Back in 2007, before Syria had become the world’s largest source country of refugees, Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell went undercover in a neighborhood of Damascus known as “Little Baghdad,” home to 300,000 Iraqis who had fled the chaos that followed the American invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein. Her desire to tell the human story of the Iraq War led her to meet Ahlam, an Iraqi woman in exile who became her guide, fixer, translator and friend.
In A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War – the winner of this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction – Campbell tells the story of her journey to get to the bottom of Ahlam’s arrest by the Syrian secret police. Unsure of who to trust, and without the backing of any major news organization, Campbell is drawn deeper into the world of shadowy Syrian politics – the likes of which would eventually plunge the country into civil war.
While in Toronto ahead of the Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony on Nov. 2, Campbell spoke with OpenCanada about her desperate search for Ahlam, the often overlooked origins of the Syrian conflict, the challenges for refugees who end up in the West, and why, when reporting abroad, she prefers to fly under the radar.
It could be said that behind every good foreign correspondent is a good fixer. Tell us a bit about Ahlam and how you came to be working together.
One of the things I generally do when I land in a new place is try and find the connectors. In order to spend time inside the Iraqi community [in Damascus], I needed somebody who could open doors for me, connect me, somebody that the community really trusted. When people are running from strangers who want to kill them, they don’t necessarily want to answer questions from strangers.
I had read a piece written by a Syrian journalist about the Iraqis in Syria – there were about a million and a half of them that had recently arrived. So I went to talk to him, and it didn’t take me very long to understand why he had written such a good piece; it was because he had such a great source. He introduced me to that source, and that was Ahlam. She was a fixer for a lot of the international foreign correspondents, BBC, Al Jazeera, Reuters, you name it. She had been a fixer in Baghdad as well, before coming to Syria. She was a refugee [herself], that’s why she knew so well the narrative of why people were fleeing.
We hit it off really early on. She became my introducer, my translator. Especially for this one area of Damascus that had the highest concentration of Iraqis in the world outside of Iraq – they had moved there largely because the rents were really low – I found that whenever she introduced me to someone, those people would be willing to tell me everything about why they had left, because they trusted her. This had to do with the fact that she was a real hub of the community; she was running a one-woman NGO out of her apartment, and she was starting a school for teenage Iraqi girls. She had particular compassion for displaced girls because she’d been the first girl in her village to go to high school, and the first male or female to graduate university. She felt like the next generation was slipping into darkness, and she wanted to do something about it. And I was really impressed by her.
The work Ahlam was doing unfortunately caught the attention of the wrong people – when did things start to go south?
I learned early on that she was being watched. She’d been followed, she had seen a man outside of her apartment taking her photograph when she came and went. She wasn’t the only Iraqi that was being photographed or followed; often it was the case that Iraqi militias and kidnappers would come across the border and photograph targets so that, in the eventuality that they might return to Iraq, they could be identified, and kidnapped or murdered. What was shocking was when she realized that she was being followed by the Syrian secret police. It was Syrian intelligence that revealed that to her when they started calling her in for questioning, something they did on a fairly regular basis. They knew that she was working with foreign journalists, unofficially, and they wanted her to start acting for them as a spy. She adamantly refused their overtures – this went on for a long time.
When I was back in Syria in late spring of 2008, that’s when things really started to go bad. The morning that she was taken I had gone over there, as I usually did in the mornings. I felt something strange as I was walking to her apartment, that sense of being watched. But I was the only Westerner living in that neighbourhood. It wasn’t that unusual to feel observed, so I ignored it.
About 15 minutes after I arrived at her apartment, a knock came at the door. A man came in and it was obvious to me immediately that he was secret police. We stood there for a few moments and he said to Ahlam in Arabic, “Get rid of her.” She told me to leave, and that she would just be gone for a few hours to answer more questions, which is something that had happened before. But this time she wasn’t released, she didn’t come back, and at that point I was left to look for her.
Over the next few months you made the decision to stay in Syria to try and track down Ahlam. How challenging was that, as a freelance journalist?
A lot of people don’t realize, when you’re a journalist working abroad, that you don’t necessarily have CNN or 60 Minutes rushing in with a whole passel of money and a network of contacts to help you – that essentially, if something bad happens, you’re on your own.
People that I had seen as friends and colleagues suddenly distanced themselves. It was as if whatever had happened to Ahlam was this contagious disease that I had caught and could infect them with.
The Syrian journalist who introduced me to Ahlam the year before told me that she was arrested because of me, and that it was assumed that I was a spy. And he told me, “If you try to leave the country you’ll be captured at the border and they’ll think you’re fleeing.” So I had to stay, but I couldn’t move around openly without feeling observed and risking putting Ahlam in worse danger. If she was connected with me as I was working undercover, she could be seen as working illegally. Now, she was working for a lot of different media, so I wasn’t the only one that was working with her, but I had happened to be there that morning, so that put me in a situation of being implicated. As it turned out, the fact that I went undercover had been the wisest move.
What was behind your decision to not identify yourself openly as a journalist while on assignment?
It’s a decision based on experience. I had previously worked in places where the journalists who were working officially would only be allowed to work on very short term visas – a week or 10 days – and, if they could get longer visas, were restricted in where they could go, who they could talk to, and were often observed. I didn’t want my phone and computer watched and I didn’t want to be spied on while talking to sources, because I knew that I would leave and they would stay behind. Anything I quoted, they would be held responsible for. Even if I didn’t use their names there might be identifying details, or, if they were watched, it would be clear who had said what. So I knew that in order to have freedom of movement, and also to stay for a long period of time – which is the kind of work that I think gives context and knowledge to my reporting, that very few reporters have the luxury of getting – the only way was to go undercover and not identify as a journalist.
