Sunil Patel on going to Syria as an untrained journalist – interview

Last year, Vice magazine published a story from Sunil Patel who went to Syria ‘to learn how to be a journalist’. The article caused a fair amount of controversy, with some calling Vice irresponsible for publishing the piece, and Sunil reckless for going into Syria without any training or protection. I spoke to Sunil about the piece and his views on training, insurance and protection for journalists. 

How did you end up in Syria as an untrained journalist? 

I was in Kurdistan with a couple of NGOs. I had contemplated it [going to Syria] a couple of times because I had seen an American journalist who actually went to Syria through the Guvecci border, which I thought was quite dangerous and quite crazy. Which makes me sound like a bit of a hypocrite now. I was in an Internet cafe [in Erbil] where I met ‘Carlos’. I heard him talking about Syria to his father on Skype and I pulled him up for a conversation and he was like: “Yeah, I’ve been to Syria. I’ve been to Latakia.” And I just thought he was absolutely mental. I thought he was actually a proper trained journalist but it turns out he was another civilian journalist. I told him: “I want to be a journalist as well but I’m not sure if I’m willing to go that far ’cause that sounds quite dangerous.” And he said “Well listen, I’m going to back to Syria sometime soon, probably in the next week or so. Do you want to come with me?” And just like that, I said [to myself]: “F**k it. I’ll give him my number.” I went back to London and within a day he calls me up and says: “I’m going to Syria in about three days… Meet me in Hatay.” Literally, within 24 hours of me booking the flight, I got on the flight and took a ten-hour [car] ride to where he was. It was a bit of a s**t situation for me because I had to tell my family. They weren’t really too happy.

Had you never considered more traditional routes into journalism?

No. It’s an idea that had festered in my mind since I was 18 or 19 but at that point, I thought: “I’m just going to go to university and study, get a Law degree. When I was 16, I wanted to become a police officer but I never really believed that I could do that. I did it halfway and became a Community Support Officer and I achieved quite a lot doing that… And I thought: “You know what, you always kind of thought about becoming a journalist. Why is it not possible for you to do that?” By that time, I was 24 and I didn’t feel like I had the time to actually go through traditional routes; do a degree, work for local newspapers. The other side to it was that it’s so competitive.

As you can see from my Vice piece, everybody’s paying attention to that because it was so different to what the other journalists were doing… When I went to Syria, it was two years into the war, and you’d find the stories about Syria in the back pages [of newspapers]. People weren’t paying any attention to it and all of a sudden my piece came out and people were like: “Wow, okay. This is slightly different. This crazy guy’s just gone inside to get his account of the war and what’s actually going on.” And in a sense, a lot of people just criticised me for being selfish and a bit reckless. But the good thing that came out of that was that I got people’s attention. People started focusing on the war again.

That’s the reason why I decided not to choose traditional routes. Sometimes you’ve got to be reckless and crazy because that’s the only way you’re going to stand out… I thought: “You know what, if you want to be recognised you’ve got to take those risks.” Unfortunately that comes with the risk of your life and your limbs as well.

At that time, journalists of all nationalities were being targeted in Syria. Did that factor into your decision to go into Syria?

That did fester in my mind, but I think there was something in the back of my mind telling me: “You know what, you will be fine.” At that point, I felt as though there was something going on inside my head telling me: “It’s not real. It’s far away. It’s not actually happening. War is just something that you see on the news.” And that fear wasn’t there because I’ve never experienced war before so I didn’t know what to be afraid of. I had a very positive mind-set at that point. I thought: “We’re going to come out fine. I know it. We’re going to be okay.” You need to have that level of optimism and confidence that you’ll be able to go there, do your job and come back out alive. At the same time, I guess it must have been my desire to become a journalist – my motivation was so great at the point, and it still is – that I just put those ideas of death and all those fears in the back of my mind. They did come alive when I was in Aleppo… when we were in the abandoned shopping mall when the shelling started… I was at my lowest point at that time. The next morning, I just woke up and said: “We’re here, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to find something out of it.” I guess that’s the same attitude he [Carlos] adopted as well and together we were fine.

Apart from the Vice piece, did any of your stories from Syria get published?

No. The problem was lack of Internet connection so I couldn’t send a lot of stories. The story I sent [to The Independent] was the one when I was in the shopping mall that got bombed. That was the only story because when we went to the [FSA] headquarters, they only had a little media centre, apparently for Arab journalists. Only they could use it and all foreign journalists had to have their own safe house and use that if they wanted to publish any stories. So the three guys that were in charge of the media centre, they said: “Alright, fine. We’ll let you use it [the computer] for half an hour.” I tried to put up a quick story, as much as I could… Two days after I used the computer to publish the story, I was allowed to use the computer again. They [The Independent] sent me the response and they said: “We’re not going to take your story because somebody has already published a similar story.” The response I got when I came back from Turkey was from The Guardian… I called them before I went inside Syria [to ask if they would take any stories] and they sent me a late response saying: “You shouldn’t go, it’s too dangerous. Don’t do it, you’re not insured,” and blah, blah. There were things happening… but I didn’t get a chance to go on another computer and of course it was quite hectic. On the last day, the headquarters was being evacuated because it was being targeted by the Syrian government at that point. I couldn’t really think about putting up a story at that point. I had to actually think about an exit strategy.

