NPR’s Kelly McEvers Drafts History, Documents Her Own Story In Syria
Kelly McEvers spent three years based in Baghdad and Beirut covering the Middle East for NPR. She started her assignment with instructions not to miss a day in Iraq as the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal deadline approached.
“Then in late 2010, a guy set himself on fire in Tunisia, and everything changed,” McEvers told KGOU’s World Views host Suzette Grillot. “I was swept up with millions of other people in this thing called the Arab Spring.”
McEvers says U.S. policy toward Syria is heavily influenced by the decade-long sectarian conflict that developed after the invasion of Iraq.
Journalists covering the Middle East in 2003 knew they might become war correspondents. But McEvers says there was never a moment when a switch was flipped declaring Syria’s conflict a civil war.
“For us it was more like we’re following these characters – these people, these sources, these activists, these citizen journalists, these Syrians – who were helping us tell their stories,” McEvers says. “People were tortured to death in prison and we reported these stories every single day. As the people picked up arms to fight back, we knew where that was headed. We knew it wasn’t good. But again, we weren’t going to stop telling these stories.”
McEvers covered Iraq for NPR alongside Anthony Shadid of The New York Times, and called the Oklahoma native "the reason she moved to Beiruit." Shadid passed away in February 2012 after suffering an asthma attack near the Syrian-Turkish border.
“Losing him…made us all think, ‘Whoa, hold on. Is this worth it? Is any story worth dying for?’ McEvers says. “When you look at Anthony’s little boy, you think to yourself, ‘No way.’”
Around that time, McEvers took a step back and realized she needed to tell her own story. She partnered with public radio producer Jay Allison of Transom.org to produce a documentary called Diary of a Bad Year, where she explored why reporters choose to do a job that could get them killed, and what, if anything, could make them stop?
“When you’re in a tough situation, you see very clearly,” McEvers says. “The colors are vivid. You can smell and hear and taste, and as a journalist, you want to get all those details.”
McEvers also says journalists also have an important role writing the first page of history.
“Someday if Bashar al-Assad sits in the International Criminal Court, I’m going to feel very good about the work I was able to do documenting the abuses against the Syrian people for the two years that I did it, me and my colleagues and our bureau,” McEvers says.
On what drew her to international journalism
I went to journalism school at Northwestern, I got a job with the Chicago Tribune, and immediately the people who drew me, and who I looked up to were the foreign correspondents. The people who felt like they were on the front of everything, telling us what seemed to be some of the most important news of the time. At that time it was the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, you know, for me, in the late ‘90s, and I tried to just figure out what was the path to being a foreign correspondent. I ended up leaving the paper, working at a small English language daily in Cambodia. I decided not to wait around for my big break at the newspaper, but to just go try it myself, and I ended up working in Southeast Asia for five years. After 9/11 I think a lot of journalists, especially young journalists, knew that, eventually, you know, all roads were probably going to lead to the Middle East.
On her experiences as a woman reporting in the Middle East
Women are disarming in some ways. When you go into a situation and you’re interviewing people, there’s something just a little bit less threatening about us. That’s just a fact. We’re also able to be in disguise. You know if I’m going through regime checkpoints, and I don’t want the Syrian government to know I’m there. If I put on a head scarf and dress like a local, it’s easier for me to get past than my male colleagues. And then my favorite thing about being a woman, particularly in the Middle East, is that we are able to access everybody. If a male colleague is working in an area that’s very conservative, a neighborhood or town, the men and the women are kept separate from each other. And so the male colleague is only able to talk to the men. I’m able to talk to everybody. I can talk to the women and the children, who are kept in the back of the house and hear the stories that the women are going to tell. And I can talk to the men with their cigarettes and their guns, and you know all the war stories from the front lines. So I mean I personally think it’s fantastic to be a woman working in the Middle East and be a woman as a journalist. I wouldn’t really have it any other way.
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Kelly McEvers, welcome to World Views.
KELLY McEVERS: Thank you very much.
GRILLOT: So you have this wonderful career, and we’re going to get to all these things that you’ve done, but, you know, you came from a small town, really, in Illinois, how did you end up as a war correspondent? What took you down that path? It doesn’t seem logical, coming, perhaps, from small-town Illinois.
