Nov

24

PeopleHop: Mitch Swenson

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Last week, Bwog sat down with Mitch Swenson, a General Studies student who recently traveled to Syria as a war reporter.

So, sneaking into Syria to report on the war: how do you do that? How does one get started?

Originally, I contacted two journalists that were working for an outfit called War Is Boring, and they had started a Kickstarter in spring to get backing to go into Syria so they could report there as freelancers. It’s not that easy to do these days, you know. I read a lot of their articles and they were pretty good—they had a lot of insight what’s going on militarily and strategically in the region. So I contacted them on Twitter and we exchanged information that we had about the region and how things were unfolding in the spring. We just kept in contact and they asked me if I wanted to go with them.

Was it actually sneaking into the country or did you get a visa?

No, the Syrian government hasn’t really been granting visas for the past few years. When we got there, we thought we might be able to talk our way across the Bab al-Hawa Crossing with Turkey and Syria but there were a lot of car bombs going off on both sides. They had closed the border for the most part and were just allowing the local people who were transporting medical supplies across the border. We actually had a fixer who knew a way to get across: we had to run across a field in Turkey and then go through a little hole in a fence. We ended up in a pomegranate orchard in Syria.

Well, that’s a good place to start. Were you there during any violence? How dangerous did it get?

When we were running across that field in Turkey, there was a watchtower that had spotted us and there were some alarms going off. They fired warning shots.

And then, once we got into Syria, we had some rebels pick us up in a car. The threat of kidnapping in the fall was much worse than it was in the spring. There had been a lot of jihadification in the eastern part of the country, which sort of spread toward the West. The jihadists are more apt to kidnap foreigners than the more moderate Free Syrian Army guys. So we were trying to be careful of that.

When the rebels picked us up, we drove through the mountains because we knew that would be a safer route than going on the main road through the cities. We arrived in Bab al-Hawa, which is a main base for the Free Syrian Army and interviewed them, had some chats. A lot of guns and strategizing.

Did any articles come out of that?

Yeah, I wrote three articles while I was there. Interviewed a lot of Free Syrian Army guys and a lot of smugglers on the border. Smuggling has been a really lucrative profession since the Syrian pound has taken a free fall since the beginning of the war. The price of petrol in Turkey is about five times as much as petrol in Syria, so there’s a really big market for people to steal or smuggle gasoline across the border and sell it to the Turks for big dividends.

Where can people go if they want to find more information about the Kickstarter or what you wrote?

The Kickstarter is actually over, but War is Boring is a collection on Medium.com, which is a website started by some of the people who started Blogspot and Twitter. It’s a pretty good platform—you can log in with your Twitter name and share articles with that.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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22 Comments

  1. Anonymous  

    Now to what matters: is he straight?

  2. Anonymous  

    What an attractive man

  3. cc  

    okay but seriously, what is up with gser's obsession with war? i get it, there are a lot of milvets in gs but a lot of students are just really into talking about and obsessing over war...is this healthy????

  4. yeah yeah ok  

    just have sex with me already

  5. Mmmm

    I'd tap that.

    - Gay Columbia alum

  6. GS

    not really a part of Columbia undergrads

  7. Sherry J. Wolf  

    But what about Gaza?

    Shameful.

  8. Anonymous

    Do the achievements of GS undergrads intimidate you? Do they threaten your intellectual masculinity? Good.

    • No

      But GS dilutes the prestige of my own degree. Why should people who went to community colleges claim the right to say they obtained a BA from Columbia without going through the same application process as I did?

      • Seriously  

        I think we can claim the right because the Board of Trustees awards us a degree from Columbia University. As for "diluting" the "prestige" of your degree, you really need to get a life. No offense, but GS students are universally more impressive that just-out-of-high-school teenagers who have simply been good students (impressive and worthy as that is). You should be grateful for all we add the to the community.You are lucky we are here. Stop whining. We have real world accomplishments and carry the highest average GPAs on campus.

        When you grow up, which you will I hope, you will realize how small and petty this makes you.

        • I never  

          undermined the accomplishments the GS students all have under their belt. And I would probably agree with you - GS students are very much likely to have done more than us "teenagers" considering many are veterans or people who have been working for many years.

          However, I stand by my belief that GS does degrade the reputation of Columbia College (and to an extent SEAS). Why is Columbia the only Ivy that accepts nontraditional students in such a blatant way where there is a whole school set for them? I know quite a few GS students who either went to community colleges or never even WENT to a college and are now calling themselves Columbia undergrads. Why are we the only ones that do this? I went to a boarding school and worked my ass off there (not to mention a hefty bill to my parents each year) to get a seat here and now I am competing with adults and community college students? Call me elitist or snobby but truthfully I am just seeking a rational answer. No malice intended.

