Every few seconds my iPhone lights up with new posts on a WhatsApp group linking doctors in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta to journalists in the outside world. News of Russian and Syrian government bombardment comes more or less in real time: “Before three hours in Ghouta, Russian plane tracked ambulances and hit both ambulances and hospitals.” “Dr Hamza: I have treated twenty-nine cases so far, the majority are children.” Visuals are captioned in Arabic and English: “Photos of shelters that local residents dug under their homes.” The journalists, who include correspondents from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other international newspapers, use the group to clarify the numbers of casualties and check locations of attacks, while broadcast media request Skype interviews from inside the war zone.
A meticulous sifting of testimony, videos, and photographs conveyed by social media, to be cross-checked with government propaganda, satellite imagery, and whatever other sources are available, is a crucial part of twenty-first-century conflict reporting. It feels very far from William Howard Russell, usually considered the first modern war correspondent, who famously covered the Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the British cavalry in Crimea as “glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war.”
Russell saw himself as “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe,” and those correspondents chained to computers in Beirut, Istanbul, or London feel luckless indeed. In Libya in 2011, you could drive to the war in the morning and return to your hotel in Benghazi at night because much of the fighting occurred, conveniently enough, on the main coast road. In Iraq in 2003, you could embed with invading Western troops or stay in Baghdad as Saddam Hussein launched his doomed resistance. You were always an eyewitness to something, while relying on the accounts of others to fill in the bigger picture. One might look back with even more nostalgia to a late summer day in 1939, when the young Clare Hollingworth, in her first week as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, borrowed the car of the British consul in the Polish town of Katowice, talked her way past the guards at the German frontier post, and happened to be driving along the right road when a gust of wind lifted burlap curtains the Germans had strung up, revealing ten Panzer divisions ready to roll across the border.
Syria is different. The government learned from the experience of Sri Lanka, where in 2009 the regime banned journalists and aid workers so it could impose a military solution to the long war with the Tamil Tigers in the north of the country with no regard for civilian life. Syria gives visas to a select few and monitors their movements. Recently it has tried to make visiting journalists sign a form that includes the following statement: “The Ministry of Information has the right to take legal action against me if lies were published or if I have contributed to instigating or provoking sectarian strife, and has the right to prosecute me in my country or where I live.”
At first, reporters got smugglers to take them into rebel-held areas, but relentless bombardment by the Syrian regime and its allies, combined with the vindictive cruelty of ISIS, made covering the war especially perilous. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 115 journalists killed in Syria since 2011, the highest-profile being The Sunday Times of London correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed by a government mortar targeted on the rebel media center where she was staying, in the Baba Amr district of Homs, in February 2012. The same year, the American journalist James Foley was kidnapped by ISIS, as was Steven Sotloff in 2013; both were later murdered. Most foreign journalists then confined themselves to sojourns on the Turkish border to interrogate refugees, fighters, and smugglers, plus—after the demise of ISIS last year—occasional short forays into rebel-held territory.
There are more Syrians than foreigners on the CPJ list, but their names are less well known. This gap between the unknown local and the famous foreign war correspondent, survivor, and hero of previous battles, both courting peril to get the story, is a growing tension in modern war reporting. Rania Abouzeid, a freelance Lebanese-Australian reporter who has written for The New Yorker and other publications, hints at this at the beginning of her excellent book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. “This book is not another reporter’s war journal,” she writes. “I went to Syria to see, to investigate, to listen—not to talk over people who can speak for themselves. They are not voiceless. It is not my story. It is theirs.” That might chasten flak jacket–clad TV reporters (declaration of interest: I am one) who regard their own week in the war zone as of particular note. To rub it in, she adds: “I did my own fixing, translating, transcribing, logistics, security, research and fact-checking.” The result is probably the most perceptive journalistic account of the war so far, highlighting individual stories while never losing sight of the broader situation and history.
A white Western reporter could not have written this book, but while Abouzeid’s identity is an integral part of her journalistic method, her skills as a reporter and writer should not be underestimated. Over seven years of conflict, she has followed a dozen or so Syrians, assembling their stories like Lego bricks, each slotting into the next, until the shape of the structure becomes apparent. Her technique is to hang out with people, quietly watching and listening, spending so much time with them that they forget that she is there. Being a woman helps because she is not seen as a threat. Her presence authenticates the story—she must have been there, for example, to observe the home life of Mohammed, a fighter with a rebel group allied with al-Qaeda, and his wife, Sara:
Her husband had returned home after prayers and headed into the shower. “Hand me the nail clippers!” he yelled from the bathroom.
“Where are they?” Sara bellowed.
“Next to the grenades,” he said. She reached into the walnut-colored wood-and-glass display cabinet for nail clippers and pulled out a bottle of moisturizer she applied to her hands.
“Look at my hands!” she said. “When did my nails ever look like this? I feel like I’m on a front too. I have to do everything here, and all by hand—the laundry, the dishes. I used to use cucumber face masks, take afternoon naps, comb my hair, wear makeup. My whole life has changed.”
This is war but not as we generally know it. On another occasion, Abouzeid joins a family being smuggled across the border into Turkey, but although we know she’s there (“seven of us squeezed into the smuggler’s car”) she never draws attention to the danger she faces. The drama is entirely that of the family, especially one of the daughters, Ruha, whom she follows throughout the book as she grows from a little girl worshiping her father, who has joined the rebellion in their hometown of Saraqeb, to a teenager beginning to question her parents’ choices.
One of the few times that Abouzeid highlights her own presence is when Syrian aid workers on the Turkish border ask her to translate in a meeting with two British “diplomats.” Mohammed, the al-Qaeda-linked rebel, is there posing as a refugee. Abouzeid can guess who the diplomats really are as they try to trade intelligence for food and tents, but they do not know that she is a journalist. For a moment she has become part of the story, another person with an assumed identity, in a conflict where deception and disguise may be the key to survival.
If Abouzeid is an outsider who can pass for an insider, Marwan Hisham is an insider who has learned to tell his story in a way outsiders can understand. An English teacher in Raqqa when ISIS seized control of the city, he started to report on Twitter in English—Marwan Hisham is not his real name, of course. It was a dangerous occupation, but for a while he got away with it. Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War is the product of his collaboration with the artist Molly Crabapple, whom he met on Twitter while he was in Raqqa and she was in New York. He would send her photographs taken with a smartphone begged from a friend, which she would transform into paintings and drawings.
Their initial pieces were published in Vanity Fair. It was, as he puts it, an “art crime” for which he would probably have been executed had he been discovered by ISIS. A body hanging from a lamppost, a small child with an enormous rifle, people running down a rubble-strewn street—such images rendered beautiful by the pen are disturbing. Crabapple used vibrant, sometimes lurid color in the original magazine pieces, but the black-and-white illustrations in the book, carefully blotched and smudged, invite more thought, not least the cover illustration of a violinist playing an instrument that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a Kalashnikov.
Hisham, who, after attending a religious school in a village near Aleppo, became fascinated by European soccer and literature, is the ideal interlocutor for Western readers, but the reasons he and his friends had for rising against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad were far from typical:
We were an extreme minority within Raqqa. The values we held marked us, in the eyes of our neighbors, as dangerous, un-Islamic agents of the West.
respect for the ballot box,
as a basis for representation
Could these words be more alien to most Syrians? Could these so-called universal values, the values my friends and I screamed for between our gas-choked curses at security officers, be far from universal indeed? Perhaps they are parochial mores, speculated about in the university campuses of European capitals. Perhaps they are as insubstantial as ghosts.