McEVERS: I ask myself that question every day, and so does my mother. I, you know, for me, it was about being a journalist. I went to the University of Illinois. I was studying political science and English literature. Not two fields that, you know, could see an immediate career path unless I was going to become an academic. One day a friend suggested, “Maybe you should work for the school newspaper? I thought that might make sense for you.” I tried it out, I did my first story, it was on the front page, and I was hooked. From that moment I knew what I wanted to be, and I was a journalist. I went to journalism school at Northwestern, I got a job with the Chicago Tribune, and immediately the people who drew me, and who I looked up to were the foreign correspondents. The people who felt like they were on the front of everything, telling us what seemed to be some of the most important news of the time. At that time it was the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, you know, for me, in the late ‘90s, and I tried to just figure out what was the path to being a foreign correspondent. I ended up leaving the paper, working at a small English language daily in Cambodia. I decided not to wait around for my big break at the newspaper, but to just go try it myself, and I ended up working in Southeast Asia for five years. After 9/11 I think a lot of journalists, especially young journalists, knew that, eventually, you know, all roads were probably going to lead to the Middle East, you know. I was, I ended up stationing myself in Muslim countries, Indonesia, and then later in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, and I think I knew, you know, someday it’s gonna be the Middle East, I’m gonna be in the Middle East. I got based in the Middle East in 2008. I was in Saudi Arabia. I joined the staff of NPR in 2010, went to Baghdad, watched the end of, you know, the U.S. occupation there, and then, you know, late 2010, a guy set himself on fire in Tunisia, and everything changed, and I was swept up with, you know, the millions of other people in this thing called the Arab Spring. And so for me it was really, I was covering the stories of the Middle East. It just so happens that, as they often do, the stories of the Middle East, turned into stories about war.
GRILLOT: So I think that is a very interesting transition point is that you didn’t really set out to be a war correspondent, you set out to be a foreign correspondent and travel to interesting places and tell interesting stories about foreign cultures and the lives that people were living there. And yet you end up, you know, spending the past three years in basically a state of war in the Middle East. What’s that like? How did you make that transition from being a journalist reporting the news to being in the midst of, the thick of, you know, civil war in Syria?
McEVERS: I mean I think we know with a lot of conflicts they don’t just kind of happen overnight. I mean with Iraq it was pretty stark, right, that the United States invaded and then, you know I think we thought it was going to be over faster than it was, and it wasn’t. But you know that was a war. Everybody knew that going to be war, so as a journalist you can sort of put your hand up and say, “I want to be part of that.” That’s definitely not what I did. You know, again, I was covering these Arab uprisings in places like Bahrain, Yemen and ultimately, Syria — things that started as protest movements, you know. So it’s not like as Syria devolved into civil war, which it clearly did, there wasn’t one day when we knew that was true. You know, it wasn’t one moment where somebody sort of just flipped the switch and it was like, “Oh, it’s a civil war.” For us it was more like we’re following these characters, these people, these sources, these activists, these citizen journalists, these Syrians, who were, you know, helping us tell their stories. And as they’re situation kind of slowly, slowly deteriorated, it wasn’t like we were just going to turn around and walk away from them and say, “Oops, well, it’s a war, gotta go home.” At least that’s how it was for me. And even though going into this I knew I was going into what was increasingly becoming a very dangerous situation for me, I still felt very compelled by the stories I was telling. This Syrian regime from the get-go cracked down on protesters worse than any other regime in the region with killing protesters in the streets, detaining them, torturing them, beating them. People were tortured to death in prison, and we reported these stories every single day, you know. As the people then in response picked up arms to fight back, we knew where that was headed, we knew it wasn’t good. But again, we weren’t going to stop telling the stories.
GRILLOT: But yet, this is extremely tough work. I mean the things you’re witnessing, the things you’re seeing, but also the fact that journalists have suffered throughout this time in the Middle East and elsewhere. But you have friends that have been lost. I mean the danger here, of being, you know, the one reporting on these stories, and yet it’s so vital that you’re there, but it’s so dangerous to be there.
