Syria’s agony is a catastrophe for the region – and also one of the most dangerous and traumatic conflicts for reporters to cover, as research begins into the war’s effects on those who have worked there.
Between the lines: counting the cost of reporting from Syria
“Nothing prepares you for what you witness yourself on the ground and come face to face within this worsening war and grave humanitarian crisis – no video on YouTube or timeline of tweets can fully convey the enormity of what it feels like on the ground,” says the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, one of the world’s most respected journalists who has covered war around the world for almost three decades.
“But the worst of all was [the Palestinian camp of] Yarmouk. We all cried … I’ve never covered a war where destruction and death are on this kind of scale.”
This week the situation in Yarmouk worsened, with the UN warning of starvation as humanitarian supplies ran out. The three-year conflict has already killed more than 150,000 Syrians, including some 10,000 children, and internally displaced a further 6.5 million, with an estimated 2.5 million fleeing the country’s borders. Syria has also become a byword for death and danger for journalists, whose psychological effects were unknown – until now.
Between last August and November, I, along with professor Anthony Feinstein and researchers from the University of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, attempted contact with 130 journalists selected at random from a social media-based forum used exclusively by foreign journalists and aid workers to discuss Syria-related issues. We asked 130 forum members to take part in the study; some had not been to Syria, others were not journalists. Finishing with a 64 per cent response rate, the data we have pooled is the only controlled study of trauma on journalists covering the conflict in Syria to date.
The survey’s most telling findings are that a massive 20 per cent of journalists polled had no insurance of any kind while covering the conflict in Syria. Forty per cent of reporters covering Syria are women – an almost 100 per cent increase on Feinstein’s previous study of journalists covering Iraq and conducted in 2003. The psychological effects for reporters covering Syria have also increased. Depression levels are way up compared with journalists covering other recent conflicts. “Put simply, the unremitting, terrible violence can break down the strongest psychological resolve,” says Feinstein.
Other findings uncovered by our research show a median age of 35 and that 68 per cent of respondents were single. For one in five journalists, Syria was their first conflict.
Interestingly, almost 44 per cent ranked Iraq as the most dangerous conflict they have covered, with Syria second, at 27 per cent. The journalists polled found covering Egypt (12.5 per cent) more dangerous than Libya, Afghanistan or Chechnya.
The attraction of reporting from Syria has been irresistible. Today, a one-way flight from London to Istanbul booked just one week in advance costs US$140 (Dh514) while a flight onwards to Turkey’s Syrian border is as little as $50. From there, activists regularly assist journalists into Syria.
The images are compelling, the thrill exhilarating.
When the Syrian government lost control of northern and eastern regions of the country during the summer of 2012, journalists (from our data, 81 per cent entered without government visas) initially sought this route into the country.
But a vacuum in authority since then has left these areas open for jihadists from Iraq, Chechnya and elsewhere to move in, making work for journalists impossible almost overnight. By last summer, dozens of local and foreign reporters and aid workers had been kidnapped, many without as much as a ransom request. Since then, the situation across northern Syria has remained much the same.
Janine di Giovanni, Newsweek’s Middle East editor and a chronicler of almost every major international conflict since the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, says Syria is more frustrating than any other conflict she has covered. “In Bosnia, you could just rock up more or less to a front line and take your chances if you would get shelled or shot or mined. That was the decision of the reporter, but at least we had the choice. In Syria, there is so little one can do,” she says.
While the wars that engulfed Sarajevo 20 years ago or the Russian republic of Chechnya during the 1990s or the West African wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone were potentially more dangerous “in the sense that there was random shooting everywhere from snipers or drugged child soldiers”, she says, Syria is the most frustrating to cover.
“We are all trying to be responsible now, hence no one going to the north and risking kidnapping. The visa situation is just dire, and unless you meet the approval of the [Syrian] government, for whatever random reason, you are shut out of the system. So we are blind.”
Di Giovanni says this has led to reporters covering the unfolding refugee crisis “or we talk to ‘analysts’ who have as little on-the-ground knowledge as we do now. Or we talk to activists and get a biased view, even if our sympathies lie with them. It means we are not being eyewitnesses.”
The result, she says, is that this leaves the world in a very vulnerable position of having a vicious war bubbling away that is pretty much going uncovered, “meaning that terrible human rights atrocities could and probably are occurring – and there is no one there to document it, because there is no access.”
Outside of major cities in government-controlled Syria, where I lived for the first 11 months of the revolt in 2011 and 2012, to even walk on the street – with or without a camera – garners instant attention from locals and the omnipresent intelligence forces. One’s face need only be unrecognisable to arouse interest. My local shopkeeper was an informer for the secret police who frequently called in soldiers when anti-government protests took place.
I managed during the first year of the Syrian revolt by speaking local Syrian Arabic, taking public transportation and taking as few risks as possible. I figured, on the law of averages, the revolution would occur in front of me as a “normal” course of events.
But on February 2, 2012, I took a chance and drove out east of Damascus’s city centre.
The Syrian army and security forces had passed through the eastern Damascus suburb of Saqba, not far from Yarmouk, 24 hours before. It left behind homes without walls, mosques shattered by tank shells, a population bewildered by what had just happened to them and many, many dead residents.
