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The Smartphone War

Lindsey Hilsum
APRIL 19, 2018 ISSUE

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria

by Rania Abouzeid
Norton, 378 pp., $26.95

Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War

by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple
One World, 300 pp., $28.00 (to be published May 15)

Journalism in Times of War

edited by Awad Joumaa and Khaled Ramadan
Al Jazeera Media Institute, 170 pp., available at

Becoming the Story: War Correspondents since 9/11

by Lindsay Palmer
University of Illinois Press, 202 pp., $99.00; $25.95 (paper)

Every few seconds my iPhone

lights up with new posts on a
WhatsApp group linking doctors
in the Damascus suburb of eastern
Ghouta to journalists in the
outside world. News of Russian
and Syrian government
bombardment comes more or less
in real time: “Before three hours
in Ghouta, Russian plane tracked
ambulances and hit both
Molly Crabapple
ambulances and hospitals.” “Dr
Syrian refugees hiding from Turkish border guards near
Hamza: I have treated twenty-nine Afrin, northern Syria, June 2015; illustration from
cases so far, the majority are Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple’s Brothers of the
children.” Visuals are captioned in
Arabic and English: “Photos of
shelters that local residents dug under their homes.” The journalists, who
include correspondents from The New York Times, The Washington Post,
and other international newspapers, use the group to clarify the numbers
of casualties and check locations of attacks, while broadcast media
request Skype interviews from inside the war zone.

A meticulous sifting of testimony, videos, and photographs conveyed by

social media, to be cross-checked with government propaganda, satellite
imagery, and whatever other sources are available, is a crucial part of
twenty-first-century conflict reporting. It feels very far from William
Howard Russell, usually considered the first modern war correspondent,
who famously covered the Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the
British cavalry in Crimea as “glittering in the morning sun in all the pride
and splendour of war.”

Russell saw himself as “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe,” and

those correspondents chained to computers in Beirut, Istanbul, or London
feel luckless indeed. In Libya in 2011, you could drive to the war in the
morning and return to your hotel in Benghazi at night because much of
the fighting occurred, conveniently enough, on the main coast road. In
Iraq in 2003, you could embed with invading Western troops or stay in
Baghdad as Saddam Hussein launched his doomed resistance. You were
always an eyewitness to something, while relying on the accounts of
others to fill in the bigger picture. One might look back with even more
nostalgia to a late summer day in 1939, when the young Clare
Hollingworth, in her first week as a correspondent for the Daily
Telegraph, borrowed the car of the British consul in the Polish town of
Katowice, talked her way past the guards at the German frontier post, and
happened to be driving along the right road when a gust of wind lifted
burlap curtains the Germans had strung up, revealing ten Panzer
divisions ready to roll across the border.

Syria is different. The government learned from the experience of Sri

Lanka, where in 2009 the regime banned journalists and aid workers so it
could impose a military solution to the long war with the Tamil Tigers in
the north of the country with no regard for civilian life. Syria gives visas
to a select few and monitors their movements. Recently it has tried to
make visiting journalists sign a form that includes the following
statement: “The Ministry of Information has the right to take legal action
against me if lies were published or if I have contributed to instigating or
provoking sectarian strife, and has the right to prosecute me in my
country or where I live.”

At first, reporters got smugglers to take them into rebel-held areas, but
relentless bombardment by the Syrian regime and its allies, combined
with the vindictive cruelty of ISIS, made covering the war especially
perilous. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 115 journalists killed
in Syria since 2011, the highest-profile being The Sunday Times of London
correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed by a government mortar
targeted on the rebel media center where she was staying, in the Baba
Amr district of Homs, in February 2012. The same year, the American
journalist James Foley was kidnapped by ISIS, as was Steven Sotloff in
2013; both were later murdered. Most foreign journalists then confined
themselves to sojourns on the Turkish border to interrogate refugees,
fighters, and smugglers, plus—after the demise of ISIS last year—
occasional short forays into rebel-held territory.