McEVERS: Yeah. 2012 was the deadliest year on record for journalists as long as we’ve been keeping records, says the Committee to Protect Journalists. And those people aren’t just numbers, they’re my friends. You know, we lost Anthony Shadid of The New York Times. He lived in Beirut where I lived. He’s the reason I moved to Beirut. We were friends in Baghdad. He encouraged me to move to Beirut. He said, “Oh it’s just a [fascinating]…” He was just one of these people that just loved what he was doing, was so fascinated with the region and was so good at writing about it. He was an Arab-American, so he understood. He’s from here, he’s from Oklahoma.
GRILLOT: You know, of course we love him and think of him fondly and miss him so much because he’s been very good to us, here, at the university and in our community here.
McEVERS: Yeah. He understood it because his family’s rooted in Lebanon, so he spoke Arabic and understood both worlds: the world that he was telling the stories to, here, and the world he was telling stories about. Losing him was just…made us all realize…and he didn’t die in combat, but he died going into Syria. And made us all think, you know, “Whoa, hold on, is this worth it? Is anything worth dying [for]? Is any story worth dying for?” You know when you look at Anthony’s little boy, you think to yourself, “No way.” And so it was right around this time I started thinking, you know, I’m doing this work, but I feel like I need to examine it. I need to take a couple of steps back. I need to talk to people. I need to make sure, “Am I doing the right thing?” I felt myself sort of sliding down a slippery slope, and it was going too fast, and I wanted to step back. And I ended up working with this amazing radio producer, Jay Allison of “This I Believe” fame on NPR, one of the best radio producers in the business. And he really helped kind of tease out of me that I maybe had a story to tell about that process. You know, I was interviewing psychotherapists, brain scientists, other foreign correspondents, the daughter of a correspondent who was killed, who is still very angry at him for dying for a story. And just tried to pull back and examine what was going on, and it ended up being an hour-long documentary, radio documentary, called Diary of a Bad Year. And you know, I didn’t answer the question definitively, but I tried to get at this notion of why do, you know, otherwise fairly educated people choose to do a job that could get them killed? You know we’re not like soldiers. We’re not serving our country. This is completely by choice that we do this. And so why do we do that? You know and what, if anything, can make us stop?
GRILLOT: So tell us a little bit about this project and what about it is. What were some of your answers to that question? And what are some of the things that were most striking to you during your time in the Middle East at this very, very tumultuous time?
McEVERS: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a couple of things. It’s some combination of compulsion and cause. Someone said that to me recently, and I really like that. Compulsion, in that, when you do this work, there’s something very, there’s something very exciting about it. And it’s physical. It’s biological. I mean we emit, you know, adrenaline to get ourselves through tough situations. There are people who talk about adrenaline addiction. I don’t think it’s like so much like that, but I think when you’re in a tough situation, whether you’re bungee jumping or whatever, you see very clearly. The colors are vivid. You can smell and hear and taste. And as a journalist, of course, you want to get all those details. That feels good. Something about that feels good. And of course you also feel like you’re doing something very important. Here are these horrible regimes that are exacting this brutality on their own people, and we’re right there. We are documenting it. We are writing the first page of history, you know. Someday if Bashar al-Assad sits in the International Criminal Court, I’m going to feel very good about the work I was able to do documenting the abuses against the Syrian people for the two years that I did it, me and my colleagues and our bureau. So that, you know, there’s a mission to it, and it’s something that has to be done. We cannot stop doing that. But, you know, I think you also kind of have to look at some of the things about it that aren’t so good, you know. You start to feel invincible. Why does that happen? You know you start think that the, you kind of believe that the bullets go around you. I think there’s a lot of denial among war correspondents. I think soldiers, people who do this professionally, are little bit more honest with themselves about what’s at stake. Journalists sort of pretend like they’re never gonna to die. So whenever somebody dies, we’re all shocked and horrified. We want investigations. We want answers. And really, in truth, we should say, “We should have known this was going to happen,” because this is what happens. When you go into a place with bullets, you get shot. When you go into a place with airstrikes and shells, you get killed. You’re not special. Those are the harder things to talk about. Those are things I try to talk about in the project.