Along with Richard Beeston, the late foreign editor of the London Times, and his photographer, we ran down narrow alleyways to a schoolyard where a resident showed us the bodies of six local men who had been temporarily buried under carpets and tree branches. The locals showed us how security forces had cut off the lips and noses and gouged out the eyes of the men just hours before. Saqba was now under regime control. It was the most terrifying experience of my life.
For more than a decade, Anthony Feinstein has been the leading authority on tracking stress and trauma among journalists working in conflict zones. In his 2006 book Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War, Feinstein writes that while adrenalin “is an important agent released in response to stress” it does not drive people – reporters – towards the dangers of war. “That role falls to a distant relative, two steps removed, called dopamine,” he writes.
Speaking to The National this month, Feinstein, who has worked clinically with more than 100 journalists, said: “The sweet and short of it is that dopamine is the primary reward neurotransmitter. High dopamine levels are usually synonymous with a more adventurous lifestyle, career choice etc.
“If you’ve got higher levels of dopamine,” said Feinstein, “you’ll want to seek reward.” Heightened sensitivity to dopamine – from either underproduction of the enzyme that breaks it down or a particular configuration of receptors in the brain – can be inherited, says Feinstein.
It is perhaps dopamine that is the key inbuilt, chemical factor that leads reporters, such as the Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, to repeatedly return to Syria and all the danger working there entails. In March, Espinosa and a Spanish photographer were released into Turkish custody after having been missing in northern Syria for six months. Jihadists are thoughts to have been responsible for their kidnapping. Two years ago, Espinosa was injured by the same mortar shell that killed the acclaimed American journalist Marie Colvin in the besieged Homs district of Baba Amr.
In 2005, Feinstein and his colleague Dawn Nicolson published the ground-breaking article Embedded Journalists in the Iraq War: Are They at Greater Psychological Risk? which found that trauma indicators including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse rates were similar for both embedded and independent journalists. In Iraq, whether out on the open street or accompanying foreign soldiers on patrol, journalists reported equitable trauma levels.
Feinstein’s work is not limited to researching the work of journalists operating in foreign territories.
In Mexico, where a drugs war has caused 60,000 deaths over the past seven years alone, local reporters covering – and living with – the violence regularly draw the ire of the many criminal gangs and cartels in operation, with often horrifying consequences. Feinstein sought to compare the trauma facing local journalists there to those of conflict reporters in a 2013 report, and found that “an inability to take a break from a highly dangerous and stressful work environment will lead to even further compromise in journalists’ emotional well-being”.
The long-term effects on journalists covering conflict can be considerable, depending on exposure to trauma. Diagnostic PTSD criteria state that an individual must have experienced or witnessed actual or threatened death or serious injury.
The long-term symptoms include thoughts, dreams or flash-backs of traumatic events. Others include avoidance of people that are likely to prompt thought or discussion of the incidents of trauma, difficulties with anger control and sleep, and hyper vigilance.
“If journalists do not get help for PTSD, depression and substance abuse, their long-term mental health problems can be considerable. These conditions rarely resolve spontaneously. So, this makes receiving treatment very important,” said Feinstein.
When compared with journalists who worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, Syria has so far proved one of the most deadly conflicts.
In the three years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 60 journalists were killed there. Between 2001 and 2004, during the war to defeat the Taliban and find Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, nine media personnel died, while during the 1991-95 war in the Balkans, 36 media workers were killed.
Syria has claimed the lives of 63 reporters and media workers since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In the case of Syria, the facts don’t lie: almost 5 per cent of participants in our trauma study said they had been injured in Syria and a similar figure reported having been taken hostage while inside the country. A massive 59 per cent had received no professional counselling whatsoever.
More than 18 per cent said they had used cocaine in the past while 32 per cent said they had a colleague killed in Syria.
A major concern is that with freelancers increasingly left to cover conflicts such as Syria, the absence of institutional backing, in the past provided by newspapers or television networks, puts more reporters at risk of serious trauma. But tellingly, our research found few differences in responses between staff and freelance journalists. It seems that regardless of whether media outlets are there to back journalists, the traumatic effects of covering Syria are indiscriminate.
In the shadow of 2011’s Arab uprisings, freelancers are organising. Founded by American author and journalist Sebastian Junger after the death of his colleague Tim Hetherington in Libya three years ago, the New York-based RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) trains freelance conflict journalists in battlefield first aid. Last year, freelance reporters founded the Frontline Freelance Register aiming to “provide foreign and conflict journalists with representation and a sense of community, vital in such a fragmented profession”.
For me, the trauma of death up close was too much.
Two weeks after visiting Saqba, I boarded a plane that flew above government tanks and desert on its way to London. The life that I had built in Syria over five years was over. The country I knew was gone.
During those intervening weeks I became increasingly paranoid. Suddenly, I became suspicious of neighbours walking on the stairwell outside my apartment – maybe they were security officers coming for me. When security guards at a Damascus city centre mall began checking the undersides of cars for explosives, I began to do likewise at home every morning.
But there are greater tragedies.
“I find it hard to focus on our trauma where the trauma and tragedy for the people who live through this is far, far greater, unimaginable,” says Lyse Doucet, echoing a maxim that motivates many people to go into dangerous situations to cover the suffering of others: at least we can leave.
Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising and lived in Syria until 2012.