporter's dilemma

Having so little control of your fate in Syria presents a dilemma for those of us expected to cover it.

Citizen journalists have mobilized in Syria like never before, providing unedited video and image streams from places that sometimes no outsider can get to. But the pressures to report from inside are immense and can be withering: Editors may push to match the reporting exploits of colleagues who are already there, or just to be the first. Often the strongest impulse to "get in" comes from within ourselves, aware as we are of the extraordinary human stories that would otherwise go untold.

Anthony, a father of two, said last year: "Often, editors will say no story is worth risking your life for. I don't believe that. I think there are stories worth taking risks for."

He explained his reasoning: "The way these wars have been happening in the region for so long, it produces a certain dehumanization. Such a remarkable amount of violence has been deployed in these places, so I think it is incumbent upon us as journalists to kind of recapture some of that humanity, those stories of individuals, of lives, whether they’re broken or not."

And yet, our hearts clenched and eyes burned at the Beirut memorial, when Anthony's father, Buddy Shadid, described, with voice-cracking grace, how his double Pulitzer Prize-winning son had failed him only once: "He died."

That result we often don't contemplate enough when we choose to enter events in which people can be killing and dying in the closest proximity, and where burning-hot shrapnel doesn't differentiate between the witness and the witnessed.

But still we go. And we will go on covering Syria, we vowed – to honor our fallen friends, and to ensure that the regime's attempts to erase coverage through violence will not succeed.

Scott Peterson has reported frequently from war zones since 1989. You can follow him on Twitter

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