Arwa Damon in Syria

Arwa Damon in Syria: 'Finding the human stories behind the numbers'

Credit: CNN
The dangers for journalists working in areas experiencing conflict were catapulted into the spotlight this year, with the death of Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Syria.

The terrible event prompted much discussion in the UK, both about the risks faced by foreign correspondents in their pursuit to tell stories that would otherwise go unheard, and specifically about the work of women journalists on the frontline.

And for those with experience of reporting from inside Syria, the discussions about safety, the possibility of return, and ongoing coverage of events in the country continue today.

Earlier this year Times defence correspondent Tom Coghlan warned that many of the events occurring in Syria are "disappearing into a black hole and will continue to do so in so many places".

And in March Al Jazeera broadcast a documentary filmed by a journalist entirely on an iPhone, again highlighting the safety concerns for journalists.

Arwa Damon, CNN's Beirut correspondent, was in Syria for three days in February, joined on their last day by Marie Colvin.

Damon said: "A lot of us who've been covering Syria have been talking about that and I think we've all collectively come the agreement it's one of the most frustrating, difficult and challenging stories to cover, because of the sheer volume of challenges you face just in trying to get to the story, to get even an understanding of what's happening inside because the Syrian government has been so restrictive."

Last week Damon was back in London for Colvin's memorial service and took the time to speak to us about her experience, and the impact losing a colleague like Colvin has on her perspective on journalism.

What made it so particularly intense and more intense and terrifying than any other frontline experience I've been in ... was there is no safe space to be able to fall back toArwa Damon
"It was by far the most intense experience I've ever been in, not because of the sheer intensity of the shelling that would happen on a daily basis - you could set your watch to it, it did not let up for a single moment - what made it so particularly intense and more intense and terrifying than any other frontline experience I've been in, and I've been to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, was there is no safe space to be able to fall back to.

"Every single other frontline I've ever been on you can always fall back from the front. There was no safe space for us. That just reinforces the fact there was, is and still remains no safe space for the civilians stuck in the middle of all of this to be able to fall back to."

It was Damon who originally pitched the idea of going into Syria in November but it was February before the team made the journey. Damon says it took her and her team five days to get into Baba Amr in Homs. They then spent three days there before leaving.

"It was a very lengthy conversation that began months before we went in. We were trying to go through potential risks every single step of the way. Everyone was hyper-aware of the risks involved, beyond the reality you could get killed, but what if you do get captured, what sort of evacuation plan could there be?"

For Damon is was vital to get inside Syria to be able to do justice to the stories within the country. The broadcaster had been watching some of the events inside the country unfolding on social media platforms such as YouTube, but it could only get them so far with the story, she said.

"I'd been talking to activists based there on a daily basis and watching footage they upload. You end up having this breed of journalists, this need to go in and bear witness first hand, to be able to do justice to what is happening.

"As much as you try to understand what's happening from the outside, and you watch the videos and you talk to people and you can hear the desperation and fear in their own voices, it doesn't compare to what it is to actually, albeit briefly, try to experience what it is and meet them face to face, see the families, listen to their stories first hand. It adds such an added dimension to the reporting that we try to do.

"A lot of what we were watching was coming from YouTube. The other part of wanting to go in as well is, we say this over and over on air, we cannot independently verify the authenticity of this video, so you want to go in and see for yourself just how bad it is, how much of what we're seeing on video is actually reflective of the reality that is happening on the ground.

"It's very much communicating through Twitter, through Facebook, through Skype or watching these videos on YouTube, but again that doesn't compare to the first-hand experience."

Arwa Damon in Syria
Arwa Damon in Syria: 'One of the most frustrating, difficult and challenging stories to cover'

In Homs the team had trouble broadcasting with the technology they had taken with them in their backpacks. They ended up using the activists' satellite up-link, she said, who also used a live camera to broadcast footage from the top of the building.

"The building was hit while we were there and they switched off that live camera," she added.

"They do have pretty advanced technological capabilities that we ended up tapping into to send our reports back because our gear wasn't working."

But she said even in these "so-called safe houses" there was a continual sense of danger.

