Truth in a sandstorm of propaganda

In one of her final reports from the Syrian city of Homs, the American war correspondent Marie Colvin described the experience of watching a two-year old child die from a shrapnel wound. “Absolutely horrific,” she said, “they stripped it and found the shrapnel had gone into the left chest and the doctor said, ‘I can’t do anything.’ His little tummy just kept heaving until he died.” For Colvin, Homs had become “a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire.” Deprived of electricity, many of its inhabitants had run out of diesel for ‘the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember.” The desperation was overwhelming: “On the lips of everyone was the question, ‘Why have we been abandoned by the world?’

Colvin  would have been disappointed by much of the coverage of her own death. Instead of dwelling on the apparent targeting of Western journalists, she would almost certainly have insisted that the focus remain on the scores of Syrians slaughtered on the same day. Two years ago, speaking at a service to honour journalists killed in war, she said “Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction, and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash.”
Like Colvin, Anthony Shadid , the Pulitzer winning journalist who recently died from an asthma attack while reporting from Syria, also went to great lengths to ensure that his readers understood the complex humanity of the little people caught up in conflicts. The anonymous people mentioned in body counts, the farmers, teachers, taxi drivers and shopkeepers whose predicaments go unnoticed but for the remarkable courage of a few war correspondents. Writing about Colvin and Shadid, Timothy Phelps, an editor in The Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau, notes that while war correspondents may enjoy the thrill of “danger exacerbated by the closeness to death” their real commitment comes from “an overwhelming sense of duty to those whose lives have been torn apart by conflict.”

In his memoir War is a force that Gives Us Meaning Chris Hedges gives a striking example of the kind of story that tends to get lost in a war.  In 1992, Rosa and Drago Sorak, two Bosnian Serbs, were trapped when Serbian forces lay siege to Gorazde.  The attackers cut off electricity, gas and water and shelled the city mercilessly. Though the Soraks were not Serbian nationalists, their Muslim neighbours viewed them with suspicion. The Soraks’ elder son, was taken away for interrogation by Bosnian police and never seen again.

Shortly afterwards their second son was killed in a car accident, leaving the couple childless until Rosa gave birth to a baby girl. In the besieged city food was scarce and the child soon fell ill.  Just when it seemed that the baby would also die, a local farmer named Fejzic brought the family fresh milk from his cow. Fejzic continued to brink the milk – by then a very precious commodity, for more than a year – undaunted by insults that he should give it instead to fellow Muslims and let the “Chetnik” baby die. His quiet heroism saved the child’s life and kept her well until the family moved to Serbia a few months later.

Hedges tracked Fejzic down after the war and found him living at subsistence level, selling “worm-eaten apples picked from abandoned orchards outside the shattered remains of an apartment block.”  The only thing that seemed to lift his spirits was a mention of the child. Hedges concludes, that “The small acts of decency by people such as Slavica, a Serb [who protected Muslim classmates in Mostar], or Fejzic, a Muslim, in wartime ripple outwards like concentric circles. These acts, unrecognized at the time, make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people…  Most important, once war is over, these people make it hard to brand an entire nation or an entire people as guilty.”

With tragic irony, Colvin’s death has made the carnage in Homs front page news again. During the last few weeks, despite her searing accounts of the situation the story had received only sporadic coverage. Colvin, who knew firsthand the horrors of war in the Balkans, Chechnya and Sri Lanka (where she lost an eye),  recently told CNN that “for many reasons” the situation in Homs was “the worst” she had yet witnessed. These reasons would have included the complete impunity with which the Assad government has turned on its citizens, and the unconscionable dithering of the Arab League and other international actors.

In time, the war correspondents who have fallen during Arab Spring may yet have the last word. Not long ago the siege of Misrata seemed unlikely to lead to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. But the tenacity of Western journalists – several of whom were killed on the front lines – kept the world’s attention on Libya. Their courage helped sway public opinion enough for both Europe and the United States to offer military assistance to Libya’s rebels. The Assad regime is on a similar knife-edge and may already have passed the point of no return.  When Syria is finally free, it will owe very little to Western politicians, but will probably acknowledge a real debt of gratitude to journalists like Colvin and Shadid, who had the courage to bear witness to the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda.

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