Syria, Refugees, Journalism: Interview with War Correspondent Francesca Borri

Originally published at || No source indicated

My youth, with all its advantages and drawbacks of that time, ended in Bosnia when I was splashed with parts of human brain. I was 23 years old”. When I have read this, I had trouble calming down. What must happen to make a 23-year-old woman leave a comfortable life behind and go to a place where death is so common?

It all has started in Kosovo. That was my first experience of such a dramatic nature – confronting the world outside of Europe, so very different from the Western reality. I went there as an employee of the embassy and my job was to decline visa applications.

The building had two storeys. I was working on the ground floor, answering the calls only to reply that it is the wrong number. I was providing another number – to the office on the first floor. But no one was there. And right back to the start. Insane! My supervisor saw that I felt truly uncomfortable with this situation. He had only one piece of advice: “Enter the office in the morning, close the door and do not let anyone in. Forget everything that is happening outside”.

I couldn’t do it. I had to make a decision where I want to stand, on which side of the door. It was then that I realized that I am responsible for what is happening out there, for those bad people. This is how I confronted reality – during and after the war.

You’ve made a decision. You’ve opened the door. You took a step towards the line of fire.

It was not a matter of making a decision. This was just happening. Suddenly, you find yourself amidts a war. Right at the heart of a conflict. This is what happened in the case of Syria. I went there to report on the revolution, peaceful demonstrations. Everything happened so fast. Aggressive reaction of the government, war – it was getting worse with each day. In such a situation one may feel trapped. In the trap of a war. At the same time, I realised that there is no coming back. You cannot dismiss what you have seen. Once seen cannot be unseen. This is a matter of being a responsible human being. Of course, we may lie to ourselves and to others but it will always remain the matter of your own personall responsibility for what you have witnessed.

In your case it was a journalistic responsibility.

Exactly. I will give an example from Syria. The hardest moment I experienced out there happened during an attack with barrel bombs. I was the only journalist there at this time. Therefore I reported on the event. I had witnesses. Who knows – maybe some day historians will make use of it, maybe it will be helpful in court cases. If you are the only person who can do something, you cannot bury your head in the sand.

Francesca, but we both know that you’re taking a step which can cost you your life and without any guarantee that it has any purpose. You survive, write a report and the publisher may easily tell you: “not enough blood”. Or you want to show something more than merely a bombing attack, give a broader context, and all you hear is that they are interested just in blood – in an oversimplistic overview of the situation.

And that’s what usually happens. This is why newspapers experience problems with circulation. It’s about the condition of the media as such, about its decreasing standards – in the end, it doesn’t matter. Most publishers are often not very intelligent people. Most of them have never experienced war. Their only achievement was a struggle to reach high position in the newsroom. They have no idea what war journalism is about. They sit in front of their computers and have no idea what is going on in the place where I am. They are familiar only with the reports. It was very visible in the case of Ukraine. A journalist stuck between the propaganda of the US, Russia and Ukraine could not have any idea about what was really going on. This is also happening right now. Suddenly, it turned out that everyone is an expert on migration. But what those “expert” really know when they have consequently ignored the issue for years and now they see only a small part of a bigger problem that was growing for years?

Exactly, that is a question I’ve been asking myself since I met with the refugees. How is it even possible that the war in Syria lasts already for 4 years and European journalists and politicians react only when the conflict reached the borders of Europe? This is true not only of Syria – in Africa wars last already for many years. People are dying. But we do not see that, we do not pay to it enough attention.

First Jihadists emerged in Syria in October 2012. Nobody cared. Journalists – those better than me as I did not yet have much experince – were claiming that it is just the beginning of huge chaos. But back then no one in Europe took care of that. For me, as a journalist, it was extremely frustrating. We are out there. We see some things when they are just emerging. We can react before it is too late. But not many people will listen to us.

We knew about the first refugees headed towards Europe already back in 2012. We contacted Al-Jazeera, among others, asking if we can accompany the refugees. They did not respond. Now everyone wants to have such reports.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule. If you succeed in winning the battle with your publisher and convince him/her to publish what you really care about, those are usually articles which sell well in the end. And perhaps this is the hope for journalism. Maybe the future of the print media rests upon longer, deeper analyses for the individuals who are ready to buy a newspaper and to read something more than merely a short information easily available online.

