Freelance journalists like John Cantlie, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and several others taken hostage by ISIS once provided much of our news from Syria. But as the risk of kidnapping mounted and the country became one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists, the flow of information changed dramatically. Brooke talks with Nicole Tung, an Istanbul-based freelance photojournalist; Hwaida Saad, a reporter in the Beirut bureau of the New York Times; Janine Di Giovanni, author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria; and Firas al-Said, a Syrian activist and citizen journalist living in Homs, about how Syria is uniquely difficult to cover, and why they keep at it.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. John Cantlie was abducted in Syria just months after suffering through another kidnapping ordeal there. So why did he go back?
NICOLE TUNG: John wanted to return to Syria because he was trying to write an article about his initial kidnapping. He had publications that were interested in it and it was a way for him to recoup some of the money or equipment that he had lost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Freelance photojournalist Nicole Tung, who worked with Cantlie on previous reporting trips to Syria, believes that this kind of project, write a piece about your first kidnapping because it's a story that'll sell, is something a freelancer would do.
NICOLE TUNG: I think that he certainly took more risk to get that story for the purposes of regaining lost equipment. And as a freelancer, when you don't have a big company to back you, it’s thousands of dollars, usually out of the freelancer’s own pocket.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just before Cantlie took off, he wrote his editor at the Telegraph, Colin Freeman, that he was going to, quote, “Get back on the horse after falling off, so to speak,” and he asked, “Does my doing this label me as a lunatic in the eyes of editors and, therefore, damage my reputation as someone they might use?” Freeman wrote in a post that, with hindsight he wished he'd said an emphatic yes. But Freeman also wrote, “I doubt John even saw it as much of a choice. John’s a frontline specialist and back in 2012 Syria was, frankly, the only place for anyone in his line of work to be.”
No doubt but Nicole Tung says that freelancers are compelled to calculate risk factors differently from staff reporters.
Consider how John Cantlie and James Foley, on the day that they were kidnapped, chose to travel to the Turkish side of the border where they were to meet Nicole.
NICOLE TUNG: They took a taxi from the town that they were in, in Syria to the border, which normally, you know, is a big no-no, but we can't afford hired drivers and trusted people to take us to certain places so we, you know, jump in the next taxi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, big news outlets had staff reporters on the ground, but then –
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Gilles Jacquier, an award-winning cameraman from France 2 Television, was reportedly killed by grenades…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid died yesterday during an assignment in Syria for The New York Times.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: …at the life and legacy of Marie Colvin, killed in Syria yesterday, just a few hours…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Western outlets began to pull back, freelancers quickly filled the gap. But as the threat of kidnapping mounted, their numbers dwindled. For staff reporters and freelancers alike, options were limited. Either get a visa from the Syrian government and follow the regime script or cross the border illegally and risk a fatal outcome.
[CLIPS/SOUND OF GUNFIRE]:
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The civil war in Syria has made it the world’s most dangerous place for journalists.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: There are at least 30 journalists that have been kidnapped in Syria.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: At least 50 journalists and media workers have been killed there since the start of 2013.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, news outlets began to rely on other sources, namely online communication with activists, local reporters and everyday people inside Syria. By assembling fragments and vetting by triangulating accounts, they could paint a picture, albeit a grainier one, of what was going on. Hwaida Saad is a reporter and news assistant in the Beirut Bureau of The New York Times. The daughter of a cafeteria worker who for years helped manage the Lebanese office of a Syrian auto supply company, she got into journalism by doing some translation work as a favor. With The Times since 2008, she now maintains a network of more than a thousand contacts on Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook, rebel fighters, government officials, soldiers, jihadists and citizens caught up in the conflict. She says that, oddly enough, her own late-night online shopping habit helped in cultivating those sources.
HWAIDA SAAD: It was very hard to chat with those people during the day because they were busy. And usually the Syrians, they don’t sleep early and at 12 or 1 am it's the only time I have to do online shopping, to check what is the latest fashion.
I was looking at the tops and dresses, and then suddenly those fighters are back, all the activists, and they want to chat. Hearing woman’s voice coming through Skype, it makes them relaxed and they will send me stories about what’s happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was actually happening in the field.
HWAIDA SAAD: Yes. We wrote a story about this guy, Abu Bilal al-Homsi, who was a regular activist and then he became an ISIS fighter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were you able to track his conversion?
HWAIDA SAAD: We used to chat every single day. He was religious but not extremist. He tells me a bit from Homs he was, you know, besieged, and he used to tell me jokes. It was his daily life. But later, gradually, I started feeling there is something changing in his character, really changing. He told me, I joined the Islamic State. And he continued chatting with me. But later on, I found out he blew himself up in Homs and he killed people, maybe some of them he used to know, you know, was grown up in this neighborhood. And, you know, it’s a war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In addition to gleaning information, you have become a kind of go-between for people. There was one couple, the wife lived in one place, the husband had been evacuated to another. They were both talking to you.
