Lost in Syria

Deborah Campbell’s search for her one-time fixer, and friend.

Early morning, August 19, 1991, the phone rang in my hotel room in Vilnius. As the Moscow correspondent for Southam News, I was in the Lithuanian capital to report on allegations that Soviet special forces were responsible for the execution of seven Lithuanian border guards.

“There’s been a coup in Moscow.” It was my editor quoting a bulletin from the Russian news agency Tass. I quickly called my fixer, Max, and as I rushed to get a flight back to Moscow, he promised to gather as much information as possible and meet me later at my office near the Russian parliament.

Max was a resourceful young translator who had helped me get my bearings when I took the posting. I had fixers in other cities, too, in the former USSR. Often, but not always, fixers are local reporters, and journalists frequently hire them to explain the lie of the land, navigate access to officialdom, conduct research, sometimes interpret or translate, line up transportation, even shelter and food.

It is safe to say that every journalist who has reported abroad for a news organization or as a freelancer has a memorable fixer in their life—someone with whom they shared harrowing or humorous experiences in pursuit of a story. One time I lined up a fixer in Stavropol, President Gorbachev’s hometown, and I was greeted at the airport by two KGB officers who intimated they were keeping tabs on me. My fixer was a democracy activist, and his phone line had been tapped, so we took pains afterward to make our arrangements over more clandestine channels: he managed to get a message to me at my hotel and we eventually met at his home. On the few occasions I was in a conflict zone, I was grateful to have a fixer who was better than I was at distinguishing between gunfire and a truck backfiring.

In some locations, the risks fixers and journalists face can escalate quickly from threats to violence. The execution in 1979 of ABC TV correspondent Bill Stewart and his Nicaraguan interpreter, Juan Francisco Espinosa, was a cautionary tale when I was a cub reporter. The killings by the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship’s national guard were broadcast repeatedly on the American networks. Among some war correspondents, the lessons were to take care in who you work with and that even a highly experienced journalist can face the worst danger of all—death.

The New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists has chronicled the murders and other deaths of more than 1,200 journalists in the course of their work since 1992. The CPJ says the stats include dozens of “media workers”—local drivers, travel guides and fixers, many of whom are well-respected local journalists.

In such high-risk environments, you may wonder, what is in it for the fixer? Max was in it for fun and adventure and for the money; an American dollar provided access to medicine and oranges and other items unavailable for rubles. The fixer in Stavropol wanted the outside world to know that life was not as rosy as widely portrayed in the West. My fixer in Latvia was a newspaper reporter; her income from helping foreign journalists allowed her to continue her low-paid local journalism. The motivations—and virtues—of individual fixers are as varied as the people they work for.

Public knowledge about the use of fixers has grown since the Iraq war, when it became extremely dangerous for foreign reporters, especially highly visible TV crews, to travel outside protected areas. Journalists quarrelled publicly over the ethics of fixer hiring, with some accusing others of cowering in their hotels while fixers on the outside did the dirty work with little or no recognition.

Few fixers would make for as compelling a narrative as a brave Iraqi woman named Ahlam, who features in freelance writer Deborah Campbell’s second book, A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.

Campbell, winner of three National Magazine Awards, teaches narrative non-fiction writing at the University of British Columbia. She has reported from Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Israel, Palestine, Cuba, Mexico and Russia. She has been published in Harper’s, The Economist, Foreign Policy, the Guardian, New Scientist, Walrus and other ­publications.

Campbell describes herself as an “immersive journalist”—not the kind who creates virtual realities with 3D digital technology, but a feature writer who immerses herself for weeks or months among the people she is covering.

In 2007, Campbell needed to penetrate the community of displaced Iraqis in the Syrian capital Damascus to research a Harper’s magazine piece on the largest exodus in the Middle East since the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing purges and sectarian violence, a fifth of Iraq’s population had been displaced from their homes and half of them—2.5 million—had fled the country. About 1.5 million took refuge in neighbouring Syria.

Ahlam was a fixer for many foreign journalists, international non-governmental organizations and humanitarian workers in the Syrian capital, Damascus. She was also establishing a school for displaced Iraqi girls in her modest apartment and served as a go-to person for fellow refugees in Sayeda Zainab, a Damascene neighbourhood known as Little Baghdad since it had become the largest community of Iraqi refugees in the world. By 2007, the influx of refugees had reached a crisis point and Syria’s open-door policy was nearing an end.