Ahlam was released after five months in prison, held on the basis of groundless charges, such as involvement in human smuggling and funding the purchase of weapons by Iraqi militias. What did her arrest tell you about the political climate in Syria at the time?
I think that her arrest reflected the Syrian state’s paranoia about a possible U.S.-led regime change in Syria. The great fear of the Syrian authorities was to become the next Iraq. To some extent that’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy, because they reacted so violently to any rebellion that they incited the revolutionary impulses they feared.
Ahlam’s experiences allowed me to do a deeper analysis of the forces at work. It’s so often talked about as a war between Sunni and Shia, and that is really not the case in Syria. Of course it has aspects of that, especially given the way the Iraq War ignited Sunni-Shia identity politics, and the regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But when 60-plus percent of the rank-and-file Syrian army are Syrian Sunni Arabs, fighting an almost entirely Sunni opposition – Syrian and foreign – you have to look at the deeper issues at play. If the war was truly sectarian, Syria’s Sunnis would have abandoned the army and the government would fall.
The civil war in Syria stems from a rural-urban divide, the city versus the countryside. One of the consequences of the Iraqi refugee exodus, when the majority of Iraqi refugees were fleeing into Syria, was the fact that the simultaneous displacement of Syrian rural farmers due to a historic drought was largely ignored. At the time, Syria was also trying to transform itself into a Western-style, neoliberal country, so it was cutting aid to rural regions just when that assistance was most needed. But it wasn’t cutting its security and intelligence services, which were famously abusive.
These conservative, poor farmers and their families, about a million of them, almost all of whom happened to be Sunni, were moving from their traditional farmland to the slums of Syria’s large cities, particularly Damascus and Aleppo. But the low-wage jobs and cheap housing that they normally would have taken were already occupied by Iraqi refugees, so they were desperate, not to mention shocked by the decadent lifestyles of urban Syrians. Urbanites, including Sunnis, tend to be more educated, better off and less religious. They don’t have a lot in common with rural Sunnis. In fact, one of the reasons Syria’s Sunni Arabs haven’t abandoned the government is fear of the radical Sunni Islamists who dominate the opposition.
If you look at where the early protests broke out, they were in areas where there were many migrant farmers, and in drought-stricken areas. Then, of course, foreign powers jumped on board, arming and funding the opposition. This turned what had been a local conflict into the regional and even global war we see today. These kinds of civil wars are the hardest to end, since any of the many players involved can be a spoiler.
Ahlam ended up being resettled in Chicago with her two children. What might others learn from her experiences, both in the Middle East and the United States?
When refugees arrive in a new place they’re initially given some support, often for less than a year, and it’s assumed that by then they will be fluent in English, employed and able to support themselves. What’s often not considered is whether they have post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of what they’ve been through. The community and connections that local North Americans rely on to find work and to sustain themselves emotionally [that refugees had in their home countries] are also lost.
Ahlam is doing fairly well, but if she didn’t have a very strong group of American friends who watch out for her and help her, both on a friendship level and sometimes financially, she could very much have fallen through the cracks. Her children are doing really well – her daughter just started university, she had six scholarship offers, and her son is in college and working two jobs. That’s usually the case with child refugees; they adapt so quickly, they are fluent in the language in a matter of months, or a year or two, and they tend to be very resilient. It’s the parents who have a harder time. Also, when you stop running, a lot of things can catch up with you.
What do you hope to achieve by sharing Ahlam’s story in this book?
I feel a lot of despair about the state of journalism right now. If you look at newspapers, they are as thin as pamphlets. There’s so little in-depth reporting, there’s much more commentary and opinion than there are facts. There’s so much noise and distraction that it can feel like your work is going into the abyss. And there are fewer and fewer places to publish – I mean, fewer that pay.
By telling the human story in this book, and structuring it like a detective novel rather than conventional journalism, I wanted to give a bigger picture, a narrative that illuminated this intractable conflict, so that people could put the news into context. I think that context and history are deeply lacking in our daily news reporting right now. There’s a lot of criticism of journalists, and my response to that is, what journalists? There are hardly any journalists being assigned to do in-depth reporting anymore. Most of the reporting on Syria now is coming from unverifiable video, there are no reporters on the ground, and if they manage to get in, they get such a narrow view that they can’t give context to the greater conflict. So we’re in a desperate situation in the news world today.
In a world where funding for in-depth journalism is becoming increasingly rarer, what is your advice for younger journalists hoping to tell these kinds of stories?
I have never had large institutional backing for my reporting, and I have always gone where I wanted to go, and lived extremely cheaply. This allowed me to spend a long time gaining knowledge and context in order to write complex stories. If you are living very cheaply, then selling one or two stories a month can be enough to sustain yourself. I know a lot of journalists that became established this way.
I would advise a young journalist to go to a place that is discussed in the news but weakly understood, and become an expert. Don’t go in and write your first story within the week; go in, spend some time learning the language, spend some time figuring out what’s missing from the reporting, and be there on the ground when suddenly there’s a need for news. You’re one of the small handful of people who will be there when it’s necessary, and because you have spent time gaining contacts, sources and context, you will be able to write the kind of pieces that are essential at that moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.