Syria is full of remarkable, horrific, inspiring and frightening stories. Unfortunately, despite hard and brave work by journalists, we only know a few of them. War is grinding much of Syria into rubble and dust, but getting to where it’s happening is extraordinarily difficult, and at times dangerous.
Journalists travel to Syria in two ways. One method is to procure a visa from the Syrian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, and then drive up the road to Damascus. It’s about an hour from Beirut to the border, and less than that on the other side to the Syrian capital.
Television news teams do not travel light. Searches at the border are extremely thorough. It’s best to allow three hours for inspections of every bag and every pouch inside every bag. I have even had my toothpaste examined. Every serial number on every piece of gear has to match documents submitted in advance. The searches are done by polite but meticulous members of the Syrian security services.
The other way to get into Syria is without a visa. People have got in over all of Syria’s borders, but most foreign journalists and aid workers who have used the visa-free method in the past few years have come from Turkey. It’s dangerous. The British hostage Alan Henning, the big-hearted taxi driver from Manchester who was murdered by Isis, the group that calls itself Islamic State, was kidnapped less than an hour after he had crossed the border.
In 2013, Bowen was shot while reporting in Cairo
Journalists who have managed to go in and out of Syria from Turkey have usually built up a network of contacts in rebel groups who are prepared to help them cross and then protect them while they are in Syria. It’s a not a fool- proof system. Earlier this year, my friend Anthony Loyd, the distinguished foreign correspondent for The Times, was kidnapped, shot and badly wounded by a man he thought of as a trusted fixer.
Both ways, with or without a visa, are difficult. The regime issued very few visas after the war started in 2011. But as more and more reporters crossed into Syria with rebel groups, the authorities in Damascus decided that keeping reporters out could be even more counterproductive from their point of view than letting them in.
I have travelled regularly to Damascus in the past two years or so with a visa – the “legal” route. Journalists can’t mix and match the regime and the rebels. Reporting “illegally” without a visa gets you on a Syrian blacklist. Spending time on the regime side doesn’t endear journalists to the rebels, either.
In the past I have reported from other capitals run by regimes that the British government wanted to consign to the dustbin of history, notably Baghdad under Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and, more recently, Colonel Gaddafi’s Tripoli. President Assad’s Damascus imposes fewer restrictions on us than the other two dictators did. We travel around without a government minder, though we need to have the right government- issued pieces of paper or we wouldn’t get through the first checkpoint. The war makes some places no-go areas.
Reporting on fighting in Maaloula, Syria, in September
Damascus is surrounded by front lines. I have crossed them from time to time. But it’s getting harder. Going out of town is more complicated. Trips to the front line, as in most countries, have to be carefully coordinated with the military.
Covering wars usually means giving up some independence, and freedom of movement, in return for protection and access. Journalists who have “embedded” with British or American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past decade trade a deal with the military for access to places they couldn’t reach on their own.
I have submitted myself to certain restrictions to get into places that would otherwise not be accessible, like Damascus. I think it’s perfectly fine to do it, as long as we make public anything that might have affected the shape of the story. My pieces do not get censored.
For a while there was a well-beaten path through rebel-held territory from Turkey to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and in many ways the key to victory – or defeat – in the war. But now almost no journalists are crossing in from Turkey. The rise of Islamic State has made it too dangerous. A front line runs through the centre of Aleppo. Islamic State has been advancing towards the city, taking territory held by more moderate groups. If current trends continue, IS will consolidate its hold on some highly strategic territory.
Red – Area under Isis (Islamic State) control
Pink – Area under Isis influence
Blue – Coalition air strikes
Most journalists who regularly risk their lives to do their jobs are not foolhardy. They don’t want to die. They might say that no story is worth their lives. But they might add that you’re asking the wrong question. Because they’re not going to die today. War journalists can usually find reasons to predict why they will survive ahead of their more impulsive colleagues.
But the threat from Islamic State is so unequivocal that even the most enterprising and daring reporters are hesitating to take the risk of being anywhere near them. Seeing colleagues beheaded by a group that seems to delight in what it’s doing makes it hard to argue that you’re too experienced, or too careful, to get into trouble.
In every war, being in the wrong place at the wrong time will get you killed. Everyone I know who does this particular kind of journalism has a whole list of near-miss stories. Often they turn into darkly humorous tales that can be told in bars, the reporter’s equivalent of a drinking song. The much worse list is of colleagues and friends who have been killed.
So why be daft enough to do this kind of work? There are many answers, none truly satisfactory, and some of which are careful manipulations of the truth. After I reported my first war, in El Salvador in 1989, I wanted to go to a second because it had been exciting, like being in my own war movie. After I had done a few more I was a little more mature. I wanted to report the worst things that were happening in the world. I liked being a witness, sometimes to what seemed to be important historic events. But the excitement never went away. I liked living on the edge.
These days, I don’t feel the same about being on the edge, in places that sometimes have no laws. But I will be in Syria this week because it’s the war that exports trouble to its neighbours, while being fuelled simultaneously by rivalries elsewhere in the Middle East. The one between Saudi Arabia and Iran is especially toxic.
I’m going to be in Syria because I wrestle, every day of my working life right now, with the reasons why the Middle East is convulsing. The region is in a process of change that is eroding and even overturning the borders that Britain and France drew after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.
However tempting, it just isn’t possible to find out what is happening through a computer screen in London. You need to see it and smell it. Even in the digital age, the old journalistic maxim about the need to narrow the distance between yourself and the story still applies.
I used to like danger. I don’t any more. But if I want to report what’s happening to Syria and its neighbours properly, I need to go there.
BBC News Special Reports from Syria will be shown tonight (11th November) and Thursday (13th November)