So in the end, when you look at what happened in Syria, do you have a feeling that journalists and journalism as such have lost? Have we failed?

Yes, definitely. Most journalists want to simply earn money. They do not want to get immersed too much in a particular story. There are very few people who really do that. An example:I was asked to do a story on refugees. I didn’t really want to do this because I know that in Italy are journalists who due to the fact that our country is especially susceptible to the issue of migration, have already been dealing with this topic for a long time. I felt that they should be the ones to tell the story. This is why I decided to do a report from Hungary on refugees and from Greece on the crisis instead. I felt that I’m obliged to do it. That my Syrian experience forces me to deal with this topic. I made a choice. Meanwhile, many journalists simly jump from one topic to another. This is scary. They come to the epicentre of a problem – may it be Gaza or Aleppo – with no prior preparation. This is why they cannot hope for any assistance from the local community. And then they disappear.

À propos disappearing. In the article for The Guardian you wrote that around 300 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria so far. What happens to them? Why don’t we hear anything about it?

Most of those journalists have been kidnapped because of their own stupidity or naivety. They are usually young freelancers who do not follow any basic rules of safety. This is also the fault of the people who commission writing of articles to those young freelancers – because they are the only ones who are up for the task and not the full-time journalists, who prefer the cozy and safe newsrooms. They are an easy prey for the criminal groups. At the same time, it is important to mention that the greatest danger face local journalists.

Why is that?

Because a foreign correspondent has the support of his/her own government and may go back to the country. Local journalists are getting killed and no one even knows about it. Nobody cares.

But you yourself are also a freelancer. You also started with no experience and in the most dangerous locations.

I quickly realized that the best form of security was provided to me by Syrians themselves, average citizens. In my case, those were mostly women. In order to become one of them, I wore hijab. Of course, it was easy to expose me. Even though I may have dark eyes, there are some features in my appearence that are easy to identify me as not of Syrian heritage – I am taller and thinner than an average Syrian woman. I walk differently. I look at people more boldly. They feel that I come from a different culture, from the West. Even my heands reveal my origins. One time my Syrian caretaker introduced me as her cousin. We were among Syrian women. A child was looking at me and then run to his mother saying “She’s not her cousin, look at her hands!”. Women are the curious ones. If they expose me, they surround me, talk to me. A Jihadist watching the whole situation – me surrounded by women treating me as one of their own – thinks I am a Syrian woman.

You talk about Syrians with affection. They made you feel safe but at the same time they allowed a situation when so many people die to emerge. You also could have been in danger.

We have in Italy a very popular book about Syria, Il paese del male…(Eng. The State of Evil). It was written by a journalist who was kidnapped in Syria – Domenico Quirico. I belive it’s the propaganda of racism. You cannot say such things about Syrians, just as you cannot talk about Italy solely through the prism of mafia. Those people are the victims. They are trapped somewhere between the regime, rebels and ISIL. Those who fight are usually not even Syrians. Even if tomorrow I was to be kidnapped, I would not want someone to write that Syria is an evil state.

You strongly defend Syrians, You have the right to do so because you have met them, you were in Syria. This is precisely why I’m curious to know your opinion about the refugees who are already in Europe or on their way to the continent. I met only a few families. They made a strong impressionon me, in a very positive sense, if I may say so. On the other hand, I understand the fear of them. Especially in the light of the threat of terrorism that have been hovering over our heads for many years.

The truth is that in Europe we know very little about Islam. I myself did not know much when I first arrived in the Middle East. I started in Palestine, after the second intifada. I had heard about the suicide attacks, about terrorists. I arrived there and it turned out that my view of what I may expect to face there was very different from what I had heard before. The same rule applies to the Arab culture.

