Dispatches from the (virtual) field
This is a personal essay I wrote a few months ago, in which I reflect on the coverage of my country’s uprising and the strange relationship between virtual interactions and reality. Reading it again, I have a lump in my throat.
As the conflict in Syria enters its third year, the incessant coverage of the violence by Western media outlets has crystallised into a bleak sectarian storyline that ignores any positive developments that might unsettle it. This sanitised fatalistic narrative, which has come to frame most coverage of Syria, has overshadowed the euphoric historical moment that marked the beginning of the Syrian uprising and has since continued to exist, in one form or another.
International newspapers and scholarly papers studiously examine the moral degeneration of Syria in sensational sound bites. We scroll through the articles flickering on our browsers only to be informed, casually but with no flippancy whatsoever, of the supra-national loyalties that are head-locking each other on a Syrian arena of moral vicissitudes. The clips which periodically emerge on YouTube, never failing to satisfy our voyeuristic impulses, seem handpicked by media outlets only to highlight Orientalist assumptions about the perturbing recesses of the average Syrian mind; the dominance of primordial instincts on the ground; the hardened clan-based and sectarian loyalties that seem to have made people forget there is a place called Syria.
Even before I started covering the war in Syria from afar, I was aware that reporters relied heavily on Skype and social media to cover the crisis. But it wasn’t until I was in the position of a reporter myself that I really came to understand how problematic that can be; how intimate relationships – through which currents of tension always run – inevitably start developing over time, infusing every interaction with a flood of emotions. The virtual meeting rooms of Skype make up an intertwined world of reporters, citizen-journalists, military council spokespeople, activists, smugglers, common criminals and fighters.
As a journalist, when you’re physically placed in a conflict zone, you share in the painful experiences of people on the ground. If there’s an airstrike, you experience it in real time. You don’t watch a clip of it after it happened, talk to a witness, write something peppered with quotes gleaned from several Skype chat rooms, before closing your laptop and moving on with your day. When you’re in Syria, there’s no disconnect. There aren’t two parallel realities loosely tied together by an Internet connection. The best way to cover the conflict is to be there. Having said that, not everyone is brave enough to embrace the considerable risks. As the conflict becomes more volatile, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups gain ground, it’s become increasingly more difficult to cross into Syria.
Trying to delve into people’s daily realities over Skype presents several problems. Reporting via Skype means you are everywhere at once. You are keeping an eye on every Syrian province and every Syrian town. You are accessible to all of the citizen-journalists on your contact list and every one of them, regardless of how tiny their spot is on the Syrian map, expects your undivided attention. And, more often than not, the story you decide to focus on is dependent on timing and chance. Being in a position to pick one story over another means that you’re the one with all the power – even though you’re not physically there. The ongoing discourse in chat rooms between established journalists, who have a platform for their words, and citizen-journalists, who struggle to be heard, is heightening the sense of disempowerment many Syrians feel. They tell us their stories and then it is up to us to discard or incorporate them into a blurb in our next story. It’s tragic in every sense of the word.
The effect this has had on Syrians became clear to me when I was made privy to a peculiar conversation between a brigade’s spokesperson and a Syrian journalist who works for a well-known news organisation. The young man is based in Deir Ezzor, and is the official spokesman for the military council there. He films and reports on the battles, then delivers his neatly prepackaged information to journalists from Western news organisations – such as myself – on the other end of a computer screen. Because I’m Syrian, he has always considered me his ally and, I believe, is under the illusion that I’m a Sunni because he feels I’m on his ‘side’. I am, in fact, a Shiite, part of the minority sect assumed to be on the side of the embattled president Bashar al-Assad.
One day we were talking about Deir Ezzor, when suddenly he broke out of his usual serious persona and said “Guess what? This Syrian Alawite girl who’s a reporter is telling me her two cousins are trapped in the military base my brigade is about to attack.” He’s the spokesman of an anti-regime brigade fighting to topple Bashar al-Assad; she’s an Alawite Syrian journalist who talks to him on a regular basis to get the details she needs to write her stories. On that day, she had found out that the military base besieged by this young man’s brigade was the same one where her cousins, who serve in the army, had been deployed in. Suddenly, the situation shifted for both of them. It was no longer the citizen-journalist-cum-fighter pleading with the big shot reporter to make his voice heard. Now, it was her hysterically begging him to convince his brigade to spare the lives of her young cousins.’ For me, what was most unsettling about the experience was that he seemed to thoroughly enjoy this sudden turn of events. For once, he felt he had the upper hand. He was so euphoric he felt the need for someone to bear witness to this sudden and cruel reversal of fates. He copy pasted their entire personal chat for me to read.
These two individuals had forged a solid friendship: she was trying to tell his story to the world, while in Syria, his brigade was about to kill her cousins. There had been a definite power shift and he seemed to be reveling in it. In the end, as a mere spokesman he probably had no say in what would happen to her young cousins, but he acted as if he did. He asked her questions like, ‘Do they have blood on their hands?’ She swore one of them was mentally challenged and had been forcibly conscripted, and that neither of them ever wanted to be in the army. His reply was to sneer and mock her, making light of the tragic situation. In that moment, when he was her only source of knowledge about her cousins, he let his resentment surface. She, who was otherwise on very good terms with him, was shocked by his lack of sympathy.
This young man’s responses betrayed a fickle and transient manifestation of empathy. In moments of weakness, he seemed to cave in and comfort his friend. His tone hardened soon though, because he was intent on victimising this person he had come to think of as a victimiser. Looking beyond his callousness, I could feel a stirring in his conscience. Sustaining enmity towards a group perceived as the cause of all ills can be draining, and I can sometimes see this fatigue settling in among fighters. For me as a Syrian, being privy to their private conversation, which I knew I wasn’t supposed to read, was a very unsettling experience. Interactions on Skype are divorced from reality but, at the same time, very much rooted in something real.
It has become easy to feel disheartened by what has befallen my country. Much of the crisis remains enigmatic, and witnessing that makes me feel like I have failed my countrymen and women. But for me, there will always be a palpable beauty in the juxtaposition of the fragmented conversations that have come to characterise the upheaval. In the midst of all the chaos, an invigorated political culture characterised by truth-telling has developed, however fragmented it may be.
Syrians, left to a miserable fate in the war-torn country, have come to feel excluded from debates about their own destiny. Fatigue has weakened their resolve. As the initial euphoria dissipates, some have grown sick of witnessing an endless cycle of fighting. The frontlines shift again and again, but nothing else seems to change. Within the confines of Skype rooms and social media accounts, they feel like they can exercise a measure of control over the grotesque images that are circulating at their expense. Journalists writing about the conflict should keep in mind that, when they close their laptops and the events of the war momentarily disappear from their lives, they continue to rage in Syria.