Fishbowl Five: Arwa Damon on the Syrian Civil War

Last night, CNN’s Arwa Damon received an award from Oxfam honoring her reporting on the Syrian Civil War. The network’s senior international correspondent has spent a decade reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous and fascinating places -including Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, and now Syria. Earlier in the week, FishbowlDC was able to get Damon to answer some questions for us about her work.

Q: In your reporting on Syria, you’ve been involved with some truly devastating situations. How do you keep from being overwhelmed by all the terrible things that are happening around you?

A: It is overwhelming and at times suffocating.  Seeing others’ pain – watching as they cope with the tirade of emotions that comes with the unbearable loss of a loved one – can leave you feeling utterly helpless.  The only thing we can do is try to the best of our abilities, knowing that we can never fully succeed, to portray that to our audience in hopes of raising awareness and generating change.  The hardest part about Syria is that the sense among myself and many of my colleagues is that we must have somehow failed, that we’re just screaming into a dark vortex.

I can’t even begin to recall how many times I have been asked a variation of the question: “What’s the point of talking to you? The world is mocking us, listening to us, watching the videos you shoot and what’s on YouTube and yet, still mocking us. How can no one care?” And I can’t answer it.  I can’t explain how the world can watch and do nothing.

And for me, it’s the guilt that is hardest to deal with because it causes me to question my own capability as a reporter and wonder if we should have pushed boundaries even further. Was there a way to better tell the story? Did we communicate the desperation as best we could? Did we highlight the sheer magnitude of the disaster that would have had the impact to generate help for the people?

Q: Does it make it difficult to be objective about what’s happening, when you are a witness to the pain caused by war? Or does objectivity be come less relevant?

A: Bearing witness to the pain breeds compassion, which I think is necessary when it comes to reporting on human suffering and emotion.  I do not believe that allowing a level of compassion into reporting comes at the expense of objectivity or responsible reporting.

Q: Would you recommend your line of work to other journos/aspiring journos?

A: Yes and no.  It can be extremely fulfilling, but more often it’s utterly crushing. War zone reporting has an aura of glamour about it, but there is nothing glamorous about death, killing or just about anything that one confronts in the field.  You don’t know how you are going to react to a situation until you are in it, and by then its too late because the impact – whether physical, mental or emotional – is unavoidable. You will invariably sacrifice a part of yourself that you can’t get back.

Q: Al-Monitor recently profiled 16 female journalists who were reporting from the middle east, and asked them about what role, if any, gender played in their work. here are some of their responses:

“As far as I¹m concerned, I am a journalist. Period. My gender doesn¹t come into it. Judge my work, not my work based on my gender.” –Rania Abouzeid

“I believe that female journalists have an advantage over their male colleagues. Particularly in conservative societies, we can cross the ‘gender divide’ with ease.” -Deborah Amos

“On a personal level, having worked in both Iraq and Syria, one of the main challenges I face is not so much a problem of being assigned to a story by my company, but from people on the ground, be they tribesmen, leaders, officials, etc. This in particular has been an issue in some parts of the Middle East where men still have an issue with dealing with women in general, let alone one who is a journalist.” -Hala Jaber

What is your opinion?

A: I agree with both Deborah and Rania, but my view is a combination of theirs. I actually find it to be an advantage.  I

have been able to cross the gender divide, fitting into this sort of gray space when it comes to dealing with men in conservative societies, people – male or female – tend to open up more to women, but at the same time when you are on the front lines or in dangerous situations, it doesn’t matter what gender you are. I don’t identify as a “female” journalist; I am simply a journalist.

Q: Many people in America and across the world assume the situation in Syria is hopeless. Is it?

A: It can seem that way, utterly hopeless. But just because the violence, tragedy and complexities are overwhelming – and tend to defy logic – that doesn’t mean we, as journalists, stop reporting. Future generations can be saved. The war in Syria is multi-faceted, vicious, brutal and increasingly less about Syrians themselves, and more about an existential battle between Sunni and Shia, regional powerhouse Iran vs the Gulf, and Russia and the U.S.  Syria is a piece in a greater power struggle, and Syrians themselves are, by and large, fully aware of this.  It’s what makes it all the more bitter for them – this realization that they are just pawns in a bigger game, either getting killed or driven from their homes and everything they know and love.

There are no winners or losers at this stage except for the Syrian people, and it’s hard to see a way out that isn’t a protracted battle that could spread beyond Syria’s borders.

But that doesn’t give people carte blanche to tune out and turn away.  Aside from the sheer scale of the humanitarian disaster, what is and should be our global responsibility, people need to be aware of what is happening in Syria and how nauseating it is.