London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Jon Lee Anderson is an author, investigative reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker. He has reported from warzones across the world including Afghanistan, Iraq, Uganda, El Salvador, and most recently Syria. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Jon Lee Anderson spoke about his relationship with Marie Colvin, the US journalist who was killed recently in Syria, describing her as a “larger than life figure” and fearless”. He also recounted his own experiences reporting from Syria and other conflict zones around the world, as well as his take on the Arab Spring.
Anderson reported from Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9/11 attacks, writing a book about his experiences in Afghanistan, “The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan”. He is also the author of other books including “The fall of Baghdad” and “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.”
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our Arab readers a little bit about yourself?
[Anderson] I am American, born in California in 1957, but raised abroad in many different countries (Indonesia, Colombia, Taiwan, South Korea, Liberia, to name a few) due to my father’s work in the US foreign service. My mother was a writer of children’s books. I have lived outside of the United States for most of my adult life as well, in such countries as Cuba, Spain, Peru, and El Salvador; I currently live in the UK. In 1980 I began my career in journalism as a reporter in Peru; I later covered the guerrilla wars in Central America as a stringer for TIME magazine and the columnist Jack Anderson. I wrote several books about conflict, two of them co-authored with my brother Scott Anderson, and went on to write a book about guerrillas, (“Guerrillas” 1992) for which I did research in five insurgencies around the world (El Salvador, Palestine, Western Sahara, Afghanistan and Burma). This was followed by a five year project into the life of Che Guevara, which resulted in the biography “Che: A Revolutionary Life”.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you know Marie Colvin?
[Anderson] I had heard of Marie for many years but we had never met until coinciding in Lebanon in 2006, during Israel’s war against Hezbollah. We met again, and got to know one another better last August and September in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s flight from Tripoli. She invited me to go sailing with her – sailing was her private passion – last autumn in London on the Thames and it is my lasting regret that time didn’t permit it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our Arab readers a little about Marie Colvin, what was she like?
[Anderson] Marie was a larger-than-life figure, a fearless, but nonetheless quiet, humorous, even shy woman, very feminine and personally likeable and yet very committed to putting herself where few others would dare to go, spurred on always by a sense of humanity and of adventure. All of these attributes made her a legend in her own time. In the Israeli siege of Tyre in 2006, she was there; and again in Libya with the fall of Gaddafi. With the siege of Homs, it was a given that if anyone was going in, it was going to be Marie.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What key lessons can we learn from her life? What do you think is her lasting legacy?
[Anderson] Bravery, honesty and a commitment to the idea that journalism is a public service worth dying for.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that there is an inherent level of danger that comes with working for the media in a Middle Eastern country? Can you tell us about some of your own experiences in this regard?
[Anderson] Yes, is the answer to the first question. In the Middle East there has not been a tradition of freedom of expression or impartial or independent journalism for very long, and in some countries, not at all. In general the journalists have worked for state organs and are seen by many as propagandists for their regime; in some cases, that is even how they see themselves. This makes it hard for outside journalists to overcome the longstanding suspicions of journalists by people in the countries they visit. Since their only experience in many cases is that reporters are something like functionaries, or even spies, it is often what they believe us to be as well. This misunderstanding and suspicion is the greatest impediment to mutual understanding that I have encountered in years of coming and going from the Middle East.
The dangers manifest themselves in many ways: In the Middle East, one can, as a Westerner, be detained or arrested by local authorities on suspicion that he or she is really something else; one can be grabbed by an angry mob in protests for the same reason. In some places, where Islamist sentiment is strong and with it, feelings of fear and xenophobia towards outsiders, the risk of being attacked is great. At one or another time, each of the scenarios I describe above have happened to me, sometimes more than once, fortunately without lasting harm, in countries all across the region, from Palestine to Afghanistan. In conclusion: Ignorance is the biggest risk we face.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the threat to western journalists greater than to others?
[Anderson] Yes and no. There have been many Arab journalists killed in recent years in their own countries, targeted for the mere fact that they are journalists. Western reporters stand out more for obvious reasons which makes them sometimes more vulnerable. They have also become specific targets ever since extremist Islamists decided it was OK to kill people because of their faith, national origin, and cultural identity. Therefore they can be targeted because of the mere fact that they are Westerners. Everyone remembers Daniel Pearl, and there have been others since.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can people working in the media in the Middle East do to keep themselves safe?