In many aspects the Arab culture is much more advanced than ours. For me, the idea that a community is more important than an individual, that you are who you are because of the influence of your friends, family etc. is something extraordinary. Me and you, even if we are not very religious people, were raised in the circle of Christian culture, we cannot say that we are not Christians. It is in our blood – no matter whether you want it or not. Confronting a different culture and religion is amazing. Christianity is a religion of guilt. Islam is a complete opposite of this. It is a religion of joy. Jihad, as an idea, means fighting for values, there’s no surrendering. It gives strength. Look how persistent are families of refugees, at the youth, at the Arab Spring. They know how to fight for what’s theirs. And us? I work with no contract. I have nothing. Young people in Europe often receive financial help from their parents. And we do nothing about it. We do not rebel. They have the courage we lack.

They are definitely strong, determined and in a way joyful people. But let’s look at what is happening. For how long will this energy suffice? After a terrible journey they arrive in Europe and expect that they will have a better life. What they actually get are walls, barbed wires, camps. Even if they survive this hard transition they cannot expect any luxuries. They will face disappointment and a kind of anger. We should expect troubles.

I agree. Their expectations will not be met in Europe. That’s for sure. But the problems can occur when the second wave of refugees comes. Those who are fleeing their countries now are well aware of the fact that this is their only chance to survive. Thy leave behind ruins and war. They are really humble. Syrians differ from the immigrants from, for instance, Africa. In Syria, the standard of living was not much different from the standards we are accustomed to. They are not coming to Europe from a poor country. Most of them are atheist Muslims with higher education degrees. Of course, their education process looks differently – an engineer is educated differently in Syria and in Europe. A Syrian engineer definitely cannot expect to quickly find a job outside of the home country or to live in the best district of Berlin. The refugees usually land in the ouskirts of the cities they come to. They are bound to be disappointed. Even more as most of them leave their country with their children – not one child, but several. Supporting such a big family is difficult even for the Europeans with high salaries. I have difficulties to imagine what will happen in the near future. The thing I fear the most is radicalization of the European societies.

Just before our conversation I came across some data according to which 56% of Germans believe that they should not accept any new refugees. That’s ten percentage points more than a month ago. In September 2015, only 28% were against opening the borders for Syrians. This is precisely why I fear that the wave of Syrian refugees may trigger a strong reaction of nationalist movements.

Now everything is in our hands. It all depends on whether we will understand that refugees will eventually bring economic growth. Because Europe needs it, it is in the state of crisis. But poor Europeans may easily pin their own difficult situation to the arrival of the refugees. Because in the place where they live the gap between the poor and the wealthy is enormous.

This gap may be used by racists and their propaganda.

That’s what I fear. And we can already see that this is happening. This is why when I was asked to report on this situation, on how Europeans welcome refugees with open arms, I refused. Media overdid it a little. Of course, average people behave better than politicians, but the best examples of humanitarian gestures I saw happened in the places where refugees were only passing by.

I witnessed the same thing. In Serbia and Hungary, blankets and food were distributed by ordinary people. The governemnts provided buses, trains. Why? To make the refugees move further away. I’ve noticed this even before the international media focused on Hungary, and now I’m torn – on the one hand, there are all this terrible human tragedies; on the other, a developing propaganda against the refugees. There is no “in-between”.

I see it simplarly. I do not want to sound cynical about it, but I wonder, how many tearjerking stories is one person able to read. One, two, three? Why publishers do not want to show the problem in a broader context? At least to explain why those people flee their countries NOW? I would love to meet people who help them, to know their reasons. But publishers do not want this. Why? Because those topics involve politics.

Example: since July, in Bagdad take place demonstrations of secular Iraqi people. Since July! I have submitted a few article proposals to different media and nobody wants to deal with this. Because it is a political topic. Because according to them, the demonstrations do not represent the majority of the Iraqis. It’s an absurdQ The squares in Bagdad are filled with those people! But it is much more convenient to think about every Iraqi as Shia. For this reason, journalists should have the courage to write about it. To sneak the “uncomfortable” information in to the mainstream media.

Do you believe in journalistic solidatiry?

No, I don’t. But I do have to do my job and I do it the best I can. I just don’t know whether I will do it as a journalist or a writer. I will find a way. For now, I’m not going back to Syria.It’s not a place for me at the moment.

The article was originally published in Polish at

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz

Joanna Lopat
Francesca Borri