A Western reader might see Hisham as a hero for holding on to such beliefs, but he learns that no one stays pure in the face of war. Close friends become not only rebels but Islamists, reaching for some way to make sense of the degradation around them. Everyone compromises in order to survive, including him. Working in an Internet café in Raqqa enables him to get the news out but also benefits the ISIS fighters who use it. When the jihadis bring in two terrified Yazidi slave women, he understands that, in their eyes, he is just the same as all the other men: “I felt a weight of guilt descend on me for working at the café. I will always feel it.” When fleeing across the border into Turkey, he helps a refugee couple to carry their heavy bags, but when they are turned back by border guards he loses track of them before making another attempt to cross. “War is harsh on the compassionate and the weak,” he writes. “I did one of the many terrible things I’ve done in my life. I left them and their bags behind.”
The war in Syria has occurred at a time when the first response of many caught up in a crisis, be it a school shooting in the US or a demonstration in Damascus, is to get out their phones and start filming. Back in 2011, Hisham and his friends in northern Syria were among those who alerted the world to the uprising in Syria by filming protests against the regime and uploading the videos. Abouzeid writes about a young man in Rastan, a town halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, who does the same as his initial act of rebellion. The immediacy of such footage is gripping, but in Syria it has at times also become foreign journalists’ sole window onto what is happening.
The authentication of found video has become a journalistic speciality in its own right. “There are more hours of online video footage of the Syrian conflict than the actual time elapsed since the war began,” write Christiaan Triebert and Hadi Al-Khatib in the chapter “Digital Sherlocks” in Journalism in Times of War. They explain techniques such as the reverse image search, by which you check that a piece of footage that is said to be from, say, eastern Ghouta today is not in fact from Fallujah last year.
Increasingly, human rights organizations and journalists are using the same online tools. Amnesty International has developed the YouTube DataViewer, which allows you to find the exact date and time a video was uploaded and do a reverse image search of stills from it. Others have developed methods of geolocation. In the London newsroom where I work, an Arabic-speaking journalist spends his days combing through this material, checking authenticity and curating the results for TV and the Internet. He finds feeds from Syrian soldiers and is in touch with dozens of activists and rebels, developing reliable long-distance sources.
The journalists interviewed in Journalism in Times of War do not doubt traditional methods: being an eyewitness, developing sources, listening to as many views as possible, “trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda,” as Colvin once put it. However, some challenge Western assumptions of “balance.” Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist who used to live in Aleppo, describes how she and others became disillusioned because their reporting on the cruelty of the Assad regime provoked little international response. Syrian “media activists,” as they style themselves, “are not considered as actual journalists by most, if not all, international media outlets,” she writes.
We are told this is because they are not “objective” or “neutral.” What does “objective” mean in the Syrian context? Does being “objective” when covering Syria mean giving voice to a war criminal and his propaganda, and allowing the regime to justify their bombing of civilian areas, schools and hospitals?
Most reporters for Western media who cover Syria are clear that the Assad regime is committing appalling atrocities. However, Syrian “media activists” tend to show only the part of the story that bolsters their cause. Footage of bombings and suffering is not faked, as the propagandists for the regime claim, but activists know that if they want international sympathy—they have largely given up on international action—it’s better to show exclusively civilians, especially children. Moreover, rebel fighters, whether Islamist or more secular, do not like to be filmed except on their own terms, and they have the guns. Uploaded videos show rebels of all stripes firing weapons and winning battles, not squabbling among themselves and losing territory. What we see may be the truth, but it is not the whole truth, which is why many Western readers and viewers still turn to visiting war correspondents for what they hope will be a fair version of events.
At their best, correspondents who are parachuted in have a certain skepticism and distance and can provide an understanding of how the conflict compares to previous wars and fits into the geopolitics of the day. Unfortunately, according to Lindsay Palmer’s academic study Becoming the Story: War Correspondents since 9/11, increasingly it’s the correspondent, not the war, that is the focus of attention. “The mainstream, English-language news organizations tend to place their white, western reporters most firmly within the frame, representing them as the heros of melodrama,” she writes. American newspapers have only recently allowed their correspondents to say “I saw” rather than “this correspondent saw” or “an eyewitness saw,” but the personalization of TV reporting is a feature on both sides of the Atlantic.