And you didn’t actually write the Vice piece yourself?

No, I didn’t. It was ghost-written by my friend. I had the choice of writing it. I kind of wish that I did write it… I did have my own piece but I think Vice wanted to do it themselves. So I let them do it. I did put up my own personal blog which was a bit more in-depth than the Vice piece actually. It talked of more than just my escapades and all the crazy adventures and me almost getting killed. It was a bit deeper than that. When I came back, my friend Oz Katerji called me up and I met him in Shoreditch and he said: “We’re going to record your piece.” He took it from there, he sent if off to Vice and they published it.

So you went to Syria, nearly died, and didn’t get a by-line out of it?

Yeah, that’s right… I even tried to contact The Independent again but I knew they wouldn’t want to publish that that kind of story. They certainly don’t want to publish any piece from a guy who almost got himself killed because, to them, I think it would be a reckless piece of journalism to actually put that in their newspaper or on their website and to show this to the rest of the world. But that’s not the reason I went there. I didn’t go there to have crazy adventures and almost get killed by a jet. I wanted to get real stories but unfortunately I didn’t get that… Most of these stories that these journalists were getting, they were getting them from third party sources and I just thought: “What on earth is point of all this and how am I supposed to compete with this? I am here seeing everything for myself and I can’t get my stuff published.” It was really difficult.

What did you think of the mixed reaction to the Vice piece?

I just thought of the entire hypocrisy of the whole thing because they said it was reckless and dangerous. I don’t see how what I did was any more reckless from what other journalists do when they go out… When we were in the back of a taxi when the jet targeted us, there were three journalists behind us who had helmets, who had flak jackets. They had the protection. They had insurance. But that certainly wasn’t going to protect them if our taxi didn’t swerve to the left and that missile went straight through our window. It would have done absolutely nothing. If you’re in a war zone, I don’t think there’s enough you can do to actually protect yourself. You’re in a war zone; you’re very likely to get killed. It’s reckless in itself being there. So that’s what really pissed me off. If I was putting anyone else in danger, so were other journalists because they were being chauffeured around by rebel guides. Were they putting the rebel guide in danger? They certainly were. If something happened to those journalists, the rebels would try and help, wouldn’t they? And they would put their lives in danger by doing that.

What if you had been kidnapped?

That is a different thing. But I guess I never really thought about that at that point because I felt really safe. The risk of kidnapping, I don’t think, is the same as the risk of death. More journalists are being killed than they are being kidnapped. We were in safe hands most of the time. We stayed in safe territories. I don’t think kidnapping came into our minds at all. We just played it smart. We went with people we felt that we could really trust. There was more risk of us dying than there was of kidnap.

Do you still want to be a journalist?

Yeah, I would still like to be a journalist. I’m not saying I would like to become a war correspondent. That’s different. I can still be a journalist but a war correspondent? I don’t know…. If I were to do this again, first of all, I would learn the language. That would be really f**king helpful. And I would go in with more contacts. We had a few contacts before we went inside Syria but we gained more contacts by chance.

I’m guessing you wouldn’t recommend reporting from a war zone as a way to start out in journalism?

Don’t just think: “Oh, this guy’s done it and I can do it as well.” You’ve got to learn from what I did wrong. People admire the fact that I went in but you’ve got to think about the fact that I almost died. If I did what I did again, it’s one in a million chance that I’d come out alive. I was so lucky. And I keep saying that to people… You’ve also go to ask yourself: “Are you brave enough?” You’ve got to put yourself in the that position; imagine you’re surrounded by snipers and two minutes down the line a war plane is going to fly passed you and drop bombs that could possibly harm you. Are you going to be brave enough to withstand that? Are you going to stand there or are you going to drop all your shit and go crazy? If you don’t think you’re brave enough to do it, don’t do it. If you do think you’ve got the balls to do it and you can stick it out, go for it. But that’s what I think you need. If you want to go into war correspondence you’ve just got to have plenty of balls.

What about Hostile Environment Training?

Yeah, of course, any training would be good. But I don’t think training has anything to do with confidence and belief in yourself. You can have as much training as you want but if you don’t have that confidence, if you don’t think that you’ll be able to live with what’s going on down there – that you’re going to be in constant fear of your life – that’s just going to cripple you. I don’t think you’ll be able to do your work properly. So training is obviously important but at the same time, you’ve got to look at yourself and say: “Am I cut out to do this?” The most horrific thing for me was seeing the pile of dead bodies outside the hospital, and that could really traumatise some people… You’ve got to think about if you see that kind of situation, how will it affect you? Will you come out of this okay or will it scar you afterwards? That’s happened to a lot of people. A lot of civilian journalists have gone inside and they’ve just turned around and said: “I can’t do this anymore.” Training? Yeah, go for it but if you’ve got the courage, that’s the most important part.

This post originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks


Richard Pendry on war reporting: ‘You know when you’re being shot at’ – interview

I spoke to Richard Pendry, who has reported from conflicts in Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria as a freelance journalist and was a member of Frontline Television News in the 90s, to take a look at the world of war reporting in recognition of Remembrance Day.

