Kelly McEvers Reflects On Middle East Reporting As She Leaves Region

Melissa Block has an exit interview with Kelly McEvers, who's ending a grueling years-long assignment in the Middle East that included coverage of Iraq, Syria and beyond. McEvers and her NPR colleague Deborah Amos, won four major awards in 2012 for coverage of the Syrian conflict.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For the past four years, this voice has been bringing us deep inside the Middle East, helping us understand in a visceral way the Arab Spring uprisings and the civil war in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So along this wall, it's brown with bloodstains.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: OK, there's police in riot gear. We're all running.

Oh, tear gas. Oh, my God.

So, where are the regime's troops and where are the rebels?

Another shell comes in. Nur(ph) keeps working as if nothing happened.

BLOCK: Kelly McEvers reporting from Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, her distinctive immediate-style narrating as she goes and her vivid powers of description have helped win her numerous awards as well as the praise of our listeners.

Well, now, Kelly has left the Middle East. Her days as a war correspondent are behind her. She and her husband and young daughter will be moving to Los Angeles, where she'll report for NPR. And that transition gives us a chance to talk about what she's witnessed over these last tumultuous years.

Kelly, good to see you.

MCEVERS: Thanks for having me in.

BLOCK: Welcome back.

MCEVERS: Thank you.

BLOCK: First, I'm curious to hear whether you saw signs of the Arab Spring coming before it happened?

MCEVERS: I'd love to say we had these amazing predictive powers. There was no way we could have seen what happened coming. But looking back, you know, thinking about the population explosion among young people and the fact that so many of these Arab countries did not have jobs, did not have, you know, a future for these young people, and then couple that with the explosion of the Internet and the availability of things like Facebook and Twitter, all of these things were sort of swirling around.

So we knew that something was going to have to give. We just had no idea how huge and completely tumultuous it was going to be.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about one of the places where these things came to a head, and that's Bahrain. In early 2011, one of your stories about the crackdown in the opposition focused on women who are being targeted in the crackdown. And you introduced us to a memorable character, Kelly, a woman who had been detained. And you said when you met her she was limping in pain.

MCEVERS: Right. And she was so afraid of what would happen if the authorities found out that she was telling her story, that she didn't even want to speak to us in English. She was fluent in English. So we finally just agreed that she would tell her story in a whisper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They told me if I didn't confess, they will let men come and continue with me. They told me that.

MCEVERS: And the threat was clear. They meant that men will do very bad things to you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, I (unintelligible).

MCEVERS: They were saying they will let these men come and rape you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, they didn't say. But to beat, but strong and hardly beat.

MCEVERS: OK. So that the men would beat you even harder because they're men.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes. Yes.

MCEVERS: Did you ever feel like you were in danger of something worse, of some kind of sexual attack?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Maybe, yes. Maybe.

BLOCK: Do you worry that you did put her in danger? Have you been in touch with her?

MCEVERS: I have been in touch with her. She and her husband were actually both detained when the government cracked down on protesters. He was actually a member of parliament who was detained for opposing the government. He's since been released, and they're fine.

BLOCK: Let's talk about another country that you focused on, Kelly. And that's Yemen. You covered both the uprising. But also, last summer, you went to an area that had been the target of U.S. drone strikes. And let's listen to a bit where you're describing the ruins that you were seeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MCEVERS: I'm walking amid, you know, hundreds and hundreds of concrete blocks. Whatever was here has completely disappeared. But then you look closer. We start to see bits and pieces of color. Pink silk curtain, shards of plywood, can of baby milk.

BLOCK: And, Kelly, later on, you talked about a flip-flop. For some reason, the flip-flop has stayed with me all this time.

MCEVERS: Yeah, and this is the dilemma we face as radio reporters. I mean, you're in the middle of this scene, you know, drone strike site after drone strike site, and you're seeing something so vivid. But we're the radio, you know? How do you help our listeners see that? And so sometimes for me it's just taking my microphone, putting it front of my mouth and start listing things off.

