DAMASCUS, Syria -- Convincing jittery armed militia that you mean them no harm, while at the same time wondering whether you can trust them. Riding solo in the back of a taxi along a sketchy country road, asking yourself why you did not bring the pepper spray. Taking notes or photos or recording audio when the warplane above you prepares to drop its bombs, then wondering if this might be the last day of your life.
It’s all in a day’s work as a conflict zone journalist. But unlike the civilians who live full-time in such a place, we get to parachute in and leave -- a fact that helps me cut through the fear and justify taking the risks. Unlike the ordinary folks who live in the terrible places where we go, we journalists are mostly strangers, even when we speak the language fluently and “know the culture.”
Whether we are men or women, local cultural mores will guide us, at times limiting our access, other times opening secret doors.
The experiences of my male and female colleagues differ not so much along gender lines but according to their personalities and how they “gel” with a certain environment. Ultimately, though, I find that women can play upon several privileges they have over their male colleagues in a conflict zone, at least in the conservative Arab and Muslim worlds. In a patriarchal society, a woman can always align herself with males and go with the boys to the front lines. But a man can never enter the henhouse. I always try to play this dichotomy to my advantage, especially when the local men intuitively push me toward the henhouse, the only place they assume I want to be.
Of course, I go for it. I believe my best stories have been from within the henhouse, hanging out with the women and their children, and often their unemployed male relatives or fighters taking a break, and I observe how ordinary families cope with the insanity of war.
When it is time for me to join the boys with the guns, I simply ask. They would not ordinarily bring their wives or sisters to their secret meeting places, and surely not to the frontline, but to them I am not entirely a feminized figure. I am a professional, and my profession demands I occupy the public space. In a segregated, conservative society, where the male ethos owns the public arena, and all things female rule the private domain, a professional woman can pass for a gendered male and, at least temporarily, she is accepted as a natural element there, especially when she is not from the local community, and therefore exempt from local customs.
This is not to say that it has always been easy or predictable.
There have been times when I assumed that I would face major hurdles in interviewing the more religious folks, for example, only to discover that things were to the contrary. Men with long beards and prayer beads spoke to me more openly and honestly than their presumably more “secular” counterparts.
I think no matter how much experience I gain, these things will continue to surprise me and challenge any preconceived notion I may have.
Also, no matter how much experience we gain, there is no escaping the dangerous aspect of conflict zone reporting. Highly seasoned journalists have been among those killed or disappeared while reporting in Syria. (See "Shooting The Messenger: The War Against Journalists In Syria")
The risks we face as women in a conflict zone include sexual harassment and assault. I can think of two close friends who, a few years ago, endured a brutal sexual attack while on assignment in a hostile environment.
But I do not necessarily find that women are more at risk than our male colleagues. After all, most of those who have been killed, have been kidnapped or who have disappeared while reporting in Syria have been men, even though most of the journalists covering the country are women.
There are other aspects to conflict zone reporting that I think have so far gone unnoticed, perhaps because we focus too much on the parachuting-into-the-frontline type of coverage. I’m talking about discrete, undercover, long-term journalism in a conflict zone, a sort of cloak-and-dagger reporting.
In covering Syria, many of us rely on ordinary citizens who are “naturally embedded” within society to give us a perspective we simply cannot access otherwise.
Nothing in our training as journalists prepares us to deal with this sort of lifestyle. On the contrary. The trade craft required to do such work for extended periods of time flies in the face of everything we are taught as journalists.
All journalists do some undercover reporting, even if unconsciously. They keep their ear to the ground and their antennas up for anything of interest. The men might grow a beard and the women wear a head scarf while on assignment, just to move around more easily.
But few journalists find themselves in a position whereby -- for weeks or months on end -- they cannot reveal to anyone in their surroundings that they are journalists, or that all those around them are in fact on the record. This is one reason that so many stories out of Syria appear without a byline, using sources without their real names. There simply is no other way to report such stories.
There is something else that our training lacks: how to manage our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing while living for long periods of time in a conflict zone.
How toxic is the food chain that comes from a place of heavy bombardment? Or, as was the case recently, where chemical weapons were used? What about the water supply? The air?
Beyond “eating well and exercising,” how do we maintain our sanity with all the insanity that we report on?
Good journalists are good at listening and observing. But when you listen to a man barely holding himself together with a thread, as he narrates to you in painstaking detail the massacre he witnessed, you are witnessing it too. And if you observe closely the body language of a mother who recently lost a daughter to war, you will feel her pain too. When you watch a child go from carefree and gregarious to panicky and frightened in an instant, in response to the loud blast of a rocket attack or the buzz of a warplane above, you will feel upset too.
As journalists, we tend to hide behind our notebook or camera, but that saves us only for the moment. In my experience, the emotions come after leaving the scene, when the brain disengages from the pressures of storytelling and deadlines. Nothing in our training prepares us for it, though I suspect it is what drives many journalists to go back to the beat.
Also, in all fairness, even as a freelancer I have had access to invaluable field counseling both for personal safety and general well-being.
But the reality of our work still begs the question: Why do we do what we do?
The answer depends on whom you ask.
NPR’s former Beirut Bureau Chief and colleague Kelly McEvers captured this in a brutally honest personal radio essay titled Diary of A Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma, where she describes her search within.
A dear friend of mine who stopped reporting from conflict zones after she was attacked and raped while on assignment told me she went into the field to tell the untold stories. Today, she has no regrets, and feels her work was important.
As for me, perhaps it is personal. Syria is my birthplace and my ancestral home. And at least at this moment, I cannot imagine doing anything else.