There are more Syrians than foreigners on the CPJ list, but their names
are less well known. This gap between the unknown local and the famous
foreign war correspondent, survivor, and hero of previous battles, both
courting peril to get the story, is a growing tension in modern war
reporting. Rania Abouzeid, a freelance Lebanese-Australian reporter who
has written for The New Yorker and other publications, hints at this at the
beginning of her excellent book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in
Wartime Syria. “This book is not another reporter’s war journal,” she
writes. “I went to Syria to see, to investigate, to listen—not to talk over
people who can speak for themselves. They are not voiceless. It is not my
story. It is theirs.” That might chasten flak jacket–clad TV reporters
(declaration of interest: I am one) who regard their own week in the war
zone as of particular note. To rub it in, she adds: “I did my own fixing,
translating, transcribing, logistics, security, research and fact-checking.”
The result is probably the most perceptive journalistic account of the war
so far, highlighting individual stories while never losing sight of the
broader situation and history.

A white Western reporter could not have written this book, but while
Abouzeid’s identity is an integral part of her journalistic method, her
skills as a reporter and writer should not be underestimated. Over seven
years of conflict, she has followed a dozen or so Syrians, assembling their
stories like Lego bricks, each slotting into the next, until the shape of the
structure becomes apparent. Her technique is to hang out with people,
quietly watching and listening, spending so much time with them that
they forget that she is there. Being a woman helps because she is not seen
as a threat. Her presence authenticates the story—she must have been
there, for example, to observe the home life of Mohammed, a fighter with
a rebel group allied with al-Qaeda, and his wife, Sara:

Her husband had returned home after prayers and headed into the
shower. “Hand me the nail clippers!” he yelled from the bathroom.

“Where are they?” Sara bellowed.

“Next to the grenades,” he said. She reached into the walnut-colored
wood-and-glass display cabinet for nail clippers and pulled out a
bottle of moisturizer she applied to her hands.

“Look at my hands!” she said. “When did my nails ever look like this?
I feel like I’m on a front too. I have to do everything here, and all by
hand—the laundry, the dishes. I used to use cucumber face masks,
take afternoon naps, comb my hair, wear makeup. My whole life has

This is war but not as we generally know it. On another occasion,

Abouzeid joins a family being smuggled across the border into Turkey,
but although we know she’s there (“seven of us squeezed into the
smuggler’s car”) she never draws attention to the danger she faces. The
drama is entirely that of the family, especially one of the daughters, Ruha,
whom she follows throughout the book as she grows from a little girl
worshiping her father, who has joined the rebellion in their hometown of
Saraqeb, to a teenager beginning to question her parents’ choices.

One of the few times that Abouzeid highlights her own presence is when
Syrian aid workers on the Turkish border ask her to translate in a
meeting with two British “diplomats.” Mohammed, the al-Qaeda-linked
rebel, is there posing as a refugee. Abouzeid can guess who the diplomats
really are as they try to trade intelligence for food and tents, but they do
not know that she is a journalist. For a moment she has become part of
the story, another person with an assumed identity, in a conflict where
deception and disguise may be the key to survival.

If Abouzeid is an outsider who can pass for an insider, Marwan Hisham

is an insider who has learned to tell his story in a way outsiders can
understand. An English teacher in Raqqa when ISIS seized control of the
city, he started to report on Twitter in English—Marwan Hisham is not his
real name, of course. It was a dangerous occupation, but for a while he
got away with it. Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War is the
product of his collaboration with the artist Molly Crabapple, whom he
met on Twitter while he was in Raqqa and she was in New York. He
would send her photographs taken with a smartphone begged from a
friend, which she would transform into paintings and drawings.

Their initial pieces were published in Vanity Fair. It was, as he puts it, an
“art crime” for which he would probably have been executed had he been
discovered by ISIS. A body hanging from a lamppost, a small child with an
enormous rifle, people running down a rubble-strewn street—such
images rendered beautiful by the pen are disturbing. Crabapple used
vibrant, sometimes lurid color in the original magazine pieces, but the
black-and-white illustrations in the book, carefully blotched and
smudged, invite more thought, not least the cover illustration of a violinist
playing an instrument that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a

Hisham, who, after attending a religious school in a village near Aleppo,

became fascinated by European soccer and literature, is the ideal
interlocutor for Western readers, but the reasons he and his friends had
for rising against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad were far from

We were an extreme minority within Raqqa. The values we held

marked us, in the eyes of our neighbors, as dangerous, un-Islamic
agents of the West.

electoral rights
respect for the ballot box,
as a basis for representation
and legitimacy

Could these words be more alien to most Syrians? Could these so-
called universal values, the values my friends and I screamed for
between our gas-choked curses at security officers, be far from
universal indeed? Perhaps they are parochial mores, speculated
about in the university campuses of European capitals. Perhaps they
are as insubstantial as ghosts.