          • Seriously  

            @I never:

            It is laughable that you claim no malice but are trashing you fellow students based on their identity. How bigoted. Indeed, you are snobbish and elitist. You are also irrational. I have yet to hear how GS students "degrade" the reputation of Columbia College. If anything, GS burnishes the reputation of the university as a whole – a university the prides itself on its inclusive, egalitarian nature. You have also not articulated why it is a bad thing that we accept non-traditional students. Keep in mind that the majority of students in college today are non-traditional, so if a university is seeking the best and brightest, why exclude a majority of those attending school? You also fail to recognize that we have worked very hard in our previous education and lives as well. Community college students and non-traditional students are just as good as you are,no matter your petulant whining. Please tell me, in a coherent manner – how we are not. Do we not earn our grades here as you do? You seek to make us other by saying that we now "claim" to be Columbia undergrads, but – newsflash – we ARE Columbia undergrads.

            As you grow older, you will realize that people who went to state schools or community colleges are just as good as you are. Your "elite" education does not make you better than anyone else in the world. You are not special. That you are vainly attempting to grasp onto some sense of superiority demonstrates a sad and pathetic inferiority complex that you, for your own benefit, need to get over.

            What do you bring to the school? I can tell you that I add my rather extensive resume to the academic environment, and you benefit from it. Your education is improved for having interacted with someone like me. That you are competing with me and others like me may only be an issue because I am earning better grades than most CC students. That is the very definition of merit.

            You may whine and complain all you want, but it is your attitude that diminishes Columbia College. I have every right to be here, and I have earned my place here in a more meaningful way than you could ever imagine. Get over it.

            So please, grow up, or at the ver least, shut the f*ck up.

          • Grow Up  

            It is laughable that you claim no malice but are trashing you fellow students based on their identity. How b_i_goted. Indeed, you are sno_bbish and elit_ist. You are also irrational. I have yet to hear how GS students "degrade" the reputation of Columbia College. If anything, GS burnishes the reputation of the university as a whole – a university that prides itself on its inclusive, egalitarian nature. You have also not articulated why it is a bad thing that we accept non-traditional students. Keep in mind that the majority of students in college today are non-traditional, so if a university is seeking the best and brightest, why exclude a majority of those attending school? You also fail to recognize that we have worked very hard in our previous educations and lives as well (many of us much harder than you). Community college students and non-traditional students are just as good as you are, no matter your petulant whining. Please tell me, in a coherent manner – how we are not. Do we not earn our grades here as you do? You seek to make us other by saying that we now "claim" to be Columbia undergrads, but – newsflash – we ARE Columbia undergrads.

            As you grow older, you will realize that people who went to state schools or community colleges are just as good as you are. Your "elite" education does not make you better than anyone else in the world. You are not special. You are not better than us. You do not deserve to be here more than we do. That you are vainly attempting to grasp onto some sense of superiority demonstrates a sad and pathetic inferiority complex that you, for your own benefit, need to get over.

            What do you bring to the school? I can tell you that I add my rather extensive resume to the academic environment, and you benefit from it. Your education is improved for having interacted with someone like me. That you are competing with me and others like me may only be an issue because I am earning better grades than most CC students. That is the very definition of merit.

            You may whine and complain all you want, but it is your attitude that diminishes Columbia College. I have every right to be here, and I have earned my place here in a more meaningful way than you could ever imagine. Get over it.

            So please, grow up, or at the very least, sh_ut the he_l_l up.

          • Andrew Lawson  

            "I stand by my belief that GS does degrade the reputation of Columbia College (and to an extent SEAS). Why is Columbia the only Ivy that accepts nontraditional students in such a blatant way where there is a whole school set for them?"

            While you are entitled to your belief about GS, try to be fair-minded. I would advise you look beyond the path that brought each individual to Columbia, and focus on what each person is contributing to the academic discourse and the institution.

            I believe the Columbia experience requires us to continuously challenge our beliefs. I hope you will do just that. If you are truly interested in understanding why Columbia accepts nontraditional students, engage a few GSers.

  9. Peaches  

    Hey guys commenting on the guys looks over his clearly awesome achievements abroad is kinda creepy and makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I imagine that if an attractive woman was instead the topic of this adoration, and a majority of the remarks were about "how hot she was" would garner a bit of downvotes... can we be civil please?

    That being said, I feel that war journalists are grossly underappreciated, and that Mitch did a very noble thing going into Syria to write.

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