What it Really Means to be a Journalist in a war Zone

Reporting from conflict zones is just as important as it is dangerous. Two women tell their stories.

Barbara Schiavulli
When journalists travel to cover a war-torn or violent region, like Syria (above), they are often accompanied by a ”fixer:” a person familiar with the area and capable of organizing interviews. Barbara Schiavulli feels the photographers get the worse deal. Their job requires them to be even closer to the action. // Courtesy of Barbara Schiavulli

Barbara Schiavulli was in her room on the 13th floor at the Palestine Hotel in Iraq when she heard the explosions. In October 2005, Al-Qaeda members detonated three car bombs on the grounds of a hotel known to be frequented by journalists. The attack occurred within a span of four minutes and destroyed the hotel lobby, killing 20 people and injuring 42.

“I thought that the whole hotel was going to come down,” she remembers. “But it’s part of the job.” Schiavulli has been reporting on conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regions of conflict as a freelancer since she was 23.

While some journalists love the pulse of the city desk, others want the front lines, putting themselves in danger to tell their readers about what’s happening in the distant parts of the world they will never see, but need to understand. Rania Abouzeid is one of them. With work published in The New Yorker and Time magazine, she’s not a war correspondent who jumps from conflict to conflict. She reports from Syria, where she has been since long before 2011 and the latest upheavals. She went to report on an uprising, which then turned into a war. And with that, her working environment became increasingly unpredictable and dangerous, especially since she works alone. No fixers, no translators, no photographers.

Coping with the carnage

“You’re always hyperaware, you have to assess the risk and benefit and you have to do it very quickly. Do I trust this person in front of me? Which wall do I stand behind?” wonders Abouzeid. “There’s a whole spectrum of questions that you have to be aware of at every point: social, religious, military and political aspects. I need to know who ruled this little square of territory to know whose name to drop in case I get in trouble. There’s a lot of gritty groundwork involved to really understand what’s going on, because all it takes is one second, one angry man with a gun and you’re in real trouble.” Naturally, luck also plays a role. “You can plan everything you want, then something falls out of the sky and that’s it. Your homework doesn’t matter.”

Rania Abouzeid
Rania Abouzeid spoke about the difficulties of covering non-IS activities in the region. “If it’s not the Islamic State, it’s not sexy.” // © Tobias Holub

It has also become more difficult for journalists in conflict zones to move around freely, with  the omnipresent danger of being kidnapped. And as hostilities deepen, says Abouzeid, the outsider’s view of journalists maintaining neutrality in the field has been rapidly dissolving.

And like all Westerners, they are also easy targets for muggings. “Groups see us as walking ATMs now,” Abouzeid explained. Schiavulli remembers times when she would change her clothing on the way from the hotel to the car to reduce the chances of her being easily identified, in case somebody had made a call to kidnappers from the hotel. It’s important that journalists understand their role as observers and not participants, Abouzeid stresses, and not just because of the potential dangers in the field.

“Blurring that line and becoming an activist-/journalist is dangerous in an age where people can just dismiss facts that don’t suit their political narrative. We just aid them if we present skewed information. Just presenting it is powerful enough.” There are some colleagues whose work she simply can’t read because of their bias.

But seeing people suffer takes a toll on the psyche. Hearing her talk, it is hard not to wonder how she could process all those horrific images, those impressions of tragedy.

“I think every colleague has a different approach,” says Schiavulli. What works for her is sitting down in a quiet room and writing about the things she has witnessed. In her early days she would come home and seclude herself in her apartment. She would need two days of sleep and showering to come out of it. “You talk, you hope to write a lot of articles, you tell the stories. That’s my way.”

As a human being these things are hard to look at. But there’s also a sense of purpose. Abouzeid considered herself a megaphone of sorts. If she reports something, it didn’t just happen and then get lost in the fog. It also helps to have colleagues and friends who understand the environment she operates in, with whom she can talk about it.

Social media doesn’t cut it

Both Schiavulli and Abouzeid are careful about how long they expose themselves to all this.  Often it’s only a short period of time, and in most cases, they can leave if they want to.

“Self-care is important,” says Abouzeid. And for the people who live in these environments? “I am more concerned about them,” she admits. “There’s help for journalists and aid workers, but the people who live in the field need help too.” It also depends on the individual. Many of their colleagues drink and some spiral downwards. No question – it’s a complicated job.

It also matters. For both Abouzeid and Schiavulli, the motivation is in part curiosity, as well as being entrusted with people’s stories, telling them to their readers and hoping to help people undestand what’s really happening in those regions.

“I’m happy if I can move the Italian public with my stories, help them to become invested in these events. Because you cannot understand what is happening in Europe, if you don’t understand what’s happening around us,” explains Schiavulli. Especially in Italy, where there is too little reporting on foreign politics, she says. But both find it hard to interest editors in pieces that deviate from the mainstream news cycle.

Providing verified, factual and witnessed information is key, and very difficult, says Abouzeid. “We have to be in the places we are reporting from, because social media doesn’t cut it. We need more of a continuum. More nuanced reporting.”

“In Syria for example, you can’t just pop in and say: This is about an uprising against a dictator. You have to understand what came before, what led to it, the various players involved – which is hard to do in a time when everything [in journalism] is getting shorter and people want a 140-character version of what’s happening.”

But even with all the obstacles, both live for pitching and telling these complex stories.

After all, they both love the job.

Nicolas Kristen
Born and raised in Vienna, Nicolas studied journalism and is now trying to become a good writer and journalist.

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