After graduating from a degree in Russian, you worked as a freelancer in Russia during the 90s. What made you decide to cover the war?

The point where I realised that I really wanted to cover the war in Chechnya was when we found a story about some Russian paratroopers who had been dropped in the mountains during the early stages of the First Chechen War. They’d been told that they were looking for Jihadi fighters … and they eventually came across some Chechen shepherds who they captured quite easily. But then the relatives of the shepherds came and they captured this group of supposedly elite Russian troops… We were talking to these Russian soldiers, who were 18/19 years old; they’d been sent off to fight this war they didn’t understand and when they’d radioed their base and said they were coming under fire, the response from their superiors was not to send helicopters to get them out, but to send some bombers over, and they bombed the position that the Russian soldiers had radioed from. I really understood at that point something very important about the absolute lack of regard that the Russian military had for their own troops, let alone all the civilians that were being killed in their hundreds in the middle of Grozny.

More recently, you spent some time on the Syrian border over the summer, can you tell us a bit about that?

I ended up going to a town on the border [between Turkey and Syria], which normally is full of freelancers staying in one particular hotel called the Hotel Istanbul. I turned up and it became apparent that there was no one around because there were so many people being kidnapped on the other side of the border that people had stopped staying in the hotel, and they’d stopped going through that town. I spent two days trying to work out what the hell I was going to do and [thinking]: “Should I even be there in the first place?”

I ended up talking to the fixers that were suspected of being involved in the kidnapping gangs. One had a story about two French journalists who had been kidnapped when he was with them, and they were still missing. He was actually implicated in another kidnap case, so that was two sets of journalists that had gone missing that he was looking after. It may or may not have just been coincidence [but] it was difficult for people to trust him.

Do you think war reporting attracts a certain type of journalist?

There are an awful lot of people who are quite attracted to the ‘living on the edge’ kind of thing, I suppose. I remember coming back from one trip in Chechnya and I went straight from the airport to a nightclub because I realised I’d get the last six hours of Trade [an after hours club]. That was the life that I was living at the particular point, and I wouldn’t be the only one.

It attracts a particular kind of person… You might feel like you’re some kind of specialised tourist, and it’s really interesting. Foreign reporting is not regulated like covering Westminster or covering British stories. You’ve got much more freedom.

Covering wars, you must see a large number of people in need of help. How do you approach those situations?

In Chechnya, we were hurrying to get out of the city centre before dark and so was everybody else. We practically stepped on one old lady who’d just fallen over. Peter [Jouvenal, fellow Frontline journalist] helped her up and insisted that we helped them [the woman and her sister] back to their apartment. We found their other sister who was in the cupboard, hiding.

When we went back the next day they were still in the cupboard. We did a story about these three women in their apartment and you could hear all the munitions exploding outside, and their story made it onto the 6 ‘o clock and 9 o’clock news, and Newsnight. Not only was it the right thing to do to help these women but we also got a story out of it. But it also felt a bit odd: “Should we help these women at the time or should we get out and save our skins and not stick around in this very dangerous area?”

A number of journalists working for Frontline died while reporting from conflicts. What is it like to lose a peer while doing your job?

Martin Adler’s death was a shock. I’d filmed him for one of the Rory Peck awards, which he won [and] I ended up teaching him yoga in London. He wanted something positive to do when he was in war zones and there was nothing happening, because lots of people just end up drinking far too much. I was on a plane coming back from filming Ross Kemp On Gangs and Richard Parry told me that Martin had been killed. It was a shock, but not really a surprise unfortunately. To be grown up about it, the more time you spend in these places, the more chance there is that you’ll be killed or injured and that’s just part of it, I’m afraid.

Do you think that the changing nature of war will deter people from reporting conflicts in the future?

War reporting is really confusing, by its nature. There are a lot of very stressed people who are in a very difficult situation, particularly if they’re under fire or if there are people being killed or injured. It’s very hard to know what’s going on. That’s one reason why it’s good to be with people that you know and trust. People who are reporting wars need to be on-the-ball and really switched on in a way that they didn’t have to be 20 years ago. You can’t go to Syria and not have your wits about you. You need to think about digital security, staying off Skype and Facebook, and not tweeting. You need to have proper contingency plans for if you get into trouble.

I would never discourage people from wanting to be a war reporter. It sounds flippant, but the only problems are being blown to bits by artillery or a missile or being shot by a sniper. But those are quantifiable risks. You know when you’re being shot at. But more recently, access to rebel-controlled areas has been very limited because so many people are being kidnapped… Staff people haven’t been covering Syria as much as previous conflicts. People spend weeks planning trips to go into Syria, only to find that their security precautions suddenly don’t work and then people get kidnapped… So it’s been easier to let freelancers get on and take the burden on themselves. But on the other hand, news organisations are making it more difficult for freelancers to sell their work because there’s a real worry that a news organisation that commissions a freelancer, even just fleetingly, is going to be responsible for the freelancer when they get kidnapped… It’s a paradox.

This post originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.