INSI If I told you that reporting from Syria and Iraq is dangerous, I’d probably be telling you something you already know.
The dangers of covering the region have been extensively reported ever since the tragic murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. And ISIS continues to remind us of this every time they force John Cantlie, a British hostage, to narrate yet another one of their propaganda videos.
But this is only half the story.
What isn’t known, what isn’t reported, what doesn’t make the news is the situation for Iraqi and Syrian journalists who do the vast majority of reporting in the region and who take the biggest risks to do so.
In 2010 I co-founded Metrography, Iraq’s first photography agency in order to expose the talents of Iraqi photographers to the world. Over the past four years we have trained our photographers to work for some of the most discerning and competitive news outlets in the world: Vanity Fair, Der Spiegel, Monocle, The Guardian, Washington Post, Internazionale, the list goes on.
This June, when ISIS stormed into Mosul and established their so-called caliphate, our photographers rushed into action. A few went straight to the frontline as others started covering the enormous unfolding humanitarian crisis.
But unlike their western counterparts, our photographers aren’t properly prepared for this as they have absolutely no training when it comes to covering hazardous situations.
Two days after ISIS took Mosul, Yousif went to the frontline without a shred of safety or medical equipment. Yousif had covered fighting before, but this particular firefight was unlike anything he’d experienced. The Iraqi forces opened fire on an ISIS position, but were not prepared for the counterattack. All of a sudden ISIS fighters started returning fire with heavy machine guns followed by highly accurate sniper rounds. One of Yousif’s colleagues was hit, but neither he nor any of the other journalists there were able to help as they had no medical training whatsoever. Outgunned, the unit beat a hasty retreat.
When I saw Yousif the following day he was very shaken. “I wish I could have done something,” he told me. “There was all this blood, but I didn’t know what to do.”
The following week, Nabil, one of our photographers, started to show signs of severe mental stress. His temper started to flare; he was drinking heavily; and he couldn’t sleep. I was told that one of his friends was kidnapped by ISIS, so one evening I took him to a park to relax and chat. As we sat together he started to mumble “Prison is horrible” over and over again.
I asked him what he meant and he fell silent. After a few minutes he told me that 10 years earlier one of the Kurdish political parties has thrown him in prison for 14 months on trumped up charges.
He didn’t want to go into any of the details, but he told me very frankly that his friend’s kidnapping had brought back these memories which had sent him into this spiral.
The following day I found a psychiatrist who specialized in psychological trauma and put Nabil in touch with him. Thinking that I had helped, I went back to work.
Then, two weeks later, I called Nabil to see how he was. He too had gone back to work, reporting on the huge numbers of displaced people flooding into the Kurdish region. He told me he needed to stay busy to keep his mind off of his friend.
I asked him if he was able to get any help from the clinic. “Only a little,” he told me. “They gave me some tips on how to sleep and then put me on the waiting list to get counseling.”
I asked how long the waiting list is. Three months, he responded.
Nabil and Yousif’s stories are not at all unusual for the region. Very few Iraqi or Syrian photojournalists, have combat medical training. Some have flack jackets and helmets, although these tend to be ill fitting and of very poor quality.
Trauma is also quite common among these journalists whose whole lives are wrapped up in the very events they are covering. Yet for them, there is very little, if any, psychological support when they need it.
The news media has made great steps in talking openly about the risks reporters face in covering places like Iraq and Syria, but there is one group that has been left out of the conversation. It is time now to talk about the risks local journalists face and to take steps in ensuring their safety.
The author is a freelance photographer and filmmaker and advisor to Metrography, the first Iraqi photo agency.
'Your story' is a new series of articles around the theme of safety written by journalists on the ground.
AP Photo: Mourners chant slogans during a symbolic funeral for the bureau chief of a local radio station in Baghdad.