The challenges of covering Syria

Andrea Glioti sits with Abu Wael, commander of the Shield of Muslims Brigade in Ras al-Ain, while reporting in Syria, April 26, 2013. (photo by Bahzad Haj Hamo)

(di Andrea Glioti*, I started covering Syria from Damascus at the very beginning of the uprising in March 2011. I didn’t apply for a press visa, as it would have just meant further restrictions on my movements by security forces. During my five-month stay, I reported on demonstrations, circumventing the regime’s checkpoints, driven around by an aging taxi driver sympathetic to the opposition.

Despite having been arrested and taken for interrogation twice, my laptop remained “clean” of any evidence of my job thanks to ciphering programs, and I left Syria “on both feet” at the end of August 2011.

Unfortunately, this didn’t mean the intelligence branches were totally unaware of my work. In November 2011, a Brazilian colleague was detained in solitary confinement and expelled from the country. His interrogation was based on an interview we conducted with the opposition veteran Michel Kilo and an accusation of having spread rumors about Alawites seizing Sunni lands in Dummar. Actually, these were just the complaints we heard from Dummar residents.

In February 2012, I tried to go back to Damascus on another tourist visa. I was rejected after they took photos and fingerprints at the Lebanese-Syrian Masnaa border crossing. I then started writing under my real name and remained based outside Syria.

In April 2013, I decided to settle in the predominantly Syrian Kurdish northeast, since it is relatively safe compared with other parts of Syria, and the presence of the regime was weak enough to avoid further troubles. As a journalist, the only way to cross the Turkish border was to pay a Syrian smuggler and creep under the barbed wire in the Syrian province of Raqqa.

While working in the cities controlled by the regime such as Hassakeh, I had to avoid checkpoints and memorize the information listed on the Syrian ID in my pocket, even if there was no resemblance at all with the photo on it. A slightly Mediterranean look also allowed me to move around unnoticed.

In mid-July, I traveled back to Turkey. There are no open Turkish border gates in the Syrian Kurdish regions, so the best way to avoid being arrested by the Turkish military was to cross the areas controlled by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and reach the first open passage in Jarablos in the province of Aleppo. The “soundtrack” of our trip was balanced between Quranic recitation and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) hymns, depending on the militia in charge of each checkpoint. Once in Jarablos, another bribe was needed for the Turkish border police to turn a blind eye to my entrance.

The return to Syria in August was fraught with more danger. Clashes had erupted in July between jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda and Kurdish militias, blocking the way from Raqqa with kidnappings more frequent at the hands of ISIS. The mere fact of traveling with a Kurdish driver would have identified me as a suspect, hence the safest way was to cross from the Turkish southern region of Kiziltepe. I waited until dawn with a group of 20 Syrians, when the Turkish soldiers were tired enough to fail to notice the smugglers leading our way among minefields.

By October, Turkish controls on the Syrian border became increasingly tough and arrests occurred more frequently. My neighbor in Amuda, a smuggler, was shot dead at the border by the Turkish army. I decided to ask the support of the Italian Foreign Ministry, but Ankara made clear I would have been detained upon my arrival in Turkey. Other journalists who crossed illegally into Syria have been incarcerated and fined 1,000 euros ($1,347) once they returned to Turkey.

The Syrian Kurdish regions are controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) affiliated with the PKK — which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara — and this might have been among the reasons for Turkey’s reluctance to collaborate. I just wonder whether the Turkish government allowed Abu Wael — commander of the Shield of Muslims Brigade in Ras al-Ain — to easily cross the border regularly to collect ammunitions used to fight Syrian Kurds on the side of al-Qaeda, after I saw him in Sanliurfa, southern Turkey, in July. With gelled hair and fully shaved, he looked quite different from the first time I met him sporting a thick red beard.

The only option left was the Semalka border crossing shared with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However, it took several weeks to obtain the approval of the autonomous region, as its relationship with the PYD is tense. PYD leader Saleh Muslim was recently denied access to northern Iraq. At a certain point, I was even offered the possibility of crossing the border overnight to be received by an intelligence officer of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as this party enjoys better relations with the PYD. In the end, Massoud Barzani’s ruling party in the KRG gave the green light, and the PYD’s security forces escorted me to a shabby motorboat at the Iraqi border demarcated by the shores of the Tigris.

The last stop was Beirut International Airport, where I arrived from Erbil on Oct. 30. Here, my passport filled with stamps from Syria, Turkey and Iraq looked too suspicious to the Hezbollah-controlled general security. I was held for security checks and interrogation for five hours. The pretext was the trace of a Syrian visa, a sticker they thought I had removed intentionally to hide something — but there might have been plenty of other reasons such as having been banned from Syria or the lack of exit stamps from Turkey.

During these five hours, I was entertained by a Lebanese military official shouting questions and orders. “Stand up! What’s your real name?” In the end, after the umpteenth spy-like treatment, they allowed me to enter Lebanon.

In the wake of all this, I reflect on the choice I made to become a journalist and wonder whether I would have faced all these problems if I had chosen to work for the British MI6, when they came to recruit Arabic-speaking students at my university in London (, 5 novembre 2013).

Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who covered the first five months of the Syrian uprising from inside the country. His work has been published by the Associated Press, IRIN News, openDemocracy, The Daily Star (Lebanon), New Internationalist and numerous Italian and German newspapers.