Evaporated in Syria, the most dangerous place in the world for journalists

James Harkin writes: On May 23, 2012, a 30-year-old Georgetown University law student and former Marine captain, adapting to his newly reduced circumstances as a freelance journalist, crawled under a fence from southern Turkey into northern Syria. Austin Tice had not yet published a single article, but it didn’t matter. Since mass demonstrations had spilled over into a full-scale armed insurgency against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad six months before, Syria was the story that everyone wanted—all the more so because, with the Syrian government keeping a tight lid on visas, hardly any journalists were in the country. Just about the only way inside was to smuggle yourself under the protection of armed rebels, which suited Tice just fine. As a soldier, he already had tours in Afghanistan and Iraq under his belt. Now his ambition was to go back to the region with a fresh pair of eyes and launch a new career as a journalist.

His guide was a bespectacled Syrian-American in his early 50s named Mahmoud—wiry and stubborn, a bit like an older, shorter, Syrian version of Tice himself. After I met him, Mahmoud would show me training videos he had made, one revealing a pro-regime militiaman lying dead at his feet. Tice and Mahmoud bonded quickly, as people do in war zones; Tice would poke fun at Arab procrastination and Mahmoud would call him “White Boy.” Until a few months before, Mahmoud had been leasing out heavy equipment in Atlanta; now he was a soldier in the new Free Syrian Army and on his way to becoming a brigade commander. Things were changing fast, and it was possible to believe that before long the rebels would be in Damascus, and Syria’s creaking Ba’thist regime would be history. Within two days, Tice and Mahmoud had made it to a rebel base in the province of Hama, where Mahmoud had contacts. “Writing like a maniac,” Tice wrote on Twitter, “taking photos, working like crazy.”

Tice turned out to be a gifted journalist. Laid out in scattershot bursts on Flickr and Twitter, mixing descriptions of field maneuvers with the Free Syrian Army and references to country pop, Tice’s information trail made for a thrilling, hard-charging alternative to the flak-jacketed puppetry of much war-zone reporting. He bantered about soccer with rebels in the central Syrian province of Homs, drew on his military background to analyze the weapons and strategy of both sides, and ribbed The New York Times and the rest of the international media for their inability to put a journalist on the ground. (“Srsly guys if any of y’all wanna come down here, I would love some company,” he wrote on Twitter.) Tice’s headstrong, impudent side wasn’t to everyone’s taste—on at least one occasion his rebel hosts had to put him under house arrest for his own safety—but he had the merit of being funny. “Tonight made a good-faith effort to explain gay rights to a fun and well-meaning group of Syrian guys,” he wrote at one point. “Yeah, not the time, not the place.”

In Homs, Mahmoud left to go back north, after which Tice was passed from tiny battalion to tiny battalion, making friends quickly and trusting those he met with his life. By July he had made it to Yabroud, a city north of Damascus, and was writing for The Washington Post. It was around this time, too, that he composed a kind of mission statement as a defense of what he was trying to achieve. [Continue reading…]

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