In 2009, Australian journalist Lauren Williams (@Laurenwillgo
) resigned from her position at The Daily Telegraph
and struck out for the Middle East. Her plans were vague: a bit of backpacking, a bit of freelancing, a bit of well-earned adventure.
"I was frustrated, bored and unhappy in Australia," Williams told Crikey
. "I felt like I was using a lot of energy for things that didn't really matter or make a speck of difference in the world."
A train ride from Turkey to the Syrian city of Aleppo, taken on what Williams described as "a whim", would change all that. Indeed, it would eventually change her whole life, both professionally and personally.
"I arrived during Ramadan and remember feeling like I had arrived on a different planet," she said. "Syria was at that time becoming popular with tourists, but still had an edge of danger. It was described in Lonely Planet
as the 'friendliest rogue country'. I went for a drink in the Armenian Christian quarter of the city on my first night and met an EU official who was there working on some of the industrial sector's economic reforms as part of what I later learned was a controversial and ambitious program to liberalise the socialist economy. I sensed a story, and he put me in touch with an editor in Damascus."
She went to the capital the following day and knew immediately that she needed to stay. She contacted the editor, who ran a monthly current affairs magazine, and wrote the story. "It took me a month to get my head around the concepts, but I finally got the story out," she said. When the editor moved on, Williams took over. "It was the most important work I've ever done," she said. "I was in Syria during times of desperate poverty and when it wasn't on the radar at all. But I couldn't leave. It was an incredibly interesting time in the region and I needed to learn more."
And then, with the first ominous rumblings of the political turmoil that was about to tear the country apart, Williams was kicked out. In March 2011, a week before the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in Daraa, she found herself turned back at the Lebanese-Syrian border after a weekend in Beirut. She was no longer welcome.
"I had been walking a tightrope in the months leading up to my expulsion," Williams said. "I was publishing editorials and news pieces in The Guardian
that were getting closer and closer to the red line. I knew deep down that my time would be up at some point, but I was bold and proud of the things I was challenging. But it was different when it actually happened," she said. "Being barred from a country without any real explanation is confronting. I had my things, my friends, a life and a role there. My friends were questioned and my colleagues cut me off. I felt aggrieved.
"There was also a deep sense of foreboding because the revolution had kicked off in Egypt and Tunisia and everyone was waiting to see if Damascus would shake. When the protests began in Daraa, I was angry with myself for not holding my tongue a little bit longer in order to stay. I wanted to be part of it."