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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 10/5/17

Tomgram: Nick Turse, A Disappearance, a Body, and What It Takes to Make the News

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We tend to think of them as separate and distinct wars: the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq. Yet it's not hard to trace the ways in which America's knee-jerk overreaction to the terrorist attack of 9/11 and the "preemptive" invasion of Iraq that followed in 2003 destabilized whole regions, spreading conflict like the plague. One war begot another, often right next door, just as the war in Iraq seemed to spill into neighboring Syria and set off its demolition, too. The infamous "surge" of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 only accelerated the flight of Iraqis from their homes: more than a million of them were displaced within that country, while close to a million more crossed the border into Syria.

Those Iraqi refugees generally had more money than their Syrian counterparts. With their arrival, schools and hospitals became overcrowded, food prices in Damascus rose 30% and rents 150%. Hard-pressed Syrians moved to run-down neighborhoods in Damascus, finding themselves second-class citizens in their own capital. As the number of refugees only increased, UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, found itself desperately overstretched, with money enough to help only with housing or food, not both. Poor Iraqi widows and single mothers eventually slid into the sex trade. Women danced in nightclubs where impoverished mothers sold their little girls into one-night "marriages" to high-rolling tourists from the Gulf states. And things only got worse. Such misery is contagious.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, having opened borders to Iraqis, feared the subversion of his own regime. He had always run a tight ship, much like his fallen autocratic neighbor Saddam Hussein. With the surge of Iraqis into Damascus, he doubled down. When I worked in the city in 2008, you could smell surveillance in the air. The same guy lounging in different neighborhoods. The lock picked. Papers rifled. A camera gone. The rising sense of something worse about to happen. The shadow of the war in Iraq fell across Damascus like a prediction. Less than three years later, in March 2011, peaceful protests began after 15 young boys were arrested and tortured -- a 13 year-old died -- for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. Assad responded with deadly force and, by July, civil war was underway. To date, at least 465,000 Syrians have been killed, one million injured, and 12 million -- half the country's population -- displaced like the Iraqis before them.

As for the U.S.: in 2016, we dropped 12,192 bombs on Syria although we are not officially at war with that country. That's more than the 12,095 bombs we dropped that same year on Iraq, with which we are no longer at war, and more than we have dropped on any country since the war in Vietnam. It's all about the unlimited license the war on terror has given the U.S. military. We now bomb "terrorists" wherever we "see" them (often among civilians), and currently not just in Syria and Iraq but also in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia. Donald Trump, during his first six months in office, set an all-time presidential record, dropping 20,650 bombs on seven Muslim countries for reasons he did not explain, even as he nearly doubled the number of civilians being killed. And he's just getting started.

TomDispatch managing editor Nick Turse brings us back to ground level today, as he writes about the courageous unsung local people, the "fixers," who make possible the faraway work of journalists like him and the prize-winning Canadian reporter Deborah Campbell whose extraordinary new book he discusses. Full disclosure: I'm a colleague and friend of both Nick and Campbell, whose riveting book takes you deep into the eerie police state that was Damascus before the bombs began to fall in Syria. Ann Jones

The Journalist and the Fixer
Who Makes the Story Possible?
By Nick Turse

We were already roaring down the road when the young man called to me over his shoulder. There was a woman seated between us on the motorbike and with the distance, his accent, the rushing air, and the engine noise, it took a moment for me to decipher what he had just said: We might have enough gas to get to Bamurye and back.

I had spent the previous hour attempting to convince someone to take me on this ride while simultaneously weighing the ethics of the expedition, putting together a makeshift security plan, and negotiating a price. Other motorbike drivers warned that it would be a one-way trip. "If you go, you don't come back," more than one of them told me. I insisted we turn around immediately.

Once, I believed journalists roamed the world reporting stories on their own. Presumably, somebody edited the articles, but a lone byline meant that the foreign correspondent was the sole author of the reporting. Then I became a journalist and quickly learned the truth. Foreign correspondents are almost never alone in our work. We're almost always dependent on locals, often many of them, if we want to have any hope of getting the story. It was never truer for me than on that day when I was attempting to cover an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign in South Sudan.

As the motorbike driver was topping off the tank with gasoline from a plastic water bottle, I had a final chance to think things over. We were going to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan so I could gather evidence of a murder by government troops in a village garrisoned by those same soldiers. The driver hailed from one of the ethnic groups being targeted by South Sudan's army. If we were found by soldiers, he would likely be the first of us killed. The woman, Salina Sunday, was my guide. She was confident that she would be safe and didn't show an ounce of fear, even though women were being raped and killed as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign churning through the southlands of South Sudan, including her home village, Bamurye.

Within minutes we were off again to find, if we were fortunate, the mutilated body of the murder victim; if we were unfortunate, his killers as well. I had met Sunday barely more than an hour earlier. I had laid eyes on the driver for the first time only minutes before we left. They were strangers and I was risking their lives for my work, for "my" story.

The Fix is In

When it comes to overseas newsgathering, it's the "fixers," those resourceful, wired-in locals who know all the right people, who often make it possible. Then there are the generous local reporters, translators, guides, drivers, sources, informants of every sort, local friends, friends of friends, and sometimes -- as in that trip of mine to Bamurye (recently recounted in full in the Columbia Journalism Review) -- courageous strangers, too. Those women and men are the true, if unsung, heroes behind the bylines of so many foreign correspondents. They're the ones who ensure that, however imperfectly, we at least have a glimpse of what's happening in far-off, sometimes perilous places about which we would otherwise be clueless.

So when the great Iona Craig dons a black abaya and niqab, inserts her "brown tinted contact lenses to cover [her] green foreigner eyes," and blows the lid off a botched U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that killed at least six women and 10 children, she does it with the aid of fixer-friends. They are the ones who make the arrangements; who drive and translate; who, in short, risk their lives for her, for the story -- and for you. When Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Daniel Berehulak produces an instantly iconic New York Times expose' of the brutal war on drugs launched by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, veteran journalist and uber-fixer Rica Concepcion is also behind it.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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