How I got the story in Syria: one journalist goes undercover

Calgary freelance journalist Jeremy Kroeker snuck into Syria, hid his true identity, and lived as a tourist for three weeks. Rhiannon Russell talks to Kroeker about life undercover, being held by police, and getting the story in a place where it’s too dangerous for foreign reporters to use bylines.

Calgary freelance journalist Jeremy Kroeker snuck into Syria, hid his true identity, and lived as a tourist for three weeks. Rhiannon Russell talks to Kroeker about life undercover, being held by police, and getting the story in a place where it’s too dangerous for foreign reporters to use bylines.

Syria is in the news every day, but it’s difficult to put a face to the stories coming from the latest Arab country striving for revolution. Personal accounts are rarer than the plentiful headlines about the latest riots and demonstrations. Jeremy Kroeker, a freelance journalist from Calgary, spent three weeks in Damascus in October. While there, he met Syrians, including one who contemplated a suicide bombing, was held and interrogated by police, and wrote two anonymous stories for the Toronto Star.

Kroeker recounted his experience to J-Source from a coffee shop in Beirut, Lebanon. He doesn’t dare to go back into Syria. “I just found out that my name is still on a list of people that they’re looking for in Damascus,” he says. “If I were to go back, I might get away with it but the chances are pretty slim.” He’s still pitching to various editors about the revolution. On Sunday, he met with refugees at the Syrian border.

He visited the Middle East for the first time in 2001, and has returned to Syria many times since then — some trips for leisure and some for work. “The reason that I keep going back is not because there’s great stories there, necessarily,” he says, “but because I’m interested in it.”

Since most foreign media are banned from Syria, Kroeker flew into Lebanon in October and obtained a Lebanese visa before crossing the border into Syria. “Flying into the airport and hoping for your visa is pretty risky, because [Syrian officials] might say no,” he says. On his visa, he wrote that he was visiting as a tourist. Border officials didn’t question it. Once he was there, he roomed with Germano Assad, a Brazilian journalist he met in Beirut.

Kroeker has travelled extensively in the past, and has a routine when he gets off the plane. “I’m sure there are more efficient ways to do it, but I basically just show up in a country,” he says. “The first thing I do is find a hotel or a very cheap hostel, then I just encounter people through the hotel or through coffee shops. It takes some time to establish some contacts.” From there, he’ll find a place to rent.

The next challenge was finding people who were willing to talk. Locals are often beaten and tortured by Syrian authorities, so they’re understandably wary to associate with any media. Kroeker started talking to shopkeepers, who he says were eager to talk, since tourism in Damascus is at a standstill.

“What I did is not necessarily what I recommend,” he says. “I never told people what I was doing there. I just told people I was there to study language. I never conducted a formal interview, I never recorded anyone or took any notes. I couldn’t write down any names. In fact, I didn’t want to know many names.”

In one story he wrote, a local man approaches him and ponders whether he’ll become a suicide bomber. This was a chance encounter. “A lot of it is just waiting,” Kroeker says. “Obviously, you can prepare and organize better in different situations, but in Syria right now, it’s a lot of waiting around.”

Another setback is the government’s infiltration of phone lines and the Internet. He and his colleague suspected their phone lines were tapped, and Kroeker took extra precaution to safeguard his email. He used an encrypted browser, and had three email accounts: one for innocent emails from family and friends (“If I was ever captured that was the email address I intended to give them,” he said), one that was fairly “clean,” and a third for correspondence with hiseditor. He deleted emails in that account as soon as he’d read them. The stories he filed were published anonymously to protect his identity.

Kroeker was held by police after he hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take him to Midan, an area busy with revolution. Instead, the driver took him directly to the police station. “My heart sank,” he says. “I thought there was a real possibility that I was going to be in jail for days and maybe kicked out of the country.”

His colleague Assad often worked with a driver whom he trusted, but on this day Kroeker decided not to. “Because time was of the essence, I took a risk and hired a taxi,” he says, “That was a mistake.”  

Police interrogated him about what he was doing in Syria, and Kroeker fabricated a tale that he was a tourist who didn’t know his way around. Assad had written down the town’s name for Kroeker, and police found the sheet of paper. Kroeker said he had been looking for a place to eat, and a local recommended Midan.

“That was a pretty elaborate and strange lie, but I had to maintain it,” he says, “If I didn’t maintain it, they would go immediately after Germano.” Assad had been in Syria for months already, so he had many activist contacts. “I couldn’t afford to get him involved.”

Kroeker hastily deleted all the contacts from his phone and tried desperately to keep his story straight. “I considered the possibility of being arrested before, so I had some idea of what I needed to do in that situation,” he says. Police spent hours cross-checking his answers. In an account for the Star, he wrote: “I could see shackles hanging from the radiator near the window, and a blindfold, and three studded batons. I understood that the police reserved these tools for Syrians, but just seeing them in the same room gave me chills.”

So far, the Syrian government has been careful not to harm foreign media. At worst, they’re kicked out of the country. “I’m sure they could get any sort of information out of me that they wanted if they treated me like a Syrian,” says Kroeker.

The police eventually freed Kroeker after nine hours in custody. He returned to Damascus and laid low for a few days. Why didn’t he leave then?

“I felt like I hadn’t yet accomplished anything, and I also felt like I was on their radar, but because I wasn’t really doing anything ground-breaking that I wasn’t a priority,” he says. “Honestly, I didn’t think they were really watching me closely. And it turns out, that’s true. They were very closely watching my roommate, unfortunately.”

Kroeker said Assad was captured and held for three days. Police interrogated him, but eventually released him, and he has since returned to Brazil. Assad later told Kroeker police had recordings of his conversations from months ago. “They had just been waiting and waiting and watching and waiting for him to get more influential contacts before they moved in on him,” says Kroeker.

“In fact, if I hadn’t been roommates with Germano, I think I would probably still be there,” says Kroeker. When he returned to the house, and realized they’d taken Assad, he immediately left for Beirut.

One of the biggest questions in foreign reporting is how far to go for a story. At what point is the risk too great? The answer can vary from journalist to journalist. A Danish journalist told Kroeker in Syria, “No story is worth your life.” Kroeker agrees, and as a foreign journalist he says it would be difficult to justify risking death for a story. “If I was a Syrian and I was a journalist,” he says, “I might actually risk my life in order to get my story out there. If a story is important enough, if your convictions are strong enough, I think any risk is warranted.”

He mentions Syrian protesters he met who went to demonstrations every weekend. Kroeker would ask to tag along, but they wouldn’t let him. “‘You’re a foreigner, there’s no reason for you to die,’” he remembers them telling him. “‘If we die in our country for our fight, that’s different than you as a foreigner dying for it.’”