The concurrent wars in Iraq and Syria are possibly the most vital of our times. There is something essential about them, as they encompass so much of what gives contemporary international affairs its shape and impetus.
In these conflicts there are authoritarian governments, sectarian militias, religious fanatics and more. It is understandable therefore that Western readers and publics would want to learn about these events; and to do this, we turn to war correspondents. This is a notoriously dangerous job. The conflict in Syria in particular has officially claimed the lives of over 100 journalists, and likely many more.
To get a greater insight both into the conflict and the nature of being a correspondent in such places, I got in touch with Gareth Browne, a freelance journalist. He is currently in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan; he is there to document the fight against ISIS, and to bear witness the oncoming campaign to recapture Mosul from the caliphate.
In short, I asked, why are you in Erbil? What do you hope to accomplish? ‘I’ve been obsessed with the rise of ISIS and the contemporary Middle East for as long as I can remember’, he responded via email. ‘I also can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a journalist’. For him the two things are intertwined. ‘I’d also like to think I can clear up a few misconceptions about the issues facing Iraq and Syria, but perhaps that is a bit too corny/ambitious’.
We discussed the difficulty of doing his job, and the dangers he and others face. ‘It is getting harder and harder to operate in the Middle East, mainly due to flaring conflicts which carry significant kidnap risks, and authoritarian regimes arbitrarily locking up journalists’, he responded. Browne acknowledged that he is lucky in his present location; Erbil is fairly safe for journalists.
When asked what he wanted to witness, Browne responded that he hoped ‘to be reporting on the fall of Mosul, and the collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq. I’d also like to cover some of the issues facing Iraq, i.e. growing Iranian influence, and the oil crash’.
But, he acknowledges, ‘it’s also exciting being out here. There’s definitely something exhilarating about watching history being made first-hand’.
One debate surrounding foreign correspondents and the work they do is one about the language barrier. Can someone who doesn’t speak Arabic truly understand and therefore report upon the Arab world with any insight? I asked Browne, who does have some Arabic: ‘My Arabic isn’t good enough to operate without a translator, but people certainly open up to you if you can make small talk’.
This all adds to local colour. ‘I met a pretty senior Iraqi general last week, it was all very intimidating. We had a little chat in Arabic and he became far friendlier.’
‘Language, culture and politics are all intrinsically linked. I think that is something [Robert] Fisk [of The Independent] has forgotten in the past few years’. Fisk ‘used to be great’, but has now harmed his reputation by applying what many consider to be ulterior motives to every story. ‘Now, he’s more interested in playing into these grand narratives. I’d argue that many of the issues facing Iraq and Syria, particularly ISIS, are fundamentally organic and local. That’s where I think language gives me an edge.’
A mandate to chronicle complexity, then.
‘That being said, there are plenty of great correspondents without language skills. So it clearly isn’t the only variable’, Browne wrote.
My final question was on the subject of university. How did it prepare Browne for your career in journalism?
‘I wrote mainly for The Tab when I was at Exeter’, he said. ‘I did a bit for the official uni paper, but I found it tended to take itself a little too seriously.’
‘Much of it seemed self-indulgent.’
‘The Tab always seemed to put the reader first, that’s why I was, and remain, a big fan of it’, he said.
Why, I asked in parting, do you do what you do? ‘At least part of it is altruistic, giving a voice to those without one’. This means ‘[s]etting the record straight; there are too many misconceptions about Iraq for me to sit still at home’.
A version of this piece was originally published in the October 20 edition of The Cambridge Student.