Syria destroyed my faith in what journalism can accomplish

I thought exposing the suffering of ordinary people in Syria’s civil war would compel the world to act. It didn’t.

By: /
October 21, 2020
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A Syrian man prays at a cemetary in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town, 100 days following a suspected toxic gas attack. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

In April 2017, I arrived in Khan Sheikhun, a Syrian town that two days earlier had been subjected to the second deadliest chemical weapons attack of the war. United Nations investigators later concluded the attack was carried out by the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. More than 80 people suffocated to death due to their exposure to sarin, a nerve agent.

I was a correspondent for the Guardian at the time. I met a man called Abdulhamid al-Yousef, whose photograph hugging his two infant children before their burial had gone viral on social media. They had both died along with their mother when she sought shelter in the basement of their house near ground zero, after the toxic gas made its way into the building. Al-Yousef was barely aware of his surroundings.

As I sat next to him, a visitor told him a story about those who lose their children and endure the loss with patience. Their children would be resurrected as winged angels who fly their parents to Paradise. 

“I became convinced that there would be no justice for the victims of the conflicts I covered except in the afterlife.”

I left the Middle East a year and a half later to move to Canada. I became convinced that there would be no justice for the victims of the conflicts I covered except in the afterlife.

I was once more hopeful about what journalism might accomplish. In fact, I remember the exact moment I decided to become a journalist. A New York Times correspondent visited our college campus in the United Arab Emirates and gave a talk about war reporting. I was studying engineering and mass communications and dabbled in sports writing for soccer fan sites. In my formative years, I had watched the injustices of the second intifada and the invasion of Iraq unfold on Arabic news channels. I had little faith that the system that allowed these crimes to be committed could be changed except through force of arms.

But the journalist who spoke at my college told us a story about covering the 2006 war in Lebanon. He had attended a mass funeral and burial for victims of Israel’s aerial bombing campaign and stayed behind to talk to some of the attendees, including a man who had just buried his wife and daughter. I thought that by telling such stories I might ease the suffering of the afflicted by helping them find closure. I thought, too, that by exposing injustice I might bring about change for the better in ordinary people’s lives.

I covered the Syrian war for years, first from Lebanon and then Turkey. I worked for a local paper in Beirut covering the refugee crisis and violent spillover from the conflict across the border, before reporting on it directly for the Guardian, along with other wars in Yemen and Iraq. 

Every week in Syria was filled with war crime upon war crime. Hospitals and first responders were routinely and systematically bombed by the Syrian government and its Russian allies. Regime forces starved civilians to death and repeatedly used chemical weapons, including in dozens of chlorine attacks. They dropped barrels filled with TNT and shrapnel on bakeries and markets. Fanatics belonging to the so-called Islamic State executed civilians and journalists and carried out mass atrocities. They destroyed priceless cultural heritage that was the sole thing remaining that united Syrians of all backgrounds.

During the siege of Aleppo in 2016, I went to bed every night after spending the entire day on the phone and messaging apps talking to doctors, nurses and local journalists who were not sure they’d survive the night. 

The entire global media’s eyes were fixed on this conflict. Citizen journalists and rescue workers documented every war crime. Every unlawful hospital raid was broadcast over the Internet. Syria was the most intimately reported conflict in history. Nobody could say they did not know.

It didn’t make a difference. I always understood intellectually that the purpose of journalism was to report the unvarnished truth, that change occurs as a result of a confluence of historical forces and circumstance, but that journalism could be a force for good in society, pushing us to make the world a better place. But this task of bearing witness while knowing that time and again the perpetrators would evade justice began to feel more and more like gawking at a car crash. 

It seemed to me that the root of all the region’s traumas and pain was an absence of justice. It was the most obvious thing to me that no place could ever find peace if its people could not be assured their loved ones did not perish in vain, and their tormentors would not forever walk free.

I still want to believe in the truth-telling purpose of journalism. I want to believe that people will take action against injustice if they are informed of it. But I could not do it anymore. When the heart breaks it is remolded in its survival, hardened against further shocks. My heart softened a little in Canada with the distance. The first thing that struck me when I arrived was how normal the previous decade had been here. I continue to admire my former colleagues from a distance, their strength as they labour through the noise for the morsel of truth. I hope it is enough.