As part of our series of interviews with journalists covering the Syria crisis, we reached out to CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward, whose extensive reporting from the war has been honored with both the DuPont and Peabody Awards. Here, she discusses the story behind the ‘Evening News’ piece that took her to the suburbs of Damascus in November of 2011. “It’s a very, very, very complex environment for a journalist,” she said.
News Deeply: When I came out of Syria, everyone wanted to know what it was like to report there – how do we get in? How do we do our job once we’re there?
Clarissa Ward: This was the first time I’d been in since the uprising began. I managed to obtain a tourism visa on my British passport because I’m a dual national. I got it in an Arab country. And so I had this tourism visa. My colleague who was supposed to come in with me didn’t get it, so I was going alone.
I was very concerned about lots of reported instances of journalists on tourism visas going in and getting caught for various reasons; but not hurt or tortured and being expelled. What [the police] were doing was looking through their material and looking for their activist contacts.
So I decided to bring the smallest camera humanly possible, a little point and shoot tourist digital camera that shoots in high-definition. I had cut a hole in a layer of my underwear and put the memory cards in there. Thank goodness it never came close to that. I took precaution when I was with activists; I never filmed anyone’s face.
I arrived in Damascus, alone, and checked into my hotel. I was aware of the fact that I would be followed to start out with and spent the first two days doing tourist things with the hopes that anyone who might be following me would stop.
I quickly realized I wasn’t being followed, so I contacted an activist contact through Skype. I told the hotel I was going to Aleppo for a few days and left a bag there so I wouldn’t look suspicious. I put on my head scard. If I’m wearing a head scarf, it’s not clear that I’m a foreigner. No one even looked twice at me once I had the hijab on.
I spent a week living with this activist and he would dispatch me with different activists he knew. We would go to protests; I went to the funeral in Douma [that features in the ’60 Minutes’ piece.]
It was an amazing insight into this secret world of theirs. They operated like a cell – they never told each other their real names and never told each other where they lived. They would meet each other in an agreed place.
It was a bit surreal. I was quite close to where I had been where I was staying in the hotel. I was living a dual life, the first few days as a tourist and after that with them.
ND: What was the biggest challenge, as a reporter?
CW: I knew I was going to contact this activist once I was inside, and I knew the easiest way was with Skype – but I knew I had to use a VPN [a Virtual Private Network, a secure line used by many Syrian activists.]
I didn’t want to take a computer with me, because I didn’t have any computer that didn’t have tons of stuff that says I’m a journalist. So I took my iPad, and I downloaded a VPN onto my iPad. It was ridiculous, I was sitting in this hotel hiding by the door and trying to get onto a VPN.
I would leave a piece of paper on a book or something similar so I could tell if someone had been in my room when I was gone, looking through my stuff. They never did.
I knew on that trip that I had a tourism visa, so the biggest danger was going to be to the activists who were associated with me. I knew the danger wasn’t physically to me. There might be some weird psychological stuff, like having to listen to other prisoners screaming, but I knew they weren’t going to kill me or anything.
ND: Are you in touch with your sources?
CW: The activist who I stayed with was arrested in March, and I haven’t heard anything from him since. There was a big prisoner swap a month ago and we were optimistic that he would be one of them, but he was not. Half of the activists have now left the country and a quarter are underground.
ND: That seems, to be, to be the biggest shift over the last year.
CW: Yeah, well there are very few who are really able to work on the ground. It’s become an armed conflict now, so their role has changed.
ND: Any plans to return?
CW: Maybe for little trips, or for trips near the border. I don’t rule anything out. Austin Tice is a friend of mine, James Foley is a friend of mine. [Both men are American freelance journalists who have been missing in Syria for a period of months.] It’s a very, very very complex environment for a journalist to operate in and you need all the support you can get when you’re working there.
It’s really dangerous. I’ve been to most war zones in recent memory and this one is the most dangerous, by far. By far. The risk-reward ratio becomes less in our favor.