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One on One: Martin Chulov, Middle East Correspondent, The Guardian

Since 2005, Guardian correspondent Martin Chulov has covered crises across the Arab world, but none, he says, are as “emotionally exhausting” as the Syrian civil war.

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

Here, the Beirut-based Chulov talks about the differences, in both security and narrative, between his first post-conflict trip to the country, in early 2012, and his latest, this past September.

On my first trip in, we met the surgeon who founded Medecins sans Frontieres and who has turned up at nearly every major conflict ever since. He turned out to be a room buddy for the best part of ten days [near] Qusayr. It was bitterly cold, there was snow, there was hail. It was frigid the whole time. There was still a sense of expectation in what was then a full blown revolution. People were still thinking that this was the start of something fabulous, this is going to get us places, this is the first time that we can actually speak freely, we can actually accept guests in outcomes. Here was a strong sense of welcoming.

We could cross the border easily, but the Syrian Army was north of the town and east of the town and still maintained the ability to come in whenever they wanted to. They led Qusayr at that point, there were quite a dew sniper alleys. There was fighting for a couple of days, but it was mostly launched by the opposition. It was relatively safe.

In 2012, we just weren’t doing the border crossing from Lenanon. It became really difficult. Hezbollah had taken up active positions on the Bekaa [near] Hermel and that was an arc from the west straight through to the east, and that was where we could cross before. We stopped because at that point, the military had crept back into some areas, Hezbollah was very active in the mountain passes, and the risk-reward just became an equation that wasn’t worthwhile.

On our last trip we went in through the Turkish border, just near Kilis. There is a border crossing there and we could have used that, but we were not comfortable with the town of Azaz, which is on the other side of the border from Kilis, because at that point ISIS had moved in and quite a few reporters were missing from the area, accused of being spies or agents. So we chose a hole in a fence, which is a regular smuggling route, and we made our way to al-Bab, a town about 25 kilometers north of Aleppo. We used it as our base and there were people who gave us the use of their car, and we stayed with them and made regular day trips into Aleppo.

I went looking for the jihadists who had taken up large swaths of land from Idlib right through to Deir Ezzor. At that point Americans were talking about striking Damascus and I just had a sense that might give me a window to go looking for jihadists in the north. I wanted to talk to these guys. That’s what we ended up doing, meeting at a roadhouse where we stopped and went in. We met some FSA guys and had lunch with them, knowing these jihadists would turn up, and I could go talk to them about what they were expecting from the coming days or weeks, and how they saw the state of the war.

The most challenging story to get was when we did a piece early last year based on the Houla massacre. We wanted to report that properly, and that involved speaking to upwards of 20 people, and they were all in pretty dangerous areas. That took a lot of work in demanding conditions, lots of runs across sniper alleys, things like that.

It’s emotionally the most exhausting [story to cover], even more so than Israel/Palestine. It’s so intense, there’s so much injustice that its hard not to become, in some ways, emotionally attached to the story itself or at the dry least to the people you meet along the way. Some of the people I’ve met inside Syria are some of the best I’ve met in my lifetime, in my career.

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