HWAIDA SAAD: That’s why nine months, she can’t see her husband. She, she tell me, I’m gonna get divorced. On the other side, the husband, he texts me and he tells me, please, could you keep chatting with my wife, just calm her down.
Tell her funny stories. Could you please tell her that I love her?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of work goes into keeping up all of these contacts?
HWAIDA SAAD: You should check on those people every day, every single day, to show them like it’s not only purely business. Some of them, they risk their lives to tell me. If they go to a place where sometimes there are explosions, sometimes I tell them, no please, don’t go, but they insist to do it because they want their story to be told, to be heard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Times says that you’re a vital source of Syrian contact. Are there stories that couldn't have been done but for your chatting, I understand for six hours a day, through Skype and other means?
HWAIDA SAAD: Of course. I will give you an example. It was one of the most painful experiences in my life, the story of the soldier I met in Palmyra during a visit more than a year ago. And somehow, I don't know, he took my number and when I came back he sent me a message, hello. And that soldier was depressed. You know, he was young, 21-year-old. He wants to live his life. He wants to date. He wants to be in love. He wants to see his mother. But, at the same time, he can’t. He’s a soldier. He’s serving in the worst place in the world. Every day, like, he’s facing ISIS. He used to send me updates every single day, you know, today we’ve had battles with ISIS, today I dated this woman, so like daily for a year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was he working for the Syrian government?
HWAIDA SAAD: He was a police with the Syrian government. He considered me his best friend. Most of his friends, they were serving in Palmyra and when ISIS formed they were beheaded. And I was trying to calm him down and, you know, he was telling me, Hwaida, I don’t want to go back to Palmyra. And I told him, no, don’t go. But a few days later, he sent me two pictures and he told me these might be the last pictures, I’m heading to Palmyra now. And then he went offline and, you know, I was trying to look for him, to ask, to check what happened to him, Abu al-Majd, where are you? I, I was just texting him many, many times. Later I found out Abu al-Majd was beheaded in Palmyra, outside the mosque, by ISIS. And I, I don't want to miss this point, Brooke, but throughout my contacts with these people, I received so many messages like Abu al-Majd’s message, that they’re telling me goodbye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does the loss of so many of these people who are your contacts and not quite your friends, how does that affect you?
HWAIDA SAAD: Sometimes I say to myself, I should stop this. You know, I’m a human being. I can’t tolerate the idea like every day I’m receiving goodbye messages. Sometimes I say, okay, it’s normal, this is war. You should continue and do what you’re doing. But later I, I say no, I cannot. You know, it’s ups and downs, ups and downs. But what gives me hope, the family of those people I know, they contact me and they thank me. For instance, a mother of one of the activists I used to communicate with, she called me the other day and she said, I could feel my son through you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
HWAIDA SAAD: And when I heard that, it was, wow. So no, I should continue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, this isn’t something I was going to ask you but we’re trying to understand John Cantlie’s situation.
HWAIDA SAAD: Mm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I just wonder if you ever hear anything about him.
HWAIDA SAAD: [AUDIBLE EXHALE] Actually, no. These days, it’s very hard to reach people in ISIS-controlled areas –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
HWAIDA SAAD: - super hard. A few months ago, I used to have contact with the people there, like from Raqqa, from countryside of Aleppo where ISIS are still controlling few villages. After ISIS banned all means of communications –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
HWAIDA SAAD: - in these area, I, I don’t know anything. These days, I’m trying to get the news through families, families who live in Turkey and I don’t know where. They’re contacting their families in ISIS-controlled areas and then this is the way they tell me. But it’s very frustrating, really very frustrating and very depressing. And that's why I continue to do more shopping, online shopping. It helps me [LAUGHING], like I can see something nice in this world. [LAUGHS]
You know, my mother keeps complaining. She says, you know, you should stop that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stop shopping or stop talking to contacts?
HWAIDA SAAD: Stop the shopping. [LAUGHS]
Stop talking - that is impossible. This is something I cannot stop it [LAUGHS] you know, like –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s wonderful talking to you. Thanks again.
HWAIDA SAAD: Thank you, Brooke, thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hwaida Saad is based in the Beirut Bureau of The New York Times.
Janine Di Giovanni is the Middle East editor for Newsweek and author of the new book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. For the last 25 years, she's been a conflict reporter. By the way, in a moment she'll describe all the reasons Syria is uniquely hard to cover and those descriptions at times are pretty graphic, so be warned.
JANINE DI GIOVANNI: People are going to turn off the television set when they see too many mass graves, too many bodies, too much bombing, but a good in-depth story is going to capture the attention of people, particularly when it has a narrative. And that's what I do, go on the ground, spend months and months, sit on the floor with people and talk to them. For instance, one of the characters in my book, Nada, is a young activist. She was detained, raped, basically her life completely shattered. So what I did is used her as a vehicle to tell the story of rape in Syria.
