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Why This Woman Went Undercover In Syria

Photo: Courtesy CNN.
Clarissa Ward travels on the so-called "Death Road"– the last road rebels control going into Aleppo, Syria – in February 2016.
Clarissa Ward knows that Syria is dangerous: she's seen friends and colleagues, Syrians and foreigners, kidnapped and killed while trying to report on what is really happening inside the country.

"I think for Americans, we’ve only seen these scenes sort of post-9/11 or the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. For Syrians, really sadly, they’re seeing these scenes day in and day out," Ward said of the aftermath of bombings that she has witnessed while reporting.

In the five years since pro-democracy protests against the authoritarian government of Bashar al-Assad turned into all-out civil war in the Middle Eastern country, some 4.8 million people have been forced to flee, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. These refugees are able to share their stories with the world, but what about the people who are still living inside Syria?

The violence has cost at least 250,000 lives, the U.N. estimates, although the actual figure could be much higher. Part of the reason why it's hard to say just how many Syrians have died is the fact that few journalists are able to work inside the country and get information out.

Syria was the second-deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2015, according to Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index. Last year alone, 10 journalists were killed. Others are still being held as hostages.

But for Ward, Syria has always been a place close to her heart and a story she feels she must bear witness to. Ward, 36, has traveled to Syria 14 times in the past five years, even as conditions have become increasingly dangerous. She made her last trip in February along with CNN producer Salma Abdelaziz and Syria-based filmmaker Bilal Abdul Kareem, filming undercover for six days in rebel-held areas.

Ward sat down with Refinery29 in New York.

Syria grabbed my heart and never let go.

Clarissa Ward, cnn senior international correspondent
What made you decide to go to Syria in the first place? What about this story compelled you?
"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.
"So, fast-forward five years later. I went back to Syria many times and did lots of different stories, mostly for CBS News and for 60 Minutes. We were living with rebels in the northern part of the country, interviewing Islamists, and doing lots of work that was very gratifyingly awarded. But then, I guess after my friend [journalist] Jim Foley was really became a no-go zone for Western journalists, these rebel-held pockets of Syria.

"And that is unfortunate, because the vast majority of people living there are good people who are suffering enormously. So, their side of the war just wasn’t getting told at all. They were the ones who were under relentless bombardment from the Assad regime, which I had seen some of in 2012 and 2013. Then, in 2014 and 2015, journalists just weren't going anymore.

"So, I never gave up on it, I just kind of spent years obsessing about trying to find contacts who would be able to help me when the timing was right, to go in and keep telling the story."
How did you make this latest trip? How long were you in the country for and how did you cross into Syria?
"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.
"It was very frustrating to me outside of Syria, before I was able to go, to be looking on Skype and looking on YouTube and seeing these grainy images where you can’t quite work out what’s going on, or what happened in the moments before. You know it’s terrible, you know from even the Russian Ministry of Defense’s own records that they are dropping thousands of bombs a month, but you have no idea what it looks like, what it feels like, what the people are going through. That was my primary objective in getting into this part of Syria: What is it like for the people living under the bombs?

"Less than 24 hours after we arrived, the bombs started falling right where we were. They hit a fruit market; it was just horrifying. The scenes of carnage are just — you never get used to seeing something like that. We were at the hospital and there was a little boy who was brought in and his head was all bandaged and he was moaning. Then, the doctors told us 20 minutes later that he was dead. So, it felt like such an important story that we wanted to do it, even though the risks were not insignificant."

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.
"But beyond that, I think there are several things. First of all, you get to participate and engage with 50% of the population that your male counterparts just do not. I get to sit with women in the kitchen — and women know everything. You want to get the lowdown on what’s going on in that village? Sit in the kitchen for a few hours. They are going to make you eat a lot of food, that’s a given, but that’s okay, because you’re in Syria and the food’s delicious. And then, they’re going to tell you everything that’s going on.

"Because they are a fountain of information and knowledge and beyond that, they are — not to resort to stereotypes — but they are a little more willing to engage with you emotionally. I’ll give you an example: When I was in Aleppo a few years ago, there was heavy shelling going on. And as a Western woman, I can sit with the men or the women, which is another bonus. So, when I was sitting with the men and the bombardment started, I noticed that the men obviously got nervous, but no one articulated it. They just started smoking a lot of cigarettes and arguing with each other, because everyone was tense.

"Whereas when I went and sat with the women, one woman was rocking back and forth, holding a pillow, one woman was crying hysterically, and one woman was praying. I just thought: This actually gives you a better sense of what people are really feeling when they hear the sounds of bombs. The men may sit there, argue, and smoke cigarettes, because they don’t want to start crying or rocking back and forth in the fetal position, but that is how they feel inside, as well. It’s just that the women are maybe a little more open about expressing it.
How big of a risk is it for journalists in Syria?
"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."
How do you practice self-care?
"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.
"So, some of my personal self-care tips? I’m really into baths. I know that sounds weird, but I’m really into baths. I’m really into poetry...Anything, basically, that kind of centers you again. Because there is no doubt about it, your equilibrium gets a little bit off-kilter when you do a trip like this. And you do need to come back at a certain point and just calm down...I’m so lucky, I have an amazing family, I have an amazing fiancé, I have amazing friends.

"...At the same time, there’s also a brotherhood of people who do the work that I do, and many of them, my colleagues here at CNN, you really have to also share a lot with them. Because at the end of the day, I understand when I come home to my fiancé that as much as he loves me, I hope he will never understand part of my life, because I never would like for him to see any of those things or experience any of those things."

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.
"But I would say the guilt is really tempered by the sort of pressing nature of wanting to get back and tell the stories that I've heard on the ground. But what has made it harder is how many people in Syria that I have been close many Syrians I know who have been killed. Every time I have gone to Syria and spent time with people afterwards, it’s like, 'Oh, do you remember Ayman, or do you remember Abu Karim, he was killed like two weeks ago.' I get these sort of emails or messages all the time from people.

"On a certain level you do feel — it’s not even that it’s guilt. What you feel very profoundly is the injustice that because of the random fact that I was born here, I get to go back to my lovely family and friends, binge-watch Netflix, have baths, and go out to dinner. And that person gets to stay here and live in abject horror. As a journalist, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Syria or wherever you are, if that doesn’t resonate with you somewhere, then you probably shouldn’t be doing this job, because you are missing a kind of compassion valve somewhere in you."
What is your advice for young women?
"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.