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.”
Williams now found herself in Lebanon, a country with its own deeply complex political situation. But at the time it held no attraction for her whatsoever.
“I hated Lebanon because I never chose to be there and I felt useless and disconnected from important events,” she said. “That feeling only grew stronger when all the foreign journalists started parachuting in and began reporting on something they knew nothing about.”
She took a job as the Middle East/North African editor for the Beirut Daily Star and was finally issued a Syrian government visa that allowed her to re-enter the country last year.
“I spent a week in Damascus and Homs,” she said. “I was worried that I would bump in to old friends in Damascus and get them in trouble for being connected to a foreign journalist. But I didn’t have to worry at all. Everyone has left.
“It was very strange in Damascus because everything was so familiar and yet everything — my life, the world — had changed and become a darker because of what was happening there. There was constant shelling and checkpoints everywhere, juxtaposed against the stubborn denial of the city’s residents, clutching at normality.
“Homs was just incredibly sad. I will never forget speaking to these young army officers in a an abandoned family apartment that they had occupied as a military base on the front line. Their guns and walkie-talkies were lying around, and all the signs of normal lives interrupted were still in place: doilies on a coffee table, family photographs, china teacups lined up in a cabinet.
“In Homs, you feel how deeply and irreversibly divided the society has become,” she said. “It’s street by street at war with each other.”
Williams resigned from the Daily Star earlier this year — “I left because I wanted to concentrate on writing specifically about Syria,” she said — and is set to move to Istanbul sometime in the next couple months. “I expect to continue covering Syria from Turkey, which has a hugely important role in the conflict,” she said. “I couldn’t leave the Syria story alone even if I wanted to. That said, I am looking forward to getting a bit of much-needed distance.”
Nevertheless, Williams said she didn’t believe that her emotional investment in the Syrian conflict has unduly affected her coverage of the story.
“You become desensitised,” she said. “It’s only recently that I have started to feel the toll of it. I cry easily at videos of the refugees or the shelling campaigns. I return to old pictures of the early days of the revolution. I think everyone who has been working on the Syria file for this long is exhausted. This is a really terrible conflict, and there’s no end in sight. My response has been to switch off completely, to become occupied with mundane and commercial things, which is usually followed by periods of guilt about not doing or caring enough.
“Twitter is invaluable for reporting on Syria, where access is limited because of both government restrictions and the danger of Islamist radicals in the rebel-held territory. Remote reporting via social media, provided by those on the ground, provides essential updates on developments.
“When I do remember to offer my own insights and analysis to on events in Syria on Twitter, I’m surprised at how well they are received,” she said. “I do get a kick out of being retweeted by someone who’s opinion I respect. I should really find the time to do it more often.”
- Sam Dagher (@samdagher): a Wall Street Journal correspondent who consistently reports from inside Syria and has amazing access;
- Aron Lund (@aron_ld): a journalist and Syria analyst who runs rings around everyone else in terms of his knowledge and understanding of the crisis;
- Rania Abouzeid (@Raniaab): the best journalist covering Syria, no question. Compassionate and thorough reporting;
- The Syrian Observer (@observesyria): a website that translates Syria’s press and provides a sound selection of independent profiles and commentary; and
- @wikibaghdady: a fascinating insight into the thinking of jihadis. While the user’s real name isn’t known, he is thought to be a senior leader in the ISIS, possibly a disenchanted member of the group’s executive council.
On the overlooked aspects of Syria’s civil war…
I think the economic foundations for the conflict have been under-reported. I don’t believe the uprising was as spontaneous as many people made out. I also think there is a misperception about the regime as a monolithic dictatorship with Assad at the top. The regime’s strength lies in its decentralisation and there is a lot more to the internal politics of the regime and its support networks that is difficult to report on because it’s so closed.
I think there was too much focus on the northern military developments early on that allowed a realisation of the fear-mongering sectarian narrative that the regime was pushing. But that’s by the wayside now. The Islamist threat has become real, the war has become sectarian in nature, and we need to report on and address the realities. We can’t pretend this remains a popular uprising even if the media had a role in originally overstating the sectarian dynamics early on.
On pining for Syria and reporting on Lebanon …
Lebanon and Syria are completely different. I am one of those who have tended to pine over Damascus and complain about “superficial” Beirut. But I am also wary about romanticising what I call the “bad old good old days” in Syria. It was more communal, less rushed and aggressive, that’s true, but it’s important not to forget that life there was under a brutal and oppressive dictatorship with a terrible security apparatus and a cumbersome, failing socialist economy.
After three years covering the region from Beirut, I am only now just getting the chance to report on what’s happening here. It’s been good to engage a bit more in the place that has, in reality, been my home for three years. That said, Lebanese politics is ridiculously complicated. I don’t think anyone can say they understand it all with any real authority. Apart from anything else, it’s always shifting. I think you need three years here at least to feel competent reporting on it.
On working for the Beirut Daily Star …
I was lucky to take over the region desk at a very exciting and important time: at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Heading a desk like that for big news events like the murder of Moammar Gadhafi, the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN, and both Egyptian revolutions, was a rush. The Daily Star is a small paper with limited resources and I think we managed to punch above our weight in terms of original coverage from the region. We broke some big Syria stories and got plenty of scoops. It was rewarding. That said, my role there involved juggling reporting and editing duties. I was filing a lot on Syria and pulling together four or five pages, with two staff. It was a lot of work.
On reading about home from abroad …
I pay very little attention to Australian politics, and when I do tune in it seems laughably mundane. But after nearly six years here, mundane has its appeal. Reading about the bigoted exploitation of the immigration issue for domestic political gain in Australia has been frustrating and doesn’t make me feel very proud of my home country. I’ve also had very little interest from Australian publications on stories from this part of the world, which is a real shame. It seems like there’s very little interest or appetite for good foreign news, which is sad.
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