Snatched in Syria

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A kidnapping crisis is escalating in the country—one so bad that even conflict journalists can’t do their job. Janine di Giovanni on what can happen when no press is around to witness a war.

Janine di Giovanni

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August 15, 2013 4:45 AM EDT

Human memory is short and terribly fickle. In the immediate aftermath of a genocide, ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, or brutal civil war, there is a period when the public will say: never again will we let such tragedies pass.

Snatched in Syria

Guests speak during a service in Paris, France on July 9, 2013 for reporter Didier Francois and freelance photographer Edouard Elias, pictured in banners, who have been missing in Syria since June 6. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

Then there is a slow dying down. Then resounding silence. Guilt lasts for a few moments, then it is forgotten, and news moves on.

Plus jamais (“never again”), the battle call following the Holocaust, no longer has any resonance. Because it did happen again. After World War II, there was genocide in Bosnia. After Bosnia, there was Rwanda. After Rwanda, Somalia. Darfur. Congo. Sierra Leone. And more.

For these reasons, the war in Syria is one that must be covered. There are 1.4 million refugees and 100,000 people dead in a conflict that is limping into its third year. The U.N. just released a paper on child soldiers and mafia-like rings within refugee camps. Inside the country, there is abuse from both sides, government and rebels: war crimes, civilian slaying, children dying, lives destroyed.

Usually, journalists are the eyes and ears of such a conflict, documenting abuse, keeping tally of the dead, and watching the pitch of the war rise and fall.

But not this time. 

And the reason is simple: Syria is simply too dangerous. Not just the sniping, the shelling, and the minefields that war reporters can handle. Now there is kidnapping. Sometimes opportunistic, sometimes economical, sometimes simply random and seemingly for no reason at all.

One thing is sure. With the rise of more and more radical groups entering and working inside Syria, Western journalists (and aid workers, doctors…anyone who remotely signals money) are walking ATM machines.

The essence of reporting war is to be spontaneous. A clash breaks out, a commander grants an interview, and a mass grave is shockingly discovered. A reporter must be able to leap into a car, and to trust the driver and the translator whose life she has put in their hands.  

Now, some of those drivers, fixers, and soldiers who are supposed to be helping us are selling or turning us over to kidnappers.  

It is believed, at this writing, there are 15 journalists missing in Syria. According to a story in this week’s New York Times, that number appears on a trajectory to surpass the 25 cases in Iraq in 2007—the height of the conflict.

One French-American journalist who was recently released after three months in captivity in Syria (after paying, he claims, $450,000) said: “The rebels are so desperate, they don’t care about their reputation abroad. They see us an opportunity.” 

Once Iraq became a hot bed for kidnapping, reporters had to use every kind of trick they could manage to avoid it. This included chase cars, security men for more prosperous agencies and networks, and GPS signals on satellite phones that could pinpoint the journalist’s locations.

But all this requires money—and so it meant that the people who could not afford such luxuries either did not report, or did so leaving themselves hugely vulnerable.

What has changed so radically? Reporting the war in Bosnia meant running a zigzag pattern through city streets so you did not get sniped; Liberia meant negotiating with stoned nine-year-olds holding RPGS and wearing wedding dresses and fright wigs. All this was terrifying.

Experience in the field is not going to protect you from getting sold like a piece of meat to a jihadist group.

But Chechnya was the beginning of the end. French, American and British passport holders all were high risks to be snatched by the mercenary Chechen commanders (soldiers we paid to protect us).

Militants groups like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines were also early warning signals that journalists would soon be used as cash points. While governments like the U.K. and U.S. warned they would never negotiate with kidnappers, France Television paid a million dollars for each of their reporters to be released in 2000, setting a dangerous precedent.

The sad result was that reporters then avoided those countries like the plague. And the human toll of war got ignored.

But Syria must be reported. It is the lynchpin on which the region’s security lies. A larger, proxy war is at stake. Human-rights abuses are happening everywhere inside, and every day.

And the end result is that because editors don’t want to pay to send experienced reporters, the bulk of the press corps are brave freelancers.

I say brave because they often work for peanuts as in the case of one Italian journalist who recently wrote that she got paid $70 per piece. Even while she risked getting shot, raped, kidnapped and riddled with typhoid.

But not just young freelancers are at risk. In June, two French journalists disappeared. One of them was Didier Francois, a journalist who has reported war for decades. Experience in the field might hone your instincts as to when a firefight is going to erupt, but it is not going to protect you from getting sold like a piece of meat to a jihadist group.

But the question of how we continue reporting this war cannot be answered by me or my fellow reporters. It must be answered by with a public that insists on knowing more of what is happening inside Syria. Rather than catching up with the Kardashians or Honey Boo Boo. Because it is what matters.

Syria is dangerous, but some of us will continue to work there anyway.

The reason is that we are witnesses. Without sounding grandiose, many of us believe we have a calling to report the truth from the ground, not from a desk in a Washington think tank.

Because the blood of the 100,000 Syria dead covers our hands, as well as the international communities.  We cannot, we must not, give up—not now, just when the appetite for news from that haunted place is at its all time low— on Syria.

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3 Comments

  1. Mark

    December 12, 2013 at 4:36 am

    Was it the right decision?

    If Kerry were president, would it be the right decision?

    If Bush withdrew tomorrow, would people hate him for abandoning Iraq?

  2. nmlpc

    January 21, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Has anybody seen a recommendation from either of these losers for any presidential prospect?

    A media event?
    Handshake?

    Anything?
    Dart Swinger:.

    It seems to me that when the Democrats go searching for endorsements, they pick Oprah and Gavin Newsome.

    (Doh! Did you miss them?).
    Daniel:.

    Why is it that Nancy Pelosi has more foreign relations experience than Hillary, Obama and Edwards incorporated? And it’s all in Syria!

  3. MentallyCryppled

    January 24, 2014 at 4:58 am

    I’ve been watching the news trying to better understand the situation in Syria and all the higher ups keep saying that Syria is a “National Security Risk” which I can’t seem to understand

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