BLOCK: Any particular hurdles for you, Kelly, as a woman reporter covering the Middle East?

MCEVERS: No, I think it's the opposite. I think it's great to be a woman reporter in the Middle East for a couple of reasons. I mean, one is that we have access to everyone. You know, in really conservative neighborhoods or villages where the women are kept separate from the men, a male colleague of mine couldn't interview the women, couldn't be with the families. I, because I'm a woman, can. I can talk to everybody. I can talk to the men and the women.

And also, I mean, there is this great element of disguise being a woman covering the Middle East. You know, for that story in Yemen, I was covered completely from head to toe. And that's how we were able to get past the checkpoints and get into these towns in the first place.

BLOCK: Well, Syria, of course, is front and center in the news right now. And this is a country that you've been deeply devoted to for the last couple of years, along with NPR's Deborah Amos. How many times have you been into Syria?

MCEVERS: Oh, gosh. Maybe a dozen, I think. You know, I went in the first time on an official visa with the government and then later would go in sort of illegally with the Syrian rebels entering through Turkey.

BLOCK: Well, on one of those early trips where you did sneak away from your minders, Kelly, you went out on the streets with a young activist. Set up the scene here. What was happening when you went out with him?

MCEVERS: Well, first of all, at this time it was early in the Syrian uprising. And protesters, even at that early point, were at risk from security forces and pro-government militias shooting at them, attacking them while they were protesting. So we had to meet up secretly so that the activists could be sure that I hadn't been followed by the government. And then we headed out into the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MCEVERS: The activist says that's a warning sign. The security forces are coming. The protesters surge back toward us. Somebody's running down the street. Everybody's running like crazy. We're leaving. Oh, Jesus.

The activist calls me Mama and grabs my arm. We're trying to look like we have nothing to do with the protest. The activist says they could arrest us at any minute, so we do our best to stay calm. We make it back to the car.

I mean, this is one of these moments, right, where, you know, I'm narrating the scene and it's not because I want - I think the story is about me, but I think, like, our responsibility to our listeners is to help them feel what it's like. What is it like to go out to a protest to say, you know, I want freedom and to be shot at and have to run away from your own government?

BLOCK: Over the time that you spent in Syria, most of it recently has been with the rebels. How concerned are you - as you think about how hard it is to get a picture of what's going on in that country - how concerned are you that that is the vantage point that you've had access to, that that's the prism through which you're seeing this war?

MCEVERS: Yeah, as this uprising turned into a war, there was one side that was easy for us to get to, and that was the rebel side. We knew that we were only going to get one particular part of the story. I mean, we have managed - NPR has managed to send other reporters in on the government side. And I think that's the best way to do it, right, as you know you kind of are aware that you're telling one side and somebody else has to tell the other side.

BLOCK: Is it a frustration?

MCEVERS: It's definitely a frustration. I mean, we knew - and look, even though these rebels saw us as their allies because we were there to get their story out, you know, they weren't always telling us the truth. You know, they had their own propaganda as well.

BLOCK: You know, Kelly, I've been listening to a remarkable hour-long documentary that you did with the independent radio producers at transom.org. And you explore in a really raw way your fears about being a war correspondent, your deep distress about whether you should stay in the Middle East and your fears for your life and what that would mean for your family.

In the end, you did decide to leave. And you're going to be reporting for us from L.A. Mixed feelings about that decision?

MCEVERS: Yes, absolutely, because I was so committed to the stories, especially the Syria story, the people I've come to know over the years. Deciding to just - and being able to just walk away when millions of people there can't just walk away, that's horrible. But there is also a time when you have to say: My shift is up. I've made it out OK. And maybe it's somebody else's turn to tell the story.

BLOCK: NPR's Kelly McEvers, who's been covering the Middle East for us for the past four years, Kelly, thanks so much. Look forward to hearing you some more.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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