Journalists wishing to cover the events in war-torn Syria have two options: To ask for a visa and get there legally, covering the regime’s side of the story; Or to be smuggled into the country to cover the other side of the story.
I chose the second option.
I spoke to journalists who had taken the plunge before I left Lebanon to travel to northern Syria, and I found it very useful. What follow is some tips that I think other journalists considering going to the crisis-hit country could find helpful.
Before I start just a quick note. There is no such thing as being embedded with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the country’s main armed opposition force, for the very simple reason that the FSA, up until this moment in time, isn’t a structured body where organized factions coordinate their work, let alone your security as a reporter.
When you arrive you will figure out that different factions will be taking care of escorting you from one point to another where your security will become the concern of somebody else. You will be reminded all the time, that the guys with you will do all they can to protect you, but you are there at your own risk.
Most of the towns and cities in Rif Idlib and Aleppo, where we have been, are under the control of the FSA whose factions control the ground, but the airspace as well as the highways linking those towns and cities remain controlled by the Syrian regime. Hence the main risk that your team could face is being bombed or coming across a regime checkpoint if you lose your way.
Preparing for the trip
Even journalists with extensive experience on war coverage say they consider Syria a very tough assignment. Spontaneity and improvising just don’t work there and every detail needs to be prepared for.
Deciding who you want to go with could later prove to be the most important detail about your trip. It is advisable that the size of the team remain small (smugglers prefer smaller groups, it is better if everyone can fit in one vehicle to avoid convoys; this means carrying less gear for easier movement.)
Trust is KEY.
In addition to having someone to cover your technical support, (camera/edit/feed) it is advisable if the team could include a well-connected Syrian journalist who has worked on the ground and who has good knowledge and contacts with the different factions of the FSA.
It would be great if you know him/her personally and if you don’t, do some research, ask for references and check the work he/she has done. Besides helping identify stories, this person will be mostly in charge of logistics (smugglers on both sides of the border, transportation, fixers, and a place to sleep in).
If you can afford it, spend a day in the city close to the border you’re getting in from. In Hatay, there is a hotel for journalists and it is very useful to talk to some of them before you get in, especially on your first trip.
You have to be well equipped but remain light.
We used the Sony Z1U HDV camcorder and it was very good. I also advise that very small portable cameras be carried; I had a flip and it was brilliant but it would have been better if it hadn’t broken half way. Next time I will take two. DON’T use tapes. The card that can be stuck to the Z1 camera will allow you to transfer all your footage in minutes and you won’t have to capture any footage. We used Final Cut Pro on Mac for editing, and it was very practical.
If you are working for TV, you need to have at least two sat phones, one for you and the other for your cameraman/technical operator. A line should always be available to coordinate with you HQ. According to activists, Thuraya can be detected by the regime but not InmarSat. The coverage for both is excellent in all locations at all times.
We were going live and sending reports using the BGAN satellite terminal, it was very good technically. One needs to be careful though in regard to the security situation. Never go live from the same location twice and try to avoid locations that have landmarks or any identifiable features and for sure ones that have civilian presence next to them. When you go live, if you decide to do it, make sure you don’t mention where you are and also stress on people you interview to be very careful about this.
This could be crucial for your own security as well as the security of others around you, the Syrian air force is still bombing extensively and you don’t want to be putting people’s lives at risk.
It didn’t happen with us, but I think a good strategy to decide would be to ask yourself what damage would there be if the location gets bombed after you leave it, if the answer is no risk of people getting killed then go ahead.
Feeding a three minutes report via BGAN took us about 30 minutes from beginning to very end and checking with HQ that all is well.
Make sure your BGAN has internet access; if it is locked by your company you have to have it unlocked and learn how to operate it at the cheaper rate.
This is not a place you want to suddenly realize that you have forgotten a cable or ran out of batteries. Take a double of all your cables and as much as you can of the small batteries (remember you want to stay as light as possible).
Electricity is a big problem, but the solution for it will have to be solved on location. (The main problem for us was charging our batteries, for phones, laptops, BGAN; We ended up hiring a power generator and whenever we were anywhere with electricity access we would recharge batteries, but it took us a couple of days to get used to this.) Personal gear is secondary but also important.
If you don’t have a light big back pack, now is the time to invest in one.
Take a lot of light clothing. It is a conservative society so it is better if you avoid any revealing clothing. I opted for linen long sleeves shirts. I took a head cover with me, although I didn’t have to use it, but it’s better to be equipped.
You probably will not feel it is ok to use your own bed sheets, as most of the time you will be sleeping on the floor, without bedding, but it is ok to take a pillow case and a couple of towels.
Showering can be tricky sometimes, but be equipped, because when you get the opportunity, you want to be ready.
As important, as who you’re with is where you want to go. You won’t have too much room to improvise so you might as well have a good plan. Read the map, check the security route, and decide which towns and cities you want to go to. It could also be very helpful if you have a list of stories you want to work on, this will also help you decide where you want to go.
There are different points for entry whether from Lebanon (Qusseir) or Turkey. We chose the second and went from Hatay; A small town not too far from Bab al-Hawa - the now official entry point under the control of the FSA. We had to walk for about half an hour before we got to the Syrian side, and this is mostly when you will be thankful you’re not carrying too much stuff.
In any town you reach, journalists are usually invited to stay at a local’s house and could use the resources of the town’s media center.
If you have been covering the Syrian situation for a while, then you will realize this is a completely different ball game. You are now in direct access to the story, you will hear a lot, but now you will be able to see for yourself. You will be stunned by how grateful people are you’ve come to hear what they have to say. You can ask all the questions, and they will answer. It’s a revolution on this side of the story, and people could tend to exaggerate sometimes, and to romanticize sometimes and to try to “confiscate” your presence to their town or city, but they will have plenty of stories to share, and plenty of people to introduce to you. Ask all the questions. Check, double check, triple check.
At some point you will be completely isolated with no possibility to double cross your info. Remember, no BlackBerries, no roaming, a lot of time no internet at all; be prepared to rely on the little that you have.
There is a hunger for first hand reported stories on Syria.
And the people there have been waiting for a long time for someone to tell their story…despite the fact that more journalists are now entering; it is still a very under-reported story.
Each person you meet will want to take you to their city. Be firm, and stick to your plan, at the risk of sounding a bit rude sometimes.
Most guys we worked with have now good experience with international journalists; they know how to pitch stories and how to take you to people who would be good elements in it. If you don’t feel convinced, tell them and be confident they are not minders. That one positive aspect about not being really embedded…you will be advised on security, but you’re free to do whatever you want and talk to whomever you want.
This point should maybe be much higher up and it is of major importance. You will keep complaining about the security gear, until the minute you need it. There are times you will be convinced there is no way you could even walk without having a flag jacket and a helmet. This is too serious and shouldn’t be compromised. Carrying the security gear was a hassle walking through the border but it was totally worth it. Make sure everyone on your team is covered.
It never harms to have extra cash, even though you will be eating, sleeping and using the internet for free when most people around you volunteer to help you.
No matter what happens, just keep rolling and put it all in images.
There is an amazing story going on in Syria. Amid the deadly violence, there are stories of people who are striving to overcome it all, and you have the chance to witness it and put it on the record and to give those people a voice.
(Alia Ibrahim, Senior Correspondent for Al Arabiya TV in Beirut, was in Northern Syria last August, she can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)