I get a lot of letters from people who’ve read my book and they say, I didn't know this was happening. Now, it's kind of strange from where I'm sitting to believe that people don't know that there are thousands and thousands of people in detention in Syria who are being tortured this very second. But it's true because if you're sitting in California or Nebraska or New Jersey, you’re thinking about your own life. Syria is someone else's war. But I feel like it's my obligation to let them know that it's on our watch that this is happening, this slow-motion genocide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You recount stories of atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against the opposition, the young woman revolutionary thrown in prison, raped, forced to drink the urine of a fellow prisoner.
JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Mm, that’s Nada.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Someone thrown into a cell with corpses, so horrors almost beyond comprehension. Do you think the regime's crimes are underreported?
JANINE DI GIOVANNI: The majority of atrocities are being committed by the regime, but the opposition are not angels. And now there's the added dimension of ISIS and al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria.
I tried to point out crimes on both sides but my focus was always victims of state terror. And having lived through Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and having interviewed, at this point, hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve been tortured over the years, I have to say, some of the worst reports that came to me were people talking to me about what happened to them in Syria.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the regime has been effective in using ISIS as a distraction from its own crimes?
JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Absolutely. ISIS has led the narrative, and it's, it's not about ISIS. It’s about the Syrian people killed, raped, villages being burned. ISIS is a horror, a catastrophe, but it's one element of this war, and I think people have all but abandoned the civilian story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you most wish the public would understand about Syria?
JANINE DI GIOVANNI: I walk my son to school in the morning and I want people to know what it's like when you can't walk your kids to school because there is no school. They haven't been in school for five years, which is an entire primary school education. You have kids who are starving and you've got to go to a bakery at 5 in the morning, the only bakery in Aleppo, stand in line for five, six, seven hours and by the time you get to the top of the line, there's no more bread. You’ve got diabetes or cancer and the hospitals are all bombed. The only pediatrician in Aleppo was killed when the hospital was deliberately targeted and bombed. Your life stops. It’s only by sheer coincidence that you weren’t born there or I wasn't born there. And that's all I want people to do, is to try to put themselves in the shoes of those people just for five minutes, longer if they can hold on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you tell me a story about reporting in Syria that would defy public expectations, something that surprised you?
JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Well, I think it would have to be the story of Hassan. Hassan was a philosophy student living in Homs, and one day during heavy shelling the regime forces shot through the door and he was taken to a detention center. They basically operated on him without anesthetic and removed some of his organs. He then was sewn up, hung and beaten, and while he was being beaten, a doctor came to take his pulse, which is customary with torture victims, to see how much more they could endure, and this doctor said, I can’t stand this anymore, but I’m a regime doctor so listen to me very carefully. I am declaring you dead. You will be taken to the morgue and if God has meant it to be, you'll find your way out somehow. And Hassan was thrown into a morgue on top of a pile of corpses, and he was rescued in the most extraordinary way. It’s one of those stories that makes you really believe that people in times of war can be extraordinarily bad or extraordinarily good and brave and heroic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Janine DiGiovanni is author of the new book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.
If foreign journalists are motivated by the idea that people would care if they got the real story, those inside Syria, sources for people like DiGiovanni and Hwaida Saad are driven by the need to help them get that story right.
FIRAS AL-SAID: I’m Firas al-Said. I’m an activist in the Talbiseh Media Centre.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Firas is a citizen journalist in a rebel-held suburb of Homs and an ardent opponent of the Assad regime. After recent Russian air strikes on his town, he talked to news outlets ranging from CNN to the BBC, but he hasn’t much faith in the international press.
FIRAS AL-SAID: They are not depending on the people here on the ground. They are depending all the time on the government propaganda and the government media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Along with a handful of other activists, he spends his days chronicling what’s happening around him and posting updates to Facebook and YouTube.
FIRAS AL-SAID: We are reporting the crimes of Assad forces. We are using the Internet to upload the videos, to upload news about what’s going on in the city.
[MAN SPEAKING IN ARABIC/SOUND OF GUNSHOTS]
Most of the time, we are wandering in the city to see what’s happened and how people are living. Some of people will ask us, why you are filming the dead people? Nobody will care about them, just let them die silently. But we cannot do that. We have to report everything. Maybe now that will not be useful but after a while it will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Firas had a chance to escape this bloodshed. In 2011 when the uprising began, he went to the United Arab Emirates. But, after a year, as his fellow countrymen were pouring out of Syria, he returned to a hometown under siege.
FIRAS AL-SAID: We lost a lot of our friends, our relatives here. We cannot leave this country.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
I don’t know if you can understand but this is our destiny, to stay here and to die here because maybe it’s too late to think about leaving. It’s too late. We decided to stay and we have to continue that. We have to continue what we have started.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if the gaze of the world outside has wandered off, Firas al-Said will continue to chronicle to the cloud, for those who still care and for history.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, why some reporters live to tell the tale and some don’t - the world’s tangled policy on hostages.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.