Campbell writes that she needed a trustworthy guide, a go-between who could traverse the barriers of culture and language, and help her gain the trust of Iraqis who would be unwilling to talk to outsiders. She could not live in Iraq to chronicle the exodus but would get the stories of why and how from those who had made it to Damascus.

A Syrian journalist introduced Campbell to Ahlam. Well educated, confident, fluent in English, experienced in work in Iraq with U.S. forces and journalists, Ahlam was a natural aide. “She would give me a new way of thinking about war, about what war does, and what it takes to survive” writes Campbell. “She would become my friend.”

Both women were aware of dangers and took precautions. Journalists and those who helped them risked being branded as spies by the Syrian intelligence service, so Campbell posed as a tourist and professor to all but those with a need to know. Street vendors called her “doktora.” With Ahlam’s assistance she succeeded in her goal of putting a human face on the consequences of the war in Iraq and her Harper’s article won an award.

Normally, she would then move on. Not this time.

Ahlam had stopped communicating with Campbell, who now was back in Vancouver. The friendly emails ceased, and her phone calls went unanswered. Mutual colleagues did not know what was up. Campbell could not get Ahlam off her mind, and her next project gave her a chance to return to Damascus to see if Ahlam was okay. Unbeknownst to Campbell, Ahlam had been pressured by a Syrian intelligence officer to report on other refugees, NGO staff and foreign reporters. Instead of betraying or endangering anyone, she quit her work as a fixer and stopped returning reporters’ phone calls.

The narrative of this memoir, paced like a good novel, quickens soon after Campbell witnesses Ahlam being taken from her home by secret police.

In the panicky aftermath of Ahlam’s abduction, Campbell lies alone in her Damascene apartment, annoyed by the “drip, drip, drip” of the faulty air conditioner, and wavering between denial and then dread. When the journalist who introduced her to Ahlam tells her to get out of Little Baghdad immediately, Campbell is stricken by paranoia. Unsure if her presence in Damascus had tipped the secret police, strangers’ gazes turned ominous; phone lines and public places no longer seemed safe.

But Campbell’s guilt pushes her to seek Ahlam’s whereabouts, and hopefully her release. When she sets to work to find Ahlam, she wonders whether her journalistic instincts and investigative skills will be enough. She goes underground, discovering from a surprising source that Ahlam has been detained in Douma Prison, only a short distance from the headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Campbell comes to see institutions such as the UNHCR through a new lens, questioning their cooperation and motives. UNHCR officials reject her offer to expose the case in an article on the grounds it would backfire, exposing Ahlam and other prisoners to more danger. Yet she badgers them despite her worry that she is indeed making Ahlam’s situation worse. She has no way of knowing.

Campbell is plagued by the question of whether she is to blame for Ahlam’s disappearance. While rebuking herself, she also tells herself that it could just as well be the fault of Al Jazeera, BBC or Amnesty International, with which Ahlam had recently worked.

“And even if this was not my fault, even if her arrest had nothing do with me … I was still responsible for her,” Campbell decides. “We had been a team … Our friendship had been forged through the work and it was the work she did—on behalf of me, and all of us—that had put her in danger.”

It is this realization of responsibility that gives A Disappearance in Damascus so much heart.

Campbell leaves no stone unturned in her search to find and free her friend, going from organization to organization—from UNHCR to the International Committee of the Red Cross, from Reporters Without Borders to Amnesty International—many of which Ahlam had, after all, worked for. Campbell stayed in Damascus for weeks and when she reached a dead end, travelled to Beirut for help from her contacts there. She sought out friends of friends.

While bringing the reader into her own turmoil, Campbell tells Ahlam’s side of the story with clarity, compassion and suspense. Who turned her in? Who had she been asked to spy on? Was Campbell responsible? What happened behind the prison gates?

A Disappearance in Damascus is vivid, provocative and timely. High-profile kidnappings, arrests and deaths of journalists and their assistants in conflict zones in the last few years have increased public awareness of the role that fixers play and the perils they face—sometimes greater than the journalists who hire them.

Just last year a coalition of major news organizations began to codify some obligations to freelancers and fixers: safety and security, credit for story content, prompt payment and a commitment to have the same concern about their welfare as their own staff. Eighty organizations have signed on.

Another notable development is the establishment of worldfixer.com by two journalists in the United Kingdom in 2015, a database to match news and other organizations with fixers and freelancers in 150 countries. Undercover fixers are included.

While institutional efforts may improve protection for fixers, A Disappearance in Damascus illustrates how individual conscience and courage may also be necessary to confront the dangers of bringing news from hot spots around the world.