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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. 

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

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"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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