Commuting to Syria

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Photograph by Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini

Tom Peter’s daily commute is free of traffic, stoplights, or talk radio. That’s because he travels from southern Turkey, where he lives, into Syria, where a brutal civil war has killed as many as 70,000 people. One morning this spring, Peter, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, is headed for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and, right now, the site of one of the most violent battles of the war. His plan is to cover the rise of extremist Islamist groups among the Syrian rebels, including one that recently declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda, and then return to the relative safety of Antakya, Turkey, a provincial town not far from the border that serves as a kind of rest station for Syria correspondents. “This is a conflict where you can just show up,” Peter tells me as we sit in the backseat of a taxi heading for the Kilis border crossing – and into the middle of a civil war.

Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, you don’t need a visa to cover this war, and there’s no U.S. military to embed with. He turns to look out the window at the peaceful olive groves rushing by. “And that’s really a problem if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Nine members of the foreign press have been killed since the war began in 2011, and more than a dozen have been kidnapped, including NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, who was held in northern Syria for five days before being freed by rebel insurgents. Several dozen foreign correspondents regularly cover the war here for major news organizations, but none live in the country. The Assad regime doesn’t let foreigners travel freely inside Syria, so there’s no New York Times or CNN news bureau in Damascus – and no rooms at any of the local hotels. Like Peter, they commute, from Turkey or Lebanon. Once inside, journalists have to rely on their own judgment and resources, and decide how far they want to push their luck in pursuit of a story. “Just because you can jump in a van with the rebels and get to Damascus the next day doesn’t mean it’s safe,” says Peter. “When you’re reporting on conflicts, you rely on the militant actors or civilians you’re with for advice. You can’t do that in a place like Syria. People’s understanding of risk and safety is radically different from anything you would be comfortable with.”

Peter, a 30-year-old Californian, was himself kidnapped last November, in Aleppo. He and some other journalists were driving back from a rebel-­controlled area on the city’s outskirts when two cars boxed them in and slammed on the brakes. Men with assault rifles piled out, hauled the driver from his seat, and commandeered the car. As his captors sped away, Peter, who spent two years reporting from Iraq, tried to stay calm and looked for a chance to escape. “I went to Iraq rules,” he tells me. “They’re going to make a video, and then they’re gonna saw off our heads with a bread knife.”

As it turned out, his abductors were rebels with the Free Syrian Army, the primary insurgent faction fighting the Assad regime. Peter and the other journalists were released soon after, but the experience made him more cautious. He wears body armor and carries a satellite tracking device that helps keep him in regular contact with his editors. Most important, he decided to limit his exposure to the country and began commuting from Turkey.

“Kidnappings are just rampant now, and you don’t even know who’s doing it,” says Daniel Seckman, a researcher who works inside Syria. “It’s what makes me really afraid,” says Andrea Bernardi, an Italian freelance journalist who covers Syria for the AFP news service. Bernardi has been commuting to Syria from southern Turkey since last August after the rebels first entered Aleppo. “You can decide you’re going to stay away from the front line – OK, bad luck is bad luck, but there’s less risk – but you’re always at risk of a kidnapping, no matter where you go.”

Peter and Bernardi are part of a generation of journalists who have covered America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Arab Spring. Bernardi, 29, has reported from Gaza, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, always on a freelancer’s meager budget. In Libya, Bernardi broke his leg in a car accident and spent eight hours bumping along in another car with an exposed femur until he reached a hospital. (Ironically, cars pose the single greatest danger to foreign correspondents, given the often poor roads and lax driving laws in these countries.) After three months in the hospital and seven months in physiotherapy, he returned to work, this time in Syria. “This is the work I want to do,” he says.

Peter, too, has struggled. His girlfriend left him for another man while he was in Afghanistan. He missed his sister’s wedding. In Ramallah, where he spent several months covering the Palestinian conflict, he at one point lived in an abandoned apartment filled with broken furniture, surviving on a budget of $2 a day. At times, he barely had enough money for food.

By dint of his long career climb, Peter has managed to obtain a relatively comfortable freelance gig with the Monitor. Yet he still shares a $500-a-month, three-bedroom apartment with two other journalists – one a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the other a Pulitzer Prize-winning conflict photographer – in a bachelor-pad setup that exemplifies the austere lifestyle of this kind of work. “It’s this crazy dichotomy,” he says. “You go from these intense war experiences to being in this really boring Turkish border town where you worry about accidentally being served chicken when you want beef.”

We arrive at Kilis, one of the bleak crossing points that hundreds of thousands have used to flee the fighting in Syria. Peter gets out of the car and starts gathering information from some refugees who have come across into Turkey, hunching his shoulders forward as he scribbles in his notebook, nodding in his calm and genial way. Syria is right over there, past a series of booths manned by indifferent-looking Turkish customs officials. One of the strange facts about this war is how accessible it is. Since the rebels captured stretches of the border with Turkey, anyone can just walk right in through Kilis. The Turks don’t care – they’ll stamp your passport on the way in and out, good luck to you.

As a result, Syria has become a hotspot for neophyte reporters. They come through Kilis all the time, armed with little more than ambition and a cheap digital camera. Fortunately, so far the violence hasn’t really been directed at Westerners. No foreign journalist in Syria, despite Peter’s fears during his kidnapping, has had his or her throat slit on Al Jazeera – yet. But Bernardi believes it’s naive to think that the risks in Syria are any less than in other conflict zones. “People are, like, ‘But there’s Taliban in Afghanistan.’ Yeah, well, in Syria there’s Al Qaeda.”

Peter says that he recognizes his younger, inexperienced self in some of the reporters who come to Syria. But unlike them, he was able to learn his craft covering the war in Iraq, where, despite the dangers, he was ensconced in the protective embrace of the U.S. military. “It was in many ways a really forgiving environment to learn about war and conflict,” he says. “Maybe I would have done the same thing if I was 22 and didn’t know any better. But there’s just insane risks here, and there’s no safety net.”

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