No matter how you slice or dice it, judging from the dynamics on the ground and from utterances and actions by leaders big and small, whether in Damascus, Moscow, Cairo or Tehran, the bloodletting in Syria is far from over. The humanitarian spillover of uprooted misery is just the backdrop to the tug of war on the ground between rebels and Assad regime loyalists, and to the white-knuckled tenacity of the Syrian regime as it mauls and ravages Syria’s cities, universities, society and countryside. Rebel forces are giving back as good as they get, with equal impunity and ghoulish disregard for suffering and human rights, even if not on the same scale as the regime.
Heroism on the battlefield is nonexistent when the rules of war are so grievously trampled on. There is a more valiant battle being fought, however, and it is opening new frontiers of the mind in Syria. It is that of reporters, local and foreign, and all those helping them in excavating the truth from the ruins all around.
A different brand of chivalry is emerging from that blood-soaked conflict. It is that of a minority of truth seekers, a small unarmed battalion bearing witness to the carnage at great personal risk. Syria holds nothing of the romance or glory for correspondents drawn to trouble spots and their fabled hotels or watering holes. Instead, the country is arduous, inaccessible and deadly.
Those who choose to cover that tragedy put their lives on hold and leave their families in suspense over their safety, because of a compulsion to write about people and children trapped in the violence. The commitment to keep giving a voice and a human face to ordinary Syrians is the only way to keep that nation from slipping into oblivion.
Their notebooks and camera lenses record an unbridled folly wantonly claiming life, limb and women who have become an object of lust and frustrated male excess. Historians will be indebted to their sacrifices and chronicles long after the dust settles over Syria and its rivers of blood run dry.
The price has been exacting and extremely high for reporters, foreign correspondents, local journalists and their supporting staff. Yet coverage of Syria’s quagmire continues. It is done selflessly, although the presence of many journalists without visas – because Damascus refuses to issue them – is met with great distrust and hostility.
Well over 70 correspondents, reporters, media professionals and citizen journalists have been killed in 2012, notes Ayman Mhanna, executive director of SKeyes, the Samir Kassir Foundation media watchdog. The organization’s annual report on attacks against journalists in the Arab world is scheduled to come out in two weeks.
Last year was one of the deadliest ever recorded for journalists, with 141 killed in 29 different countries and with Syria rated as the most perilous location, according to the Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ website lists 70 journalists killed with confirmed motives worldwide, and Syria has topped the list. The Press Emblem Campaign says that at least 37 journalists, among them 13 working for non-Syrian foreign media, were killed in Syria. By the accounting of the Beirut-based SKeyes, the tally is significantly higher.
Mhanna said data was still being analyzed and scrutinized, so the total could be higher. He explained that the 70 plus figure included “some targeted killings” by the regime and also by the rebels, though to a smaller extent. The discrepancy is due to the fact that SKyes has included journalists who perished as war casualties caught in the crossfire of intense battles or by indiscriminate shelling.
“Scores of others were captured and came out to talk about how they were subjected to torture in the regime’s prisons,” he added. Four foreign journalists captured in Syria are still missing and their families hold hopes they are still alive.
Austin Tice, an intrepid freelance American reporter, on assignment for The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers, was seized in Damascus while on a break from law school last summer. It remains unclear whether he was picked up by the regime’s security forces or by its proxy shabbiha militia.
Ukrainian journalist and interpreter Anhar Kotchneva has been held by jihadist rebel groups demanding ransom money, and a Jordanian-Palestinian, Bashar Fahmi, is still detained. Another American reporter and videographer, James Foley, is being held by Muslim jihadists who are fighting alongside the rebels.
In a Facebook posting dating back to July 26, 2012, Tice pleaded with friends to stop telling him to be safe and openly talked about his inspiration and passion for being in Syria. He paid tribute to Syrians who go to bed every night and wake up every morning with the knowledge that “death could visit them at any moment.” Yet, “they’re alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be.”
Tice wrote, “No, I don’t have a death wish – I have a life wish.” He traveled mostly with the rebels who have been more welcoming to journalists, but he also reported last August that rebels were carrying out executions and torture. Watchdog organizations can do little to help free those reporters, who chose to cover Syria knowing the risks.
“We are just making sure the information goes out. Whenever someone is arrested or kidnapped, we speak up to keep the pressure on,” Mhanna said. “What we can do is make sure to document all the violations to submit to the international community to try the perpetrators in the International Criminal Court when the time comes. We have to be ready.”
There is a plethora of new Syrian online journals, print publications, radio stations and television networks. Most of them have a reformist or oppositionist political agenda and are regionally based. What is noteworthy is that Syrians no longer rely exclusively on the state-controlled media. They have come to expect a diversity of views.
The weekly publication Suria al-Hurra, Arabic for Syria the Free, run by a former professor from the University of Aleppo, with a Facebook page stands out. It is dedicated to getting the truth out no matter how inconvenient to either side. Independently funded by wealthy Syrians, it is bound to gain credibility with battle weary civilians and Syrian refugees disenchanted with propagandistic lies of war. Another publication, Inab Baladi, Arabic for Homegrown Grapes, based in the town of Darayya, near Damascus. has also carved a niche for itself as a serious purveyor of news.
“Arabs will not be free unless their dreams, pens and poems are liberated,” Syrian poet Nouras Yakan, author of “Verses not Written by God,” told Beirut’s daily Arabic-language Al-Nahar recently. He was making a reference, he explained, to how Syrians are now writing their own history.
Nora Boustany is an independent writer and former Washington Post correspondent and columnist who teaches journalism at the American University of Beirut. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.