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One on One: I Never Wear Armor

As part of our series of interviews with journalists covering the Syria crisis, we reached out to Al Jazeera’s Basma Atassi, a Syrian who has been reporting on the war in her home country. Here, she discusses what it’s like to watch the turmoil of her birthplace through a journalist’s lens. “I did not go with the mindset ‘I’m a journalist coming to save you,’” she says. “I just went as a journalist.”.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

I’m Syrian. I’ve been there a lot over the uprising, but I was visiting as a normal Syrian citizen, not a journalist. The last time I went to Syria was the first time I went in as a journalist, to write stories and to write what I see. I went to the suburbs of Idlib and to Aleppo. I crossed over the Turkish border, just like any other Syrian would be crossing the border. There was nothing uncommon about my crossing.

I didn’t know what to expect because I’d never been to Idlib in my life, so I was excited to see what Idlib looked like. In Aleppo I was more worried, because I know Aleppo, and I would see things that would really hurt me – because I know what Aleppo looked like before.

I didn’t even wear armor. And even if I had, if I was forced to, I tried not to wear the jacket. For me, it just feels wrong. Because for me, I feel like I’m going back home, and no one around me is wearing it. It does create a barrier for your fellow citizens.

My grandparents, uncle and aunt are all in Homs. I was born there. I lived there for a bit, then in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Europe. But I was born there and I went back every year. The last time I was in Homs as a civilian was in June 2012, the last time the regime was intensifying its attacks against the rebels in Homs. It was an incredible time to be there, very emotional.

When you watch television, you see people crying, shouting for help. When you go there you don’t just see these people – you see very brave and resilient people. You don’t hear these stories. Yes, people are poor. There is suffering, dying, there is lots of misery in Syria. But those same people wake up every morning, they live and they create miracles.

I tried to just talk to normal people, real people. They’re all so strong, so heroic. A teacher, an Imam. I talked to this random man and then come to learn that he was a Syrian Army intelligence officer who defected, and now he’s teaching students who have no schools. A man distributes military boots to people. A man who looks like a random person in the street turns out to have a field hospital.

It’s important to present Syrians as powerful people, not vulnerable. They can create something. Those who come from abroad thinking they’re going to save Syria, they realize they are at mercy of the president. I try to cover human interest. I went to the front line, but I feel like people are sick of front line stories, of battles. I met two tailors at the front line. It was really cute. As we were sitting on stairs of a building, they were telling me how they joined the uprising by sewing a flag for the Free Syrian Army, or FSA uniforms, and then they ended up becoming FSA fighters themselves.

My family, they take it for granted that they have a crazy daughter. They only know I’m in Syria when I arrive there. They’re like, ‘please stop doing that to us.’ The Syrians I interview, when I say I’m from Homs, it doesn’t feel like I’m interviewing them. ‘How are your relationships, your family, whose house was damaged more?’ It really helps to be a Syrian.

When you arrive in Syria, you start mirroring the feelings of those around you. You look at them, and if they’re not scared, why should you be scared? There was this one time where we were sitting in historic Roman ruins near Aleppo. Some people live in caves there, so we went to visit them, and we had tea. And as we sat in the grass, there was a MIG fighter jet above our heads. I said, ‘are we supposed to do anything about that?’ And a little kid goes, ‘Miggy Miggy!’ He had nicknamed it. So I thought, ‘I should shut up now. They’re so comfortable with the war.’

Once I was walking down the street with a jet flying overhead, and people were running after the fighter to see where its bombs would land, so that they could rescue the injured. You can’t get scared around these people.

The only time where I felt sad was on the border, when were standing at the crossing in Kilis, in Turkey, and there was a jet shelling in Azaz. We saw the jet in the sky, we saw the shelling, and 15 minutes later there were cars crossing from Syria, very quickly, not stopping, and they were carrying the injured. When you’re standing just outside and looking in, you see the overall picture. It saddens me that Syrians are killing Syrians and they’re forced to treat people in Turkey, not in Syria. That was the only time I cried. I broke down there. — as told to Karen Leigh

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