London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Stuart Ramsay is the Chief Correspondent of Sky News, reporting on all major global stories and currently based in Sky’s New Delhi bureau. This year, Ramsay has been covering the “Arab Spring”, reporting from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria.
Formerly Chief News Correspondent for Five News and prior to that Sky News’ Africa Correspondent, Ramsay is the recipient of multiple awards, which include the Royal Television Society News Channel of the Year award for Sky News’ coverage of the Pakistan Swat Valley,as well as an Emmy award and a BAFTA nomination in 2010. Since joining Sky News in 1994, Ramsay has built up a wealth of experience covering wars, having reported extensively throughout the Middle East, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Africa and Chechnya.
In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Ramsay spoke about his recent visit to Syria earlier this month, during which he spent time undercover, gaining rare access to daily life amidst the violence which has beset the country over the course of this year. During his visit, Ramsay spent a period of four days in Homs, the base of the Free Syrian Army, where he met and spoke with civilians to gain a unique insight into the conflict.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you please tell our Arab readers a little about yourself and explain what led you into journalism?
[Ramsay] I suppose I have followed a tried and tested route into journalism. I left university and joined a small newspaper group in Wales where I was born. I stayed there learning the job as an apprentice before moving to London to work for agencies and the nationals such as The Times and The Sun. A friend worked in television and he arranged an interview with a company called TV-am. It was a morning TV programme. I moved there and then after they did a deal with Sky News to provide their news programming I moved to Sky where I have been ever since – 20 years!
[Asharq al-Awsat] Did you have an interest in the Middle East before the Arab Spring, or was it these revolutions that sparked your interest in the region?
[Ramsay] As a news reporter for over 25 years, it would be impossible not to have been interested, and indeed affected, by the Middle East. It has been a significant part of my professional life. At Sky News I have been fortunate to have been based in a number of countries – Russia, USA, Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Delhi and now Dubai. As a fairly compact company, reporters like myself are regularly used to cover regions not necessarily on their “patch”. So I have worked extensively in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Iraq, Jordan and many others.
Clearly though at the start of 2011, and with the Arab Spring emerging, it became clear to me that I would be spending a lot more time covering the quite remarkable events that happened in the region.
As Tunisia came and went quickly followed by Egypt then Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria I think we all struggled to cope with the momentous changes that were happening and struggled physically to cover these stories. For example I left my home in Delhi in the second week of January – I returned in May!
[Asharq al-Awsat] How did the decision to go into Syria undercover come about?
[Ramsay] Contrary to what the Syrian government may say we have regularly applied for visas to enter Syria and report on events inside the country; but my requests have been refused. I have travelled twice undercover into Syria. The first time was some months ago when the refugee crisis looked like it was going to overwhelm Turkey. But as the months passed we felt that we were not getting to the real story, and we needed to see for ourselves what was happening inside the cities leading the protests. So we identified Homs as the best example and decided that regardless of the Syrian government’s refusal to give us visas we would try to get inside. It may sound a bit corny, but I genuinely believe my job is to bear witness to events and report it to the world – that is why we decided to get into Syria. I would say that our pictures of civilians being fired upon while shopping for their daily bread is proof that we were right to go in.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How long did you stay in Beirut and what did your stay there entail?
[Ramsay] Beirut was our staging post and a place where we could talk to Syrians who had escaped their country. Lebanon provided us with the opportunity to safely meet and talk to people who would risk their own lives to help us. We were there about three weeks.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How long did you stay in Homs?
[Ramsay] I was in Homs for four days but in Syria for about six.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Were you assisted by any activists?
[Ramsay] Yes the network of activists and the Free Syrian Army worked together to move us around and to find safe places to stay. It was very, very dangerous for them and we thank them for their help; without their assistance none of this would have been possible.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you provide any details about the violence that you witnessed?
[Ramsay] There is a lot of fighting taking place. Sporadic gunfights between the government forces and the FSA around their checkpoints which can turn into fairly long battles for territory.
On occasion some areas of Homs were shelled by Syrian government forces, forcing men, women and children to hide in their houses and basements.
We witnessed food queues being attacked by sniper fire for sustained periods of time and we saw men and children with single shot injuries to their heads and bodies. The single shot injury is usually an indicator of a trained sniper.
We were fired on as we tried to escape the city as it became clear that a government move on the area of Homs we were staying in was about to happen.
