Syria is the most deadly place in the world at the moment for journalists. The possibility of kidnapping and death is high. I have written many things about my time in Syria, the politics and the suffering of the people, but until now, never about how it was personally for me to go to such a place and the preparation that went into it. Below is some of my experience and advice.
The first and most important thing is preparation, preparation, preparation. One does not simply wander into a war zone and hope to get a story and expect to come out of it alive. The weeks leading up to my departure for Syria were intense, getting contacts on the ground, organizing who would be meeting us at the border and where we would be staying for at least the first couple of nights. Fortunately I was going with a Syrian friend who had already been back to Syria a couple of months earlier but we still had a lot of work to do.
Paramount to your safety is being able to trust your Fixer. The Fixer is the person who will sort out your transport, find you places to stay, get you into locations where you want to get a story and also act as translator if need be. I can’t stress this enough, you must be able to trust your Fixer with your life. If you are going to a country where you don’t know anybody, contact journalists who have been there and get them to tell you who are reliable Fixers. Do not under any circumstances, arrive at the border and look for a Fixer there. You know nothing about the person and for all you know they could be working with kidnappers. Just don’t do it. But find a good Fixer and they will help you in so many ways to get you the story you are after and they might also save your life.
Another thing, under no circumstance when you go into a war zone as a journalist should you ever carry a weapon even if you think it would be only for self defense, if you are caught with a weapon then you will be seen as an enemy and killed. Don’t do it. End of. Let your Fixer organize your security. In Syria I was always with at least one person armed with a Kalashnikov who knew how to use it. It deters would be kidnappers if they see they will have to fight to get you.
This brings me onto something else. Before you go you should have some idea of self defense. Personally, I am not bad at Krav Maga, it is a great system for when you need to fight back from a point of weakness and if the other person is pointing a gun at you. In Syria, one of the guys I was with thought it would be funny to put his pistol to the back of my head, he did it as a joke but I had him on the ground with his gun pointing at his head before he even had time to blink. He never tried that game again. You need to know how to defend yourself if the situation calls for it.
When in a war zone you need to be constantly alert. Death can come from any direction, the random stuff you can’t do much about. Bombs, mortars etc, sometimes shit happens and there is nothing you can do about it. When going to a location, be aware of your surroundings and have an escape plan if things get hairy, although sometimes it is better to sit tight if you have cover until things quiet down a bit, this is particularly true if you are caught in the middle of a fire fight as happened to me. Never forget to keep your head down when all hell breaks loose, it is also a good position as you can kiss your butt goodbye if the time comes.
Kidnapping threats are more insidious but there are usually warning signs before it happens. Are you being followed? Where you are staying, do strange people come in and look at you but without talking to you? Do you get the sense that people are talking about you behind your back? These are all things to be aware of that there could be a plan to snatch you. Whereever you are staying it is worth trying to have an escape route, if you are staying in a house or hotel never stay higher than the 2nd floor, there might come a time when you need to jump out of a window to escape. The same goes for basements, only stay in them if there is a bombing raid, otherwise you can easily be cornered. Saying that, one time in Syria I spent the night sleeping in a bank vault, there was a bombing raid in the area and it was about the securest place to be found, saying that, it smelt a bit in the morning, 50 guys all huddled up in a small strong room with no windows. We were funky.
Don’t over rely on technology, GPS is great but learn to read a map and study the topography. Batteries run out, kit gets lost but a good old fashioned paper map is a must and contains a huge amount of detail if you get the right ones. Always have an idea of your position in relation to the border and the safest escape routes in relation to your position. Mark these on the map. Do not lose the map!
It is really essential that you look after your general health when in a war zone. There can be problems with water quality and food supply. Don’t eat or drink anything you don’t trust. Get bottled water when you can, boil water if you have to. Don’t use tap water to clean your teeth. In Syria the infrastructure has pretty much collapsed in many areas, the risk of water born diseases is high, you really don’t want to come home after getting the story to discover you have some horrible illness that is due to drinking dodgy water. On the food side, take some dried food rations with you, 3 days worth should be sufficient. You never know if you will need them and they can help you keep going if you are having to escape across country.
When I went to Syria I traveled light. One large rucksack, in it there were some extra clothes, lots of t-shirts, underwear and socks. Survival kit, medical kit, map, compass, GPS, satelitte phone, currency. I would leave the extra clothes where I was staying before going out for the day and pack everything else into a smaller backpack, my bug-out bag. You never know when you are going to have to run. You don’t want to be caught lacking the essentials for survival.
When you are prepared it helps you to feel secure that you have done all you can to prepare yourself for any situation and that then permits you to get on with capturing the story that has landed you in a war torn country. While you need to be constantly alert, I faced moments of extreme danger, you should also be prepared to meet some of the most incredible people, the warmth, the surprising acts of kindness, even the humour. This was my experience in Syria.