Covering the Arab Spring, for me, has been about as unglamorous as you can imagine. While my colleagues were tear-gassed and then celebrated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or rode out with the Mad Max rebels in Eastern Libya to defeat forces loyal to Moammar Ghaddafi, I was sitting in dark, lonely hotel rooms, hunkering down with activists on Skype, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
That’s mainly because I cover the Arab uprisings that so far have not succeeded: Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. (Sure, Yemen’s president has stepped down, but that’s no guarantee he won’t be back.) And to do my job — to cover a group of activists who are the constant target of their governments — is to enter a shadowy world. A world that largely exists online.
How to make this into great radio? It’s a challenge.
In the best-case scenario, those long hours of chatting with activists on Skype eventually yield secret meetings with people who are willing to go on tape. Last summer I managed to get into Syria on an official tour then later sneak away to see a protest.
For the first time, I was able to see the Syrian uprising — and the government’s brutal crackdown — up close. I finally was able to understand how dangerous it is to simply walk outside your house, put your fist in the air, and call for change in your government. And I finally was able to let listeners feel that, too.
In the worst-case scenario for radio reporting, I can go months without meeting anyone in person. Syria mainly bars journalists from the country. That means lots of phone tape — or, worse, Skype tape — and lots of YouTube videos.
These videos are largely shot by the activists themselves, and are clearly meant for TV. While the video can range anywhere from compelling to horrifyingly graphic, the audio is usually a guy speaking monotone Arabic, narrating the scene.
So what do you do? I tend to fall back on my age-old crutch: Tell stories. In the absence of compelling tape, I just sit down and write, from beginning to middle to end. And hope it makes sense to the folks in Dubuque.
Not the most riveting radio, but sometimes you feel compelled to just get this stuff on the record. Write it down; get it out there, before you have to move on to the next thing.
Then, recently, something I didn’t expect started happening. In the Syrian city of Homs, government forces began bombarding the neighborhood of Bab Amr with tanks, mortars, and rockets, mainly targeting civilians. The neighborhood has been one of the fiercest strongholds of resistance to the government — with daily protests and a resistance by armed rebels who call themselves the Free Army.
Hundreds of civilians — among them women and children — were dying. The injured died of minor wounds in field hospitals that weren’t equipped to treat them.
Activists hooked cameras up to generators and satellite Internet connections and started streaming live from Bab Amr, using a free streaming site called Bambuser.
Now I could suddenly hear the war happening, in real time, all day. I could chop vegetables while listening to the war. I could roll tape on the war all day, and pick and choose the moments that were the most compelling.
The activists also stepped up their game on YouTube. An English speaker named Danny Abdul Dayem started doing full-blown reports from the neighborhood, walking around, doing stand-ups, narrating the scene around him.
All I had to do was find him on YouTube, and I had great tape.
I later was lucky enough to meet one of the citizen journalists who’s broadcasting the war in Baba Amr — a rare thing in my virtual war.
“I’m not a citizen journalist,” he said. “I don’t care if we’re making history or not. We just had to get this information out, whatever way we could. Full stop.”
I was surprised to hear him saying the same things as he says on the videos — about how he’s used to seeing dead bodies, about how the international community is standing idly by while his people are dying. I think I wanted him to speak differently, now that we were in person. I think I wanted him to be more, well, real.
The other night I heard a bird chirping, and I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from. It was a single bird, and his voice was so bright and distinct and confusing. I leaned out of my laptop hunch and started paging through all the tabs I had open in my browser.
I realized I still had the live feed from Bab Amr rolling, but the guns had stopped, and it was only the bird.
Then the guns started again.
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