The risk is around you at all times, you're very hyper sensitive to it even in the so-called safe housesArwa Damon
"The risk is around you at all times, you're very hyper-sensitive to it even in the so-called safe houses. These activists we were with were also aware at any point at time Syrian government forces could potentially come through.

"When it comes to Syria the unknown factor is significantly greater than it has been for me in other war zones I have been in. And that's the big challenge - the unknown."

On the CNN team's third day they were joined in Baba Amr by Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy.

"That night we began getting word Syrian forces were building up around Baba Amr and then the activists we were with asked us all to evacuate because they believed a ground invasion was imminent the following morning.

"We left along with Paul and Marie and around half the activists from the media house. The half that stayed behind were effectively on something of a suicide mission. They stayed behind to continue broadcasting, sending out half their team with half their technical capabilities.

"We were watching them say goodbye to each other ... firmly believing they were never going to see each other again.

"We all ended up leaving and going back to a 'safe village' at which point our CNN team then pulled back all the way to Beirut."

But Colvin and Conroy stayed behind, she said.

Marie was saying that she was going to stay, she wanted to see how the situation in Baba Amr played out and if she got the opportunity to go back she wanted toArwa Damon
"Marie was saying that she was going to stay, she wanted to see how the situation in Baba Amr played out and if she got the opportunity to go back she wanted to go back because she didn't feel she'd been there long enough to do the stories of the people she'd met justice."

Sadly, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed after a building they were in was shelled. Colvin's photographer Paul Conroy was injured.

I asked Damon how hearing this news impacted on her not just as a fellow journalist, but as a fellow foreign correspondent reporting from the same dangerous regions as someone like Colvin.

"It's a reality we all are incredibly aware of. Everyone in this field has lost someone they know, who they've been close to."

She added: "You look at someone like Marie, the body of work and what she's accomplished through that body of work and been able to, as the cliché goes, bring voice to the voiceless.

"Without people like her we would not know so much of what is happening, so much of human suffering would just happen in a dark hole. So you do still have the need and desire and passion to want to go back and do same kind of reporting to create same impact and generating awareness and cross-border compassion and understanding.

"Of course it does make you pause and question your humanity and it breaks your heart.

When the world loses someone like Marie, like Remi, so many of the others not just killed in Syria but various conflicts across the world it's absolutely heartbreakingArwa Damon
"When the world loses someone like Marie, like Remi, so many of the others not just killed in Syria but various conflicts across the world, it's absolutely heartbreaking.

"It's heartbreaking that we live in a world that necessitates the kind of job we do, where so many people in various countries die and where journalists die as well."

But she added that Colvin helped to set the bar for others to attain to reach in journalism.

"Marie's calibre of journalism is the calibre that someone like myself who is around two decades younger than she was, strives for.

"I strive for someone like Marie's approval in my work as do many of her peers, her colleagues, which is another reason why what she did was so important and why she was such a phenomenal human being.

"She and people like her raise the bar of journalism to the level it has to stay at for us to continue to be able to do what we do best as journalists and generate the kind of awareness and change we should be doing in our profession."

A number of media organisations have now been granted visas to enter Syria, she said, but not CNN at the time of writing. For Damon, if she had the opportunity she would return to Syria, and adds that her employer is "still trying to cover it as best we can".

"Even when you're able to get in on an official government visa, which I have been able to do three times in the past, you are accompanied by a government minder, you're constantly trying to navigate your way past them, past the reality that they want you to see to get to other facets of the story.

"When you go out as a journalist you're trying to cover all angles, all aspects, all of the nuances of what's happening and in Syria, you have so many intricate nuances and we're not able to adequately reach or communicate all of them because of the sheer number of challenges."

Damon's focus when covering stories such as Syria is to find the human stories behind the numbers.

"I think that continues to be my main focus and one that CNN focuses on as well, trying not to lose the human element of it amid all the numbers coming out.

"It's what can make somebody sitting in a country completely unrelated to Syria in their semi-comfortable home relate to something happening on a television screen in a nation that can be hundreds of thousands of kilometres away and make them sit up and say, 'oh wait, I should be paying attention this, this is something that's important'. This is critical and this is why we as humanity need to care about one another and what's happening in other countries."

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