A Western reader might see Hisham as a hero for holding on to such

beliefs, but he learns that no one stays pure in the face of war. Close
friends become not only rebels but Islamists, reaching for some way to
make sense of the degradation around them. Everyone compromises in
order to survive, including him. Working in an Internet café in Raqqa
enables him to get the news out but also benefits the ISIS fighters who use
it. When the jihadis bring in two terrified Yazidi slave women, he
understands that, in their eyes, he is just the same as all the other men: “I
felt a weight of guilt descend on me for working at the café. I will always
feel it.” When fleeing across the border into Turkey, he helps a refugee
couple to carry their heavy bags, but when they are turned back by
border guards he loses track of them before making another attempt to
cross. “War is harsh on the compassionate and the weak,” he writes. “I did
one of the many terrible things I’ve done in my life. I left them and their
bags behind.”

The war in Syria has occurred at a time when the first response of many
caught up in a crisis, be it a school shooting in the US or a demonstration
in Damascus, is to get out their phones and start filming. Back in 2011,
Hisham and his friends in northern Syria were among those who alerted
the world to the uprising in Syria by filming protests against the regime
and uploading the videos. Abouzeid writes about a young man in Rastan,
a town halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, who does the same as his
initial act of rebellion. The immediacy of such footage is gripping, but in
Syria it has at times also become foreign journalists’ sole window onto
what is happening.

The authentication of found video has become a journalistic speciality in

its own right. “There are more hours of online video footage of the Syrian
conflict than the actual time elapsed since the war began,” write
Christiaan Triebert and Hadi Al-Khatib in the chapter “Digital Sherlocks”
in Journalism in Times of War. They explain techniques such as the
reverse image search, by which you check that a piece of footage that is
said to be from, say, eastern Ghouta today is not in fact from Fallujah last

Increasingly, human rights organizations

and journalists are using the same online
tools. Amnesty International has developed
the YouTube DataViewer, which allows you
to find the exact date and time a video was
uploaded and do a reverse image search of
stills from it. Others have developed
methods of geolocation. In the London
newsroom where I work, an Arabic-
speaking journalist spends his days combing Molly Crabapple

through this material, checking authenticity Rami al-Sayed, a Syrian videographer

who was killed while covering the
and curating the results for TV and the government’s siege of Homs, February
Internet. He finds feeds from Syrian soldiers 2012; illustration by Molly Crabapple
and is in touch with dozens of activists and
rebels, developing reliable long-distance sources.

The journalists interviewed in Journalism in Times of War do not doubt

traditional methods: being an eyewitness, developing sources, listening to
as many views as possible, “trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of
propaganda,” as Colvin once put it. However, some challenge Western
assumptions of “balance.” Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist who used to
live in Aleppo, describes how she and others became disillusioned
because their reporting on the cruelty of the Assad regime provoked little
international response. Syrian “media activists,” as they style themselves,
“are not considered as actual journalists by most, if not all, international
media outlets,” she writes.

We are told this is because they are not “objective” or “neutral.” What
does “objective” mean in the Syrian context? Does being “objective”
when covering Syria mean giving voice to a war criminal and his
propaganda, and allowing the regime to justify their bombing of
civilian areas, schools and hospitals?

Most reporters for Western media who cover Syria are clear that the
Assad regime is committing appalling atrocities. However, Syrian “media
activists” tend to show only the part of the story that bolsters their cause.
Footage of bombings and suffering is not faked, as the propagandists for
the regime claim, but activists know that if they want international
sympathy—they have largely given up on international action—it’s better
to show exclusively civilians, especially children. Moreover, rebel
fighters, whether Islamist or more secular, do not like to be filmed except
on their own terms, and they have the guns. Uploaded videos show rebels
of all stripes firing weapons and winning battles, not squabbling among
themselves and losing territory. What we see may be the truth, but it is
not the whole truth, which is why many Western readers and viewers still
turn to visiting war correspondents for what they hope will be a fair
version of events.

