Syria grabbed my heart and never let go.
"I used to live in Beirut, from 2005 to 2007, and Beirut is very close to Damascus; it’s just a couple hours' drive. So, I used to go to learn Arabic, to shop around in the souks in the old city, and sit in the [Umayyad] Mosque and take in the spectacular beauty and the tranquility. I mean, Damascus is an amazing city, or it certainly was. So, I always had a love for Syria and just a real interest in it. "When the Arab Spring ultimately spread to Syria, of course I felt very passionately that I had to go back there and meet with the people I knew and see for myself what this uprising looked like on the ground. So, in 2011, they already were not really allowing journalists in, but I went and got a tourism visa, I posed as a tourist. I went on my own with a small point-and-shoot camera and I spent two days posing as a tourist. Then, I sort of slipped off into an alleyway in the old city, put a headscarf on, and went and lived with some activists for a week. [They] were organizing protests and smuggling in medical equipment to treat people who were getting shot or wounded at these protests. And it was clear to me that there was a seismic shift going on across the whole region, but Syria, in particular. For some reason, it just really grabbed me. Syria grabbed my heart and never let go.
Less than 24 hours after we arrived, the bombs started falling right where we were. They hit a fruit market; it was just horrifying.
"This specific trip, I was working on for about six months. The Turks have basically sealed off all entrances across that border into rebel-held areas, so the first thing I had to work out was how to get across that border. I can’t tell you how I did it, but it took a lot of work and a lot of planning. "The second thing I had to work out was how to not get kidnapped. And a big part of that was establishing important contacts, but another part of that was traveling undercover. So, if you look at the photographs, I’m always head-to-toe in black, often with just a headscarf, but most often with a full niqab, a full facial veil. I was only speaking Arabic unless I had to speak English, and not really speaking unless I had to speak at all. "I was traveling with another woman [CNN producer Salma Abdelaziz], so we were as low-profile as it is humanly possible to be. But as we soon discovered being on the ground, the biggest danger was not crossing the border, it wasn’t the threat of kidnapping, it was the fact that the aerial bombardment was relentless. Day in and day out, especially since the Russians had joined the intervention.
What is it like working as a woman in Syria?
"It’s so interesting, because people often assume, Oh, you're a woman working in the Middle East. Yikes! And I'm like, ‘Actually, there are a lot of advantages to being a woman.' I truly believe, as talented as my male counterparts are, I don’t think that a male Western journalist could have done this, because the whole cloak-of-invisibility thing is pretty important. So, just on the superficial level, that makes a huge difference. "I can wear a niqab and people don’t even look at me, because I’m wearing a niqab. It’s like a gesture of respect. You don’t look into the eyes of a woman who’s dressed like that, because she’s making a statement by wearing that outfit that she doesn’t encourage that kind of eye contact with men. So, that was crucial.
...I spent two days posing as a tourist. Then, I sort of slipped off into an alleyway in the old city, put a headscarf on, and went and lived with some activists for a week.
"Syria has been just, personally, the worst conflict for journalists for me. A good friend of mine, Austin Tice, disappeared in Syria in 2012. [Ed. note: Tice's whereabouts are still unknown.] That's actually that’s how Jim Foley and I became friends, trying to find Austin and working together to try to turn up some leads as to his whereabouts. I had dinner with Jim, I guess about three weeks before he was kidnapped. [Right after] Austin, Jim was kidnapped. And then, a year later, [American aid worker] Pete Kassig was kidnapped [Ed. note: Kassig was killed by ISIS in 2014]. "It just seemed like the floodgates opened and all these journalists were suddenly getting kidnapped, which is very difficult, because, on the one hand, you want to keep telling the story. On the other hand, you don’t want to become the story. And I am very cognizant as well, I feel the weight of responsibility to my employer, to my family, to my friends, not to be reckless. "...As journalists, we are compelled, occasionally, to take big risks. But don’t take a big risk if people aren’t that interested in the story or if you’re not really going to contribute to the narrative or push the story forward somehow. That’s why at this moment in time, on the back of the Russian intervention into Syria, I felt really strongly that we have a situation here where some journalist has to go in and bear witness to this bombardment or else nobody will. You’ve got to always make that risk-versus-reward assessment. But on a story like this, it was too important to ignore."
If you don’t have that stabilizing, balancing effect in your life, you could become the cliché of an adrenaline-junkie, burned-out crazy war correspondent.
"I remember in 2012 having a conversation with Christiane Amanpour. I think she’s everybody’s hero. She reached out to me after a particularly dangerous trip I had done in Syria and she said, ‘Listen, Clarissa, if you want to last in this business and have some semblance of a happy life, you really need to have normalcy in your life. So yes, parachute into Syria and tell the important stories that need to be told, but when you come back home, you need to go out to dinner with your girlfriends, you need to go and see plays, you need to dance and drink wine, have fun, and be normal.' "If you don’t have that stabilizing, balancing effect in your life, you could become the cliché of an adrenaline-junkie, burned-out crazy war correspondent. So, the way I tend to approach it is when I’m in the field and I’m in Syria and there’s an air strike or whatever, I try to channel what I imagine trauma doctors in the ER do. They power through it, they get their job done, they can’t afford to be too emotional or too anxious in those moments. "...Get what you need, do your job, get the pictures, get the sound, bear witness, take notes, be alert. Only when you go home, afterwards, I think do you have the luxury of sort of unpacking it a little bit in your head and being like, Okay, well, let’s think about that for awhile. Even if you don’t feel anything in the moment, which is often the case, it’s still important to take a little bit of time to decompress.
Do you ever feel conflicted when you have to leave Syria, knowing that the people you spend time with don’t have that luxury?
"Every time I leave Syria, I get a little bit weepy at the end. First of all, I’m just that kind of person anyway. I guess I empathize a lot with people, I can feel their pain a lot. So, I’m always bad at goodbyes, whether it’s like summer camp or Syria, which are obviously very different experiences. I always feel a tendency to kind of mourn a little bit, the sadness and the separation, but also specifically with Syria, there’s a sense of guilt on some level.
That was my primary objective in getting into this part of Syria: What is it like for the people living under the bombs?
"Listen to people’s stories, listen to what’s going on in other places, actually really take the time. So often in conversations, and this is what I’ve learned about interviewing people for 60 Minutes, there’s a tendency sometimes where you’re waiting for the person to finish their sentence so you can ask your next question. "Stop that. Throw the questions away. Listen to what the person is saying and have an organic conversation with them. You will suddenly find, if you really open your ears and your mind to what’s going on in the world, what people are saying, and to getting a sense of people’s characters, you will find that the world is an unbelievable, fascinating and exciting place...It's just about working hard and listening to other people’s stories. It’s the greatest privilege there could be." Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Refinery29 is committed to telling the human story behind the headlines of the refugee crisis. Read "Daughters of Paradise," the story of three Syrian women who were forced to flee violence and civil war and rebuild their lives in Turkey, here. Read Refinery29's full coverage of the refugee crisis, here.