Exclusive: CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh on His ‘Complicated and Dangerous’ Entry into Syria

By Mark Joyella 

5p CNNi Europe Aircheck

For CNN’s senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, the most striking sight in the Syrian city of Kobani wasn’t the ruins–most of the city reduced to rubble by months of ISIS shelling–but rather, a small group of children. “Our producer Raja Razek and cameraman Scott McWhinnie filmed as they asked them where they hid from the bombs,” Paton Walsh told us. “They ran into a room and dived onto some cushions – both playful and helpless at the same time, in the face of ISIS homemade mortars crafted from gas canisters and lobbed indiscriminately into civilian areas.”

Being on the ground–and seeing those kids, their families, and the fighters defending their city–is why Paton Walsh worked for months to develop a plan to cross the border into Syria. Those plans began to come together over the last few weeks, and Kurdish fighters ultimately played a key role. “They did their utmost to ensure our safe entry and exit, for which we are truly grateful after months of assessing how we might get in,” Paton Walsh told TVNewser in his first interview since crossing safely back into Turkey yesterday. “The Kurds are themselves quite anxious about the safety of journalists. They insist on escorting you, and keeping you away from the more volatile areas. That can slow down reporting, but it’s the price of their hospitality.”

Paton Walsh’s stories from Kobani began airing on CNN Tuesday, and he will have an exclusive story on Anderson Cooper’s “AC360” tonight. Paton Walsh has been covering Syria for weeks from Turkey, where a hilltop camera position has given journalists an excellent view of Kobani. But he admits he was frustrated not to be able to get any closer. “Being able to see the devastation and suffering of ordinary people in Kobani from ground level, and then look up towards that live shot position, made both standing on that hill for weeks more endurable, and the risk worthwhile.”

McWhinnieKurdish escorts even guided the CNN crew (photographer Scott McWhinnie is pictured, left) on a highly dangerous trip to the front lines, where they only stayed for a few hours. But even riskier than the front lines was the border crossing. “That is the most complicated and dangerous part, with ISIS often grabbing territory for a matter of hours there and said to have sleeper cells or informants in many villages on the Turkish side, and we only attempted it after weeks of planning. That is the part I would give most pause over attempting again.”

Syria is considered the most dangerous country on Earth for journalists, with three murders this year–including the back-to-back executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Another 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria in the last three years, with Western reporters at high risk. Robert Mahoney, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the effect is simple: few Western reporters are willing to take the chance of losing their lives by crossing into Syria:

The result of this is a lack of reporting from a vast swath of Syria and Iraq under IS control, where only a handful of extremely brave local journalists venture to document the fighting and atrocities.

Those few foreigners still inside Syria are likely to be freelancers, many mainstream media organizations being extremely wary about sending staffers clandestinely across the Turkish border for the time being. So many journalists seem to have been betrayed by someone in the long chain of smugglers, fixers and drivers needed to get them across the frontier. Some reporters were snatched within minutes of crossing.

Paton Walsh knew Foley, and Pete Kassig, an American aid worker killed by ISIS, was a friend. The hideous way they died, and the ease with which journalists have vanished in Syria, led the veteran war correspondent to bring an unprecedented level of attention to every move he and his fellow CNN journalists made in the country. “You plan your movements with part of your heart and brain viscerally cognizant of the level of danger, and the anguish you would put your loved ones through if kidnapped by ISIS. It means your tolerance of risk is actually a lot smaller than it might be on another assignment.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 7.03.33 PMBack in August, Paton Walsh was forced to take cover when fighting broke out around him in Ukraine (right). As one observer of his career put it, he’s been “Bureau Chief for Anyplace Extremely Dangerous” for years.

Paton Walsh said Kobani looked much like any other city in a warzone. But the brutality–forcing those kids to run and hide, almost by reflex, and the way some of the some of the most inhuman acts of violence have been set aside for journalists–made this assignment like no other. “It is a lot more personal. But part of you also doesn’t want the callous beheading of two men who just wanted to do good, to mean that Syria’s bottomless tragedy no longer gets first hand witnesses.”

Paton Walsh’s reports from Kobani will air on CNN over the coming days. Here’s one of the first: