Reporters on Syria's war: why they do it, what they risk

On the Turkey-Syrian border, journalists receive counseling and training to keep the world informed about the war in Syria, a job that risks their lives and their humanity.

Hosam Katan/Reuters
A man takes pictures of civilians lying down to take cover after hearing what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Jisr al-Hajj roundabout in Aleppo May 12, 2015.

At first glance, the young Syrian man looks like any other, with his gelled hair and welcoming handshake.

But Hasan swallows hard when asked about being a journalist in the northern city of Aleppo. It's one of the most gruesome frontlines in Syria’s war, where tumbling barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters contribute to a steady flow of civilian deaths.

Scenes of carnage – of schools destroyed, and hospitals and bread lines targeted – are now the daily fare of a war that has claimed at least 220,000 lives.

But the only reason the rest of the world sees Syria’s destruction is because local journalists like Hasan daily demonstrate their own tenacious resilience to document the destruction wrought by the everyone from the regime of Bashar al-Assad to Islamic State jihadists to other rebel factions.

And yet for these frontline Syria journalists there is another enemy: becoming desensitized to the violence.

“After spending a year being devoted to work, you become so cold, so distant from reality,” says Hasan, a manager of production at the Aleppo Media Center. He spoke while attending a media training course in Turkey that aims to improve standards among Syrian journalists.

“The worst is to see horrible things but not feel anything, to be dehumanized,” says Hasan, noting that that psychological protective mechanism can affect journalistic choices. He uses the example of a child crossing in front of a sniper facing certain death.

“This doesn’t move me at all, I don’t feel a thing, and this means you can miss a story,” says Hasan. “As a person living inside [Syria] all the time, it affects the selection process, of what you choose to tell…. You wish you had those feelings back, but you can’t – they are gone.”

'We have young heroes here'

Just like the fellow Syrians they cover, many Syrian journalists and media activists have been killed, as the conflict burns on for a fifth year. But many Syrians feel duty-bound to report on “their” war, especially since the risk of kidnapping and beheading has made it too dangerous for most Western correspondents.

“We have young heroes here,” says Nour Hemici, manager of the Syrian Media Incubator, a project of CFI, the French Foreign Ministry’s media cooperation agency, which conducts 10 two-week training sessions each year for Syrian journalists in Gaziantep.

In recent days, the course included how to use iPhones to work low-profile, creating news stories and uploading them without using expensive camera equipment.

In a bid to professionalize the Syrian media, the sessions provide expertise on documentary film strategies and spreading news inside Syria, and providing international news media with quality, trustworthy information.

“For us, it’s preparing the future,” says Ms. Hemici of the 150 journalists given the training so far. “If we have a small group try to write with quality, with facts and objectively, we will have done our job.”

Talking with therapists 

Three of those trained have been killed in Syria by the Islamic State (IS), a sniper, and an explosion. Hemici says she worries especially for the lives of media activists – those who see journalism as a pro-revolution tool, rather than a profession – when they return to the front.

Remarkably, the first day of every session in Turkey is spent providing psychological support, with a therapist helping talk through problems.

“These people are following the bombs and going into schools to report on the daily life of the people,” says Hemici. “When they come out of Syria they are traumatized.”

That anxiety is seen during frequent breaks, when many of the 20 attendees step outside to smoke cigarettes. Lunch and dinner at a local Syrian-run cafe is clouded by chain-smoking. Their stories are harrowing, but also inspiring in displaying the journalists' determination to continue working despite the risks.

“Usually barrel bombs come in the morning when you have a blue sky, so we wake up to this,” says Fouad, a media activist with a trim beard and flannel shirt who has worked four years in Aleppo.

Fleeing is not the solution

So why doesn’t he leave?

“Because it’s our cause. It’s not a civil war, it’s a revolution and we are not terrorists,” says Fouad, who asked not to be identified further. “We lost so many friends and relatives, and this forces you to stay. If we leave, the regime will take over, or the extremists will be in charge.”

Azouz, a media activist from Aleppo, knows what that feels like. Wanted for filming a demonstration early in the revolution, he was captured in Raqqa by a Syrian Army patrol with a computer and camera in his bag. He was set free 20 days later when the anti-Assad opposition seized the town. He watched IS rise in Raqqa until early 2014, when it became the IS capital in Syria.

By then he was gone.

“They kidnapped some friends of ours, and killed almost all of them,” says Azouz about IS treatment of local journalists. Other close calls prompted him to stay out of Syria for months, but then return.

“Now the solution is not to go to Sweden [in exile], but to go back inside,” says Azouz.

Getting behind 'black mask' of IS

Abu Mohamed feels the same way. Creator of the “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently” blog, which is fed by a network of sources in the city, he has been out of the city for seven months, after one of his colleagues was caught and executed. He heard he was next.

“The work we do is like invading this black mask [of IS], and getting some exclusive news out,” he says.

In the seminar room, the Syrians listen to Henrik Grunnet, from the Danish group International Media Support, who stresses the importance of the journalists’ dangerous work and explains how they can inform the public, “so people recognize Syria is not just a country where bombs are dropped, but where life goes on.”

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