The worst thing is the pain being suffered by the children. Ordinary life has ended for them. There are no open schools and the sound of fighting never stops. I met a family of four children; their father had been killed by the Shabiha as he drove home. Their mother is in mourning. They seemed lost and helpless.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Did you witness any severe human rights violations by the government or others – or was it easier to gauge them from people’s stories? Do you have any specific examples of this? What is your own opinion on the matter?
[Ramsay] I would say that a food queue being attacked is an extreme human rights violation. Tanks and checkpoints around a city designed to stop people gathering to ask for the right to vote would be a rights violation in my opinion as well.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Bashar al-Assad told Barbara Walters that he was not in charge of the army or their actions, and that the UN death toll figures were wrong – what do you make of this?
[Ramsay] It matters not one bit who gave the orders. If al-Assad doesn’t know or denies involvement, he is inept and should stand down; if he does know he is guilty. The UN figures are certainly wrong – they are too low!
[Asharq al-Awsat] In your opinion, how do you think the situation in Syria will come to an end?
[Ramsay] It is very difficult to see what is going to happen next. The protestors want no-fly zones and buffer areas to call their own – they won’t get them. If the army were to decide that enough is enough, then it could end extremely quickly, but that looks unlikely at this stage and the country’s huge security service could keep the lock down on protests going for months. I suspect we are a long way from a resolution one way or the other.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Do you think that the Arab Spring has really made a difference towards steering the Middle East towards democracy?
[Ramsay] Obviously it has been dramatic and revolutionary but it has yet to deliver real democratic change and the benefits that go with it – but it is early days.
Tunisia and Egypt have major problems as we are witnessing. Libya is just getting going and there is a huge amount to do. But this has got to be better than vast swathes of the Arab people being dictated to by unelected dynasties who aren’t royalty either. Change is happening and it is intoxicating to watch and to be absolutely honest it is a privilege for me to meet and mix with the real heroes of this revolution – the Arab people.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What was the atmosphere surrounding ‘the battle of the camels’ in Tahrir square?
[Ramsay] What a day that was. I will never forget it – ever! I had been in the square for days but decided to leave and came across a small pro-Mubarak gathering on the Corniche in Cairo. That suddenly swelled and we joined with Mubarak people as they swept into the square. I looked at the anti-government people and they looked beaten – their revolution was slipping away.
But they gathered themselves and attacked and before long we were in the midst of an enormous stone throwing fight. The anti-government people had retaken the square and pushed the pro-government people out; then as negotiations took place we heard a shout. My producer Neville Lazarus shouted “Oh my God, Stuart – it’s a charge!” Through the crowds camels and horses galloped into the protestors before being engulfed and attacked. It was incredible, but it started two days of terrible fighting that left scores dead and injured. Within a few hours Cairo was burning.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What is your impression of the younger generation taking the lead in the Arab revolutions?
[Ramsay] This is the most important aspect of the Arab Spring – the youth. It has been inspiring, fantastic, enlightening and a truly moving experience. Finally meeting the people who are prepared to suffer no more; who say as one – Enough! I have been so impressed. Across all these countries young men and women from all walks of life have come together to bring change and they have embraced us as outsiders and helped us and risked so much. We broadcast their message and I know that it is useful for them. But I have met and made friends with boys and girls who are pioneers. It is very uplifting.
[Asharq al-Awsat] You have been a correspondent in Africa, USA, Moscow and Ireland – what was your favourite placement?
[Ramsay] Well it has been an honour doing this job and all the places I have worked in have a special place. I suppose on balance my first full foreign correspondent job in Moscow has special memories because I had “made” it. I still remember a feeling of euphoria as I drove to work on my first day past the enormous Soviet buildings and under the shadow of Moscow University on a hill overlooking the hotel where our office was based. However Dubai is fun, and of course it is very handy for the work that continues to dominate my professional life – the Arab Spring.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Do you find television broadcasting more satisfying than newspaper journalism and if so, why?
[Ramsay] I still write a lot for newspapers, and of course for our online output, so it is not as if I have given up anything. Newspapers allow for greater analysis, but the speed of TV and the immediacy of its impact on viewers, and even governments, is something one can’t really top.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What advice would you give to budding journalists and broadcasters?
[Ramsay] Never give up learning and making your work better. Never make up stories and never forget you are there to inform and to bear witness for those who can’t see [for themselves] and for those who can’t be heard.