Syria – difficult, dangerous and complex

The civil war in Syria has become old news. For those still reporting it, it has become difficult and dangerous to recognise who the good and the bad guys are. Being aware of the details of the conflict is important, and the only way to do that is to be there

I remember the day Daniel Rye Ottesen disappeared. I was on my way home from a trip to Spain and North Africa and during a layover I turned on my phone for a quick check of my text messages. There were three messages that had voicemail, you know, those ones you never bother to listen to anymore. One of them was from a high-level diplomat, one from an employee with a security firm and another from a co-worker. All of them asked me to call them back as soon as possible. I did, mostly so I could tell them where I was and what I was up to.

The reason for their calls was, of course, that they’d heard that a 25-year-old photographer had been kidnapped by the Islamist Jihadi group ISIS, or Da’ash, as it was referred to in the activist and journalist circles I have been running in the past few years while I’ve been covering Syria. The news had started to make it out and people wanted to know what was up.

At that time ISIS already had a reputation as a group to be feared among those who – either because they had to or because they felt compelled to – travelled in and out of Syria. A number of activists and journalists had already been kidnapped by ISIS and similar groups, who recognise that such hostages are a valuable commodity – if they didn’t see them as just plain adversaries. Their presence has made reporting from Syria difficult and dangerous.

Two journalists from The Times recently reported that they had been kidnapped by a trusted colleague and friend in Syria who previously had worked for them as an interpreter and local guide. The two had been visiting their friend in Syria in order to celebrate the birth of his child when they found out that he had been involved in a kidnapping attempt. One of the journalists managed to get away, but the other was beaten with a rifle butt by a man who he had considered his friend. The explanation was, as it always is, that the two were spies.

Most of those I know that work in Syria will tell you that it has become more dangerous, and that it’s harder to know who you can trust. The war has been going for more than three years and people don’t have anything left to give. The idealists have become cynics. Some of those who fought against the human rights abuses carried out by the government are now mistreating people themselves. International news outlets have also become more cynical, and they no longer send reporters there. Part of the reason is the danger, but another reason is that, as a news item, Syria is stale. The story has stalled, it’s not going anywhere, it’s hopeless, and writing about such a conflict – that doesn’t have any good guys, and that has wiped out any trace of black and white – is all but impossible. Sometimes we shake our head when we see people doing it anyway. Most of them are alone, they haven’t taken appropriate security measures, and they are generally inexperienced.

The problem is that the issue is a complicated one, and that if you’re not aware of the nuances of the conflict then you’re doing a service both to a regime that is engaged in a systematic massacre of its own people, and to a group of extremists who thrive on darkness and chaos.

I experienced the nuances of the conflict when I was there in September. I was visiting the same refugee camp that Daniel had been kidnapped from in May. Through my interpreter I was able to speak to the refugees living there. My interpreter was a young Syrian guy (whose name it’s best if I keep secret) who had studied English literature in Aleppo before the war and was fond of quoting Byron, listening to American soft-rock love songs on his mobile and talking about how much he hated war, how much he hated the insurgents and how he would continue to avoid becoming a combatant.

We drove home through Bab al-Hawa, the chaotic border town covered in insurgents and ISIS fighters wearing ski masks, carrying rifles and lazily watching the cars as they continuously passed.

Here, we parted ways with our armed, broad-shouldered and extremely well-connected bodyguards. They departed leaving me with the young interpreter and an elderly taxi driver in a subcompact car. Five minutes later, a car and a group of motorcycles cut us off, forced us to stop, surrounded the car and then pointed their weapons at us. One of them caught eye of my camera and said it proved that I was a government spy and that they should take me into custody until their leader decided what to do with me. He finally arrived and without so much as a thought declared me a spy. It was then I knew I was in trouble.

The easiest thing for my interpreter and the driver to do would have been to push me out and drive off. Instead though, he declared – sounding just as nervous as I felt – that he was a member of one of the biggest and most feared Islamic insurgent groups in the area. His bluff worked. They let us pass and just for a moment we caught a glimpse of the humanity and sense of responsibility that saves people’s lives every day in Syria.

Seeing that happen, though, requires that you are there.


By Tobias Havmand

Tobias Havmand covers the Middle East and other conflict zones for Information newspaper. He is also an editor at Atlas Magazine.

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