Here, the Beirut-based Abouzeid discusses traveling in and out of Syria without a fixer or translator, and the increasing dangers of covering the war.
Rania Abouzeid: I don’t keep count of how many times I’ve been in and out. I knew Syria before the uprising, I know Syria from 2000 when I used to go in and out.
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I was in Damascus in late February 2011, and I witnessed the first rumblings of discontent in the capital. They were outside the Libyan embassy, and there were candlelit vigils in solidarity with the Libyan people. I was there and saw how they were put down. I covered Tunis, and I went straight from Tunis to Egypt. Towards the end of February I was asked to go to Libya, and I said, “No, I want to go to Syria, I want to see what’s happening there.” I wanted to see how this state that I knew very well was going to be dealing with what was happening in the region.
Since then I’ve spent – I don’t know, many, many times, always undercover, clandestinely, always alone [in Syria]. I don’t keep count, but I was basically spending a week of every month in my home base, Beirut, and the rest of the time I was on the road, in Syria and Turkey.
I don’t use fixers, I don’t use translators. I don’t have anybody giving me tips. It’s just me.
Syria Deeply: How did you figure it out, the first time?
RA: I have personal contacts. I know how to be my own fixer, how to be my own translator. I operate alone. And it’s just time spent on the ground getting my boots dirty, meeting people, reading everything that I can. And there’s always more to read. That’s what I do. I spend time with people, I never use Skype contacts who I haven’t met inside the country in the place where they say they are. I won’t call somebody and say, “You know what, I need somebody in Homs, can you get me somebody?” I don’t do that because I don’t know the person who’s in Homs. I don’t know what kind of a person this person is, I don’t know if he or she is reliable. I need to be able to verify sources, so I only rely on people who I have met in these places, and it’s hard, because a lot of the people I’ve known since this thing started are now in prison or dead or have left, so that’s a constant challenge.
SD: Any trip in particular been memorable?
RA: They’re all memorable, in different ways. I’ve been to many places, most of the key places. There are a few places that are still on my to-do list. I was in Damascus when the first uprisings started in February; I was in Homs when Bab al-Amr was kicking off. I was the only journalist to interview [Hussein] Harmoush, the first high-ranking defector inside Syria. So I’ve been lucky – because I’ve spent so much time on the ground, I’ve been in these places when something has come up.
SD: Any moment where you thought …
RA: Yeah, there are times when I think, you know what? I might not be able to get out of this one. And in many ways working alone is an advantage for me. Because I speak the language, I can physically blend in as much as I want to. It was a bigger deal in the early days when I’d be in Homs and in Damascus, where the regime still had the ability to go house to house, and that was a big deal, to make sure I could physically blend in and not raise any suspicions. That became less so afterwards, when there were areas that had fallen out of the regime’s hands, although they have their own security challenges. You wonder if luck is a finite thing – you think, how many times can I push it? How many times can I test it? How many times can I use it up? Is there more of it or is that all I’ve got? I do wonder about it, and it’s tough. But for me, the only way I want to tell the story is on the ground.
SD: How has covering the story changed in the last couple of months?
RA: It’s become more dangerous. It was always dangerous, I could always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could always be in a town that the regime is hitting with mortars or pounding from the air or road. I remember once when I was supposed to go in, and two hours before I was to go in, I got a call saying the trip was cancelled because the guys who were supposed to pick me up were manning a checkpoint and they were hit with air strikes, and six of them were killed. So plans change in minutes, and that’s why planning a trip three weeks in advance really doesn’t mean anything. You have to plan three hours in advance. Because intel is just so fluid.
It’s become more dangerous, especially in areas that have fallen out of regime control. There were always criminal elements that were benefitting from the chaos, and that has increased. As the rebel rivalry has increased and various battalions are taking each other on, it’s become an added danger. So a lot of my time is spent trying to figure out who is friends with whom, and who’s against whom, and who controls this and who controls that. It’s become very dangerous, especially for people who haven’t covered it before.
One thing that helps me is that I’ll be in a place, and somebody will recognize me from somewhere else. Because every time I go, the same accusations – you’re a spy, you’re a this, you’re a that. I start from scratch explaining myself. This happened several times, where I’d go somewhere, and somebody will step up and say, I saw her, she was in this town, she is what she says she is, it’s true she’s been doing this. Whereas for somebody new to come in now is a very dangerous prospect.
A lot of these battalions will move to different fronts, or people will leave a battalion and move to another one. There’s a fluidity to the battlefield.
SD: Ever go in expecting one story and come out with something else?
RA: That always happens. I’ll have two or three stories I want to get, and then I always come across other things simply by virtue of being there. I might hear of something, a phrase or conversation, and I follow up, and it yields another interesting story.
SD: Is your own Syria prep changing as it gets more dangerous?
RA: I base it on relationships that I’ve built up. I do what one is supposed to do, which is know where you’re going, have a story, have a contact, know the people, know the area, know the background. And always be aware of the security risks at any one time. It doesn’t strike me as overly cautious – it’s just what we’re supposed to do.