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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 / February 23, 2012

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.

Local Coordination Committees in Syria/AP

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Beirut, Lebanon

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.

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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.

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."

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