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.