At their best, correspondents who are parachuted in have a certain

skepticism and distance and can provide an understanding of how the
conflict compares to previous wars and fits into the geopolitics of the day.
Unfortunately, according to Lindsay Palmer’s academic study Becoming
the Story: War Correspondents since 9/11, increasingly it’s the
correspondent, not the war, that is the focus of attention. “The
mainstream, English-language news organizations tend to place their
white, western reporters most firmly within the frame, representing them
as the heros of melodrama,” she writes. American newspapers have only
recently allowed their correspondents to say “I saw” rather than “this
correspondent saw” or “an eyewitness saw,” but the personalization of TV
reporting is a feature on both sides of the Atlantic.

Palmer’s chapter on Bob Woodruff, a correspondent and anchorman for

ABC News, who was injured while embedded with US forces in Iraq in
2006, is a case in point. Palmer sees negative political forces at work—to
her, individualism is always “neoliberal,” which is not a compliment. She
sharply criticizes coverage that consigns Iraqis to bit parts in their own
drama and “overtly aligned Woodruff with the US soldiers whose actions
he had been covering in the field.” Academic language aside—journalists
tell stories, they don’t “narrativize”—she is on to something as she
examines how Western audiences and readers are encouraged to
empathize with war correspondents as heroes, victims, or martyrs.

Although the syndrome is less pronounced when it comes to print

journalists, Marie Colvin’s killing in Baba Amr received far more attention
than that of Rami al-Sayed, a Syrian videographer, who was killed in the
same place the previous day. It’s easy to understand: Colvin was an
internationally renowned correspondent, famous for the eyepatch she
wore after losing an eye to shrapnel from a government grenade in Sri
Lanka, while al-Sayed had only picked up a camera a few months earlier
and was as much an activist as a journalist. But according to Palmer, al-
Sayed’s videos were “crucial to the mainstream English-language news
coverage of the 2011–2012 conflict in Homs,” and the two deaths point up
a hierarchy familiar to all who work in war zones.

Palmer shows how non-Western journalists, many of them freelancers,

are frequently undervalued and underpaid, receiving less training and
safety equipment such as body armor. Local fixers and stringers often feel
that their expertise is mined for the glory of Western correspondents who
then jet off, leaving them to face the fury of the authorities if the report is
deemed damaging or inaccurate. Reporters who go in and out inevitably
know less than local journalists, but knowledge is not an editor’s sole
criterion. Conventional wisdom among TV executives has it that the
reporter must build up a relationship with the audience, hence stars like
Woodruff who roam from conflict to conflict, popping up all over the
world. Regular TV viewers have strong opinions on which onscreen
reporters they trust, and substituting another who might speak Arabic or
know more about the conflict at hand will not automatically convince
them. Regular newspaper readers feel similarly.

Yet this may be changing. Younger viewers appear to be less concerned

about the face, or even the voice, as they watch news on devices, often
with subtitles rather than voiceover. When it comes to conflict, the trend
is toward raw, dramatic video, shot by local activists and journalists,
showing bombs exploding and children being pulled from the rubble,
often filmed by rescuers with helmet cameras. On the whole, the online
viewer does not seem to mind that none of this is mediated by an on-the-
spot reporter—when your story is competing with video games and
Netflix, video is the draw rather than sober explication. The era of the star
war correspondent who can stand in front of a camera and talk fluently
while things go bang all around may be coming to an end.

As Western publications and channels economize by cutting back on

foreign bureaus, it’s tempting to see digital forms of reporting as a
substitute for sending in foreign correspondents. No reporter can
discount WhatsApp, YouTube, and the myriad of modern ways to keep
abreast of the story as it happens beyond our view, but “being there”
remains of the essence. Arab-American reporters told Palmer that they
operated at a huge advantage because they could emphasize whichever
part of their cultural and linguistic identity helps them get the story, from
expressing empathy (“I’m an Arab like you—I understand”) to pretending
not to understand the language in the hope that people will speak to one
another more freely, safe in the knowledge that the idiot reporter has no
clue about what is going on. They have the equivalent cultural
understanding to communicate to a Western audience.

The future of war corresponding, then, is hyphenated—Syrian- American,

Lebanese-British, Iranian-French, Nigerian-Canadian—and probably
more self-effacing. With their personal chronicle of war enhanced by
evocative illustrations, initially forged through the medium of Twitter,
Hisham and Crabapple show the potential of new methods of storytelling.
Abouzeid’s understated bravery and ability to merge into the background
speak to the power of immersive eyewitness reporting, foregrounding the
experience of the people she meets and writing with modesty.

As Hollingworth once said, “I like the smell of the breezes. But you can’t
smell the breezes on a computer.”

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