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One on One: NPR’s Deborah Amos

As part of our ongoing effort to talk to journalists covering the Syrian crisis, we reached out to award-winning NPR correspondent Deborah Amos. Amos spoke from Turkey, where she was reporting not long after witnessing – and narrowly escaping – the deadly Feb. 11 car bomb blast at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria. “That tells you something about covering Syria,” she says. “Being at the passport office turned out to be more dangerous than going to Aleppo.”.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

News Deeply: You’ve been in and out…

[![][2]][2]Deborah Amos: I arrived early in February and came down to Antakya. I’ve been roaming the border on the Turkish side, in Reyhanli, Antakya, Gaziantep, and then crossing to Azaz, Syria.

This has been unsettling trip because we crossed into Idlib province at the Bab al-Hawa gate, and we were 50 feet away from the car bomb that went off there.

By happenstance, timing, providence, call it what you want, we were standing at the passport office when the bomb went off. The difference was what happened to us and the people were we were interviewing, many of whom are dead. To be close enough to see a car bomb and be near it was an unsettling day because we should have had a safe day – we were at the passport office. That tells you something about covering Syria – you just never know. Turning in my passport turned out to be more dangerous than going to Aleppo.

We were there when rebels shot down a helicopter in Azaz for the first time with a sophisticated surface-to-air missile. The town exploded with gunfire in the air, people shouting, because this is a town that has been hit hard by the [Syrian] air force. Just in the past month, there’s been two air force attacks on Azaz, so when rebels took down a helicopter in Azaz, there was a justifiable celebration. We left soon after that because I thought these MIGs would be back, so I thought, let’s get the hell out of dodge.

ND: Which of your stories has gotten the most visceral feedback?

DA: I think the story that we did about this new wave of refugees – it’s a particular cut of tape. It’s funny about radio. I think that when someone in an interview says something in an emotional way, it’s more powerful than me being there myself.

There was a pretty fierce military campaign above Hama, in a string of villages. There were estimates of 100,000 people on the march north out of those villages with what they say was an army campaign to drive them out. We ran into an American from Texas who had been [in the villages] bringing aid to people, and he said, ‘I just wanted to see something alive, even a cat, but there was nothing.’

He told us about coming through this mob of people and finding families sleeping in cars, and even more disturbing, people sleeping in caves. He said it really breaks your heart to see them going back thousands of years. They take mud to plug up holes for snakes, but they can still hear them scratching at night. So they can’t sleep.

ND: What are the difficulties of capturing stories like these for radio as opposed to print or television?

DA: Radio has all the emotion of TV, with the information of print. When you find somebody who is that passionate, it breaks through the noise of a lot of news. People really responded to that, understand it.

I described 400 families living in a wedding hall. They had crossed into Turkey illegally, they were rich enough to afford transportation. And they made a private refugee camp in a wedding hall. As my Texan said, those are the luckiest people. The unlucky ones live with the snakes.

For us, we have some of the same challenges as the TV people. What we do is really quite visual. You want to record sound that gives people a picture without a whole lot of text. Crossing the border and walking into a school, right there on the Syrian side, there are 10,000 people who live on the border. There are three schools, and there are little kids doing their lesson in English – little kids going ‘one apple, two apple, three apple.’ I don’t have to do a lot of explaining about what that is. That’s a picture for me.

Some stories are harder than others because they don’t have ready-made pictures. This week I filed a story on an unusual meeting between a Christian delegation and the head of a Sharia court. And the Christians wanted to sit down with him and find out what they want, these Salafis.

It was visually startling to see them together, the Christians in their Western suits and there was a woman who was uncovered, and the Sharia judge with his long beard and entourage dressed just like him. And that was fabulously visual but it doesn’t work on the radio. So I have to split the difference. I have to then do context and background, and I matched it with sound of confrontation where secular protesters yelled famous demonstration chants, and the Salafis demonstrators were yelling ‘Allah, Allah, Allah,’ and it was the first time this kind of confrontation had been captured on video.

What was so different about Syria is that the Christians pushed that meeting, they wanted to sit down and talk to these guys. Their position was, these are Syrian citizens, we can’t just dismiss them. Michel Kilo, who’s a very well-known Christian activist and writer, said, ‘it’s my duty to meet them.’ I find that very Syrian, very important, and different than in other places. It goes to the heart of what’s so different about Syria, they’ve had thousands of years of living together. As soon as I saw it I said ‘yeah, this is them, this is what Syrians do. This is how they deal, this is how they will deal.’


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