As part of our ongoing effort to talk to journalists covering the Syria crisis, we reached out to Jenan Moussa, a correspondent with Al Aan TV. Just back from conflict-torn Mali, the Dubai-based Moussa has made seven trips to Syria and covered most major events in the Middle East over the past two years. Here, she discusses “overwhelming” Syria and covering the war for an Arab outlet. “When I have to go to Syria, the excitement disappears, there’s this grip of fear,” she says. “No matter how prepared you are, you cannot be prepared enough.”
Jenan Moussa: I’ve been in seven times, eight times times so far. I’m in Amsterdam; just today I went out and bought a warm coat for the next trip into Syria. I thought I’d buy one here because the last time I was there I was freezing. I also have a warm sleeping bag and a flashlight now, getting ready.
Whenever I start feeling like I’m going back in, there’s a huge burden on my shoulders. And I think, ‘Why don’t I stop?’ I don’t know. We have to be there. We have to tell the story.
ND: You work for an Arabic television channel. Some of the Western outlets are worried about safety and won’t let their correspondents back in. What’s been the difference in coverage and experience in working for an Arab company?
JM: Western media right now is totally interested in covering the Islamist groups. But with Arabic media, there’s less emphasis on the radical elements. The coverage will be more focused on the humanitarian crisis, on the people, and less on the military and Islamist fronts. And in the Western media it’s the opposite.
In Western media, safety procedures are much stricter. For Arabic media, we go in, we don’t even have security advisers. Every team from a Western organization has safety advisers and I don’t know what. But [as Arab journalists] we speak the language and we know the people, and we don’t have the danger of being kidnapped as much. It’s safer for us.
ND: What have been the standout moments of your time in Syria? In one of your packages, you’re taking refuge while the building and ground shake around you.
JM: I had the most dramatic and touching moment in Aleppo; I saw a young girl lying dead on front line. We were zooming in with our cameras and I could see how disintegrated her body was. But it was a sniper alley, so no one could go pick her body up. She was between 12 and 14 years of age. And her body was just disintegrating.
In order to get through to that vantage spot, we had to get to the front lines, through holes in houses and shops. You’d see the plates and cutlery of the families that used to live there, their photos on the walls. But this is a front line now. And it was amazing to see how quickly these people had to leave without even packing.
Once, we were 50 kilometers from Hama City, in a village called Jarjanaz. We were in that town and suddenly a huge regime offensive started with planes and artillery.
It was 7:30 in the morning, so everyone was still asleep when the first bombs started. Everyone rushed to this basement, children and moms and old men, everyone went to this place.
We were sitting and they kept shelling and the women kept on praying and the children closed their eyes. At that moment I wasn’t a journalist, I was a person who was trying to survive and hoping a bomb didn’t land on us.
At one point there was one so close by, the whole building was trembling, sand coming in, everyone screaming. My god, what a sight. Sometimes I can’t talk about it, it’s so vivid in my head.
The next day everyone left, because there was a rumor that Assad planes would hit again. We couldn’t move because the roads out were too dangerous. In order to get there to begin with, we had to pass the highway that goes from Damascus to Aleppo. It was a huge mistake that we went that deep – and suddenly, we were trapped there.
ND: What’s a major story in Syria that’s going uncovered?
JM: I tried to find cases of women who were raped, and I did not find anybody. This is an important topic to be highlighted and to get out, but when a woman is raped, she will try to hide it and she will never speak about it in the open.
We should advise these women that it’s not their fault and try to help them, because it’s terrible what they’re going through. The next trip I will try again. There should be more people trying. Among refugees, I also tried. They don’t want to talk about it, or it doesn’t exist and it’s overrated. This is such an important topic to discuss. We’re emotional people, and you know how difficult it is to separate rumors from facts.
ND: What’s the major difference between covering Syria and covering Mali or Libya?
JM: It’s the fear that’s inside me in Syria. In Mali, people are so poor. They don’t have anything. And somehow you’re more at ease. In Syria, I’m always calculating – we have to go here for a couple of days, we have to stay here for a couple of days. Timing is very important. You always feel if you’re too long or too short, you’ll get killed. Fear is bigger than excitement in Syria.
Even in Shakespearean comedies, you always have relief. But Syria is always sad, it’s always tragic. There’s so much confusion in the Syrian conflict. One day I watch the news and I think the Free Syrian Army is winning. Another time I might watch the news and feel the regime is winning. And the people are just there. They keep on dying.