GRILLOT: So, I have to ask. You know, you’re a woman going in to not only the Middle East to report on the Middle East but to report on war and conflict and violence and all of these, you know, violent things going on against women and against different groups of people, you know. How were you received? How is that different? Was your experience different from your male colleagues along those lines?
McEVERS: You know, it’s so interesting right now, the best, hands down, the best journalists covering the conflict in Syria are women. I mean, all, if you look at the major newspapers, the major news organizations that conflict is being covered by women. And you know to some degree that’s just kind of coincidence that you know these women have sort of gotten to this position within their own news organizations. But I think there is something that needs to be said about that. Women are disarming in some ways. When you go into a situation and you’re interviewing people, there’s something just a little bit less threatening about us. That’s just a fact. We’re also able to be in disguise. You know if I’m going through regime checkpoints, and I don’t want the Syrian government to know I’m there. If I put on a head scarf and dress like a local, it’s easier for me to get past than my male colleagues. And then my favorite thing about being a woman, particularly in the Middle East, is that we are able to access everybody. If a male colleague is working in an area that’s very conservative, a neighborhood or town, the men and the women are kept separate from each other. And so the male colleague is only able to talk to the men. I’m able to talk to everybody. I can talk to the women and the children, who are kept in the back of the house and hear the stories that the women are going to tell. And I can talk to the men with their cigarettes and their guns, and you know all the war stories from the front lines. So I mean I personally think it’s fantastic to be a woman working in the Middle East and be a woman as a journalist. I wouldn’t really have it any other way.
GRILLOT: This is kind of a rare thing, though. You know, when you compare it to any other types of professions, in terms of being an advantage to being a woman, especially even with children, to be spending time…and I think that disarming thing is interesting but also that you don’t feel threatened, perhaps. That that’s part of the allure for those to talk to you is that you’re there. And here you are a woman, and you’re there to talk to them.
McEVERS: I think it’s one of the things, one of the biggest misconceptions about the Middle East is that they treat their women so badly that they must have treated you really badly. And first of all they don’t. There are places, there are stories we’ve heard about remote villages from one place or another where women have been treated horribly, yes. And it’s more about culture than it is about religion. I have to say that spending time in the Middle East, it’s one of the most hospitable places I have ever been. I’ve never treated better than I was treated in Syria. I’ve, you know, we didn’t lock our doors. You know, I had guys, you now, fighters telling me, “Oh be careful there’s a puddle there. I don’t want you get yourself dirty.” And I’m like, “We’re in a war zone. I haven’t showered in five days, and, you know, I’m already filthy but thank you.” I mean the concern, the care… I know there have been problems with sexual violence against women, and particularly Western women, in places like Egypt. It’s just not something we ever saw in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, any of the places that I worked. Yemen, oh, Yemen is the most hospitable place. They treat you like a queen.
GRILLOT: Well this is a very unusual narrative I think, in terms of what we normally think of. So in the brief time we have left, I mean you’ve been in a lot of places, you’ve reported all around the world as you were indicating earlier. Your time in the Middle East and you write about the Diary of the Bad Year, did you have you have any diaries of bad years in other parts of the world? I mean, how would your time in the Middle East compare to your time in the former Soviet region or Malaysia or Cambodia?
McEVERS: You know, you can draw similarities particularly about how do countries deal with refugees, for instance, or how do people put themselves back together after conflict or after a natural disaster or something. But I just, and I knew this, when I was like I said all roads led to the Middle East, nothing has been or will ever be as vivid as the Arab Spring. I just don’t know how to impart like how completely transformational that moment was in the Middle East for me as a journalist, of course. Just to witness something so completely monumental and we’re just in the beginning of it. You know I think people think, “Oh, it’s over. It’s devolved into chaos. Isn’t that what always happens in the Middle East? It’s a place that’s just rife with conflict?” No. It really is a major, major shift in how things are done. And so there’s never been anything like, I’ve never seen anything like it in all the countries that I’ve been to. It’s clearly the one that stands out and will always stand out.
GRILLOT: Well thank you, Kelly, for being with us today. It’s so interesting to hear your on-the-ground perspectives, and we certainly appreciate you sharing our story with us.
McEVERS: You are welcome.
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