Palmer’s chapter on Bob Woodruff, a correspondent and anchorman for ABC News, who was injured while embedded with US forces in Iraq in 2006, is a case in point. Palmer sees negative political forces at work—to her, individualism is always “neoliberal,” which is not a compliment. She sharply criticizes coverage that consigns Iraqis to bit parts in their own drama and “overtly aligned Woodruff with the US soldiers whose actions he had been covering in the field.” Academic language aside—journalists tell stories, they don’t “narrativize”—she is on to something as she examines how Western audiences and readers are encouraged to empathize with war correspondents as heroes, victims, or martyrs.
Although the syndrome is less pronounced when it comes to print journalists, Marie Colvin’s killing in Baba Amr received far more attention than that of Rami al-Sayed, a Syrian videographer, who was killed in the same place the previous day. It’s easy to understand: Colvin was an internationally renowned correspondent, famous for the eyepatch she wore after losing an eye to shrapnel from a government grenade in Sri Lanka, while al-Sayed had only picked up a camera a few months earlier and was as much an activist as a journalist. But according to Palmer, al-Sayed’s videos were “crucial to the mainstream English-language news coverage of the 2011–2012 conflict in Homs,” and the two deaths point up a hierarchy familiar to all who work in war zones.
Palmer shows how non-Western journalists, many of them freelancers, are frequently undervalued and underpaid, receiving less training and safety equipment such as body armor. Local fixers and stringers often feel that their expertise is mined for the glory of Western correspondents who then jet off, leaving them to face the fury of the authorities if the report is deemed damaging or inaccurate. Reporters who go in and out inevitably know less than local journalists, but knowledge is not an editor’s sole criterion. Conventional wisdom among TV executives has it that the reporter must build up a relationship with the audience, hence stars like Woodruff who roam from conflict to conflict, popping up all over the world. Regular TV viewers have strong opinions on which onscreen reporters they trust, and substituting another who might speak Arabic or know more about the conflict at hand will not automatically convince them. Regular newspaper readers feel similarly.
Yet this may be changing. Younger viewers appear to be less concerned about the face, or even the voice, as they watch news on devices, often with subtitles rather than voiceover. When it comes to conflict, the trend is toward raw, dramatic video, shot by local activists and journalists, showing bombs exploding and children being pulled from the rubble, often filmed by rescuers with helmet cameras. On the whole, the online viewer does not seem to mind that none of this is mediated by an on-the-spot reporter—when your story is competing with video games and Netflix, video is the draw rather than sober explication. The era of the star war correspondent who can stand in front of a camera and talk fluently while things go bang all around may be coming to an end.
As Western publications and channels economize by cutting back on foreign bureaus, it’s tempting to see digital forms of reporting as a substitute for sending in foreign correspondents. No reporter can discount WhatsApp, YouTube, and the myriad of modern ways to keep abreast of the story as it happens beyond our view, but “being there” remains of the essence. Arab-American reporters told Palmer that they operated at a huge advantage because they could emphasize whichever part of their cultural and linguistic identity helps them get the story, from expressing empathy (“I’m an Arab like you—I understand”) to pretending not to understand the language in the hope that people will speak to one another more freely, safe in the knowledge that the idiot reporter has no clue about what is going on. They have the equivalent cultural understanding to communicate to a Western audience.
The future of war corresponding, then, is hyphenated—Syrian- American, Lebanese-British, Iranian-French, Nigerian-Canadian—and probably more self-effacing. With their personal chronicle of war enhanced by evocative illustrations, initially forged through the medium of Twitter, Hisham and Crabapple show the potential of new methods of storytelling. Abouzeid’s understated bravery and ability to merge into the background speak to the power of immersive eyewitness reporting, foregrounding the experience of the people she meets and writing with modesty.
As Hollingworth once said, “I like the smell of the breezes. But you can’t smell the breezes on a computer.”