[Anderson] Share information and consult with one another about the existing dangers in an up-to-the-minute way; always be intuitive, and follow one’s instincts. Calculate the risks, never charge into places without local contacts and the benefit of local knowledge.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the deaths of Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and Anthony Shadid will act as a deterrent for the new generation of journalists?
[Anderson] For a few yes, it will be a deterrent, but not for most of those who are already used to putting themselves in harm’s way to get the story. It won’t stop them from trying to tell the story in Syria and in other countries, too, however dangerous they become, because that’s what reporters have always done, and will always do.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you ever feel that your own life was personally in danger when reporting a story?
[Anderson] I didn’t just feel it – it was! In the Middle East, many times, more than I can count. Most recently in Rankous, a besieged town in Syria which the army began shelling after myself and three companions visited there. Eventually, after we called the foreign ministry and asked them to cease fire, they did so, but in the meantime, a shell hit the house next door to the one we were in, and someone was wounded just outside.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you find it difficult to report about the situation from Syria surrounded by government minders? Did they allow you free access to the people?
[Anderson] Curiously, perhaps because of the moment in which I went to Syria – at the end of the Arab League mission in late January – I was not, as I expected to be, constantly surrounded by minders. I was free to go, more or less wherever I wanted, for much of the time. There were some dangers in doing this, which I have detailed in my recent article “The Implosion” [published by the New Yorker, 27 February, 2012] but I was fortunate that nothing bad happened to me or the people I was with in the end. I should say that it was not easy to speak to people in Syria that felt free to give their opinion, but they did exist, and did so, despite the risks to themselves, to a degree that surprised me. The Syrians generally impressed me as remarkably brave people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the Arab Spring still represents a positive step forward for the region or is the situation in the Middle East getting out of hand?
[Anderson] It depends on where you look. Tunisia, arguably, is on a seemingly better path today than it was before, under Ben Ali. Time will tell if the moderation and will to peace in that country remains, or if this is a chimera, but it seems there is a good chance that it will emerge as a model for change. Libya, next door, is a mess, and likely to get worse. In the absence of Gaddafi, we see militias and a weak, almost non-existent central government. Libya’s main problem may well be the lack of a true state as we know it; this is something that can be built, but it will take a lot of applied work by a great many people. The Libyans, as well as friends of Libya around the world, must ensure that the militias don’t take over, or plunge the country into a civil war. Egypt and Yemen seem to have embarked on cynically pragmatic, if messy, middle roads in which elements of the former disgraced/fallen regimes have retained some means of control. It seems likely that this path will bring about somewhat changed societies, perhaps less corrupt and with new players at the helm — but not necessarily happy societies. As for Syria, this is a catastrophe unfolding before our eyes, with an unforeseen ending to the story.
In conclusion to your question: The Arab Spring is both things right now, both a positive step forward and also the Middle East getting out of hand. We need more time to know which way the pendulum will swing the hardest.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the death of foreign journalists, such as Marie Colvin, will coerce the international community into swifter action?
[Anderson] Marie and Remi’s deaths (and that of Anthony Shadid, of asthma, inside Syria, a few days before they were killed) briefly galvanized public attention both in the media and in political circles, as to the scale of the violence taking place inside Syria. However the utility that their deaths might have in expediting humanitarian relief to the people in need, say, in Homs, has already begun to dissipate. The deaths of journalists don’t often serve to accelerate solutions to conflicts, but rather help heighten awareness of them as well as to deepen the atmosphere of growing crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you visualize a period of time when there will actually be true peace in the Middle East?
[Anderson] No, frankly, I can’t. To say so would be puerile, like a politician. In the Middle East, the only certainty is more war. Maybe after that [there will be peace], but first, sadly, there will be more death and destruction.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What advice would you give to budding journalists wanting to report from conflict zones?
[Anderson] Follow your instincts, seek advice from older, more experienced reporters, and if possible travel with one; always take your cue on what is happening from local civilians, because they will always know more than any visitor from abroad, however experienced. Another thing: One moment of “bang bang” is not worth one’s life. If you travel to a zone of conflict, try and find a genuine reason to be there, something that makes your presence, and the risks you are taking, worthwhile not just to yourself but for others.