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Fresh Air Remembers War Reporter Anthony Shadid

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Fresh Air Remembers War Reporter Anthony Shadid

Fresh Air Remembers War Reporter Anthony Shadid

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I really wish I wasn't about to play the interview we're going to hear. It's our obituary for Anthony Shadid, a journalist we held in the highest esteem, who many of his peers consider the preeminent foreign correspondent of his generation.

While covering stories in war zones, he put his life on the line and on several occasions came close to losing it. In 2002, he was shot and wounded while reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, he was kidnapped in Libya by government forces, who held him for a week and beat him.

Not long after, he risked his life again, sneaking into Syria, where government forces have been firing on people and doing their best to keep out foreign journalists.

It was on another dangerous trip to Syria, reporting on the resistance movement, that he died yesterday. He suffered a severe asthma attack brought on by an allergy to his guide's horses as he and a fellow reporter were secretly fleeing the country. He was 43.

Shadid won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of Iraq when he worked for the Washington Post. He joined the New York Times at the end of 2009. The Times has nominated him for a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Arab spring. Shadid was an American of Lebanese descent. He spoke fluent Arabic, which enabled him to speak directly with the people he was covering.

We were grateful to Shadid for finding time to talk with us during several of his visits back to the U.S. We're going to hear the final interview he did on our show, which we broadcast December 21.

Anthony Shadid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So you're covering a part of the world that is remarkably different than it was a year ago. So stepping back for a moment, and you literally are stepping back because you've left the region for a brief vacation, are we heading, do you think, for more democracy in that region or more chaos and sectarian political fighting? Does it feel like freedom is winning, or chaos is winning?

ANTHONY SHADID: Well, you know, I hate to say this, Terry, because it's the easy way out, but, you know, to be honest, I'm really not sure. And I remember I had spent most of the past decade in Baghdad, in Iraq, and I left Baghdad in December, and I remember coming back to Beirut, coming to our home there.

And it was amazing to me how many conversations I was having with people about how dejected they were, how disappointed, how kind of pessimistic they were about where the region was, where the Arab world was. And it felt - I have to say that, you know, sentiments as kind of downbeat then as any other moment since I've been in the Middle East for the past 15 years. And so remarkably, just a week or two later, the uprising began in Tunisia.

You know, I think the euphoria of those moments in Tunisia and Egypt has passed. I think there's no question about that. I think there's a lot of anxiety and uncertainty of where we're headed.

I guess after being a pessimist in Baghdad for so long, I remain an optimist. And that's - I think that optimism just comes from this idea that these societies that have been moribund for so long are revived or rejuvenated, are dynamic right now. And that very dynamism, I think, of those societies, you know, still - at least to me, lends hope for the future.

GROSS: You've been reporting on the crackdown in Syria against protestors, and Syria hasn't been allowing in journalists. So how did you get in?

SHADID: Well that, I have to say, that - you know, I hate to talk too much about it...

GROSS: Sure, I understand.


GROSS: Here's how we break your laws, Syria.


SHADID: Well, but also I hate to be too self-referential because, I mean, I think these - you know, these stories are - first and foremost, it's just, it's getting the story that matters and being able to report the story. But I was frustrated in not being able to meet these people that I had been reporting about for so long.

I think Syria is often covered by phone. You have to talk to activists. You have to try to, you know, read the tea leaves. You have to talk to government officials. And it is remote-control reporting in some ways. And that's - you know, I think that's deeply frustrating, especially coming out of experiences in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, where it was very much, you know, on-the-ground reporting.

You could embed your writing in the stories and the quotes and the anecdotes of the people you were talking to. That wasn't the case in Syria, and a photographer, a very good photographer and a friend of mine, Moises Saman, and I decided to actually try to get into Syria. They weren't giving visas.

And so we ended up finding activists who - it's kind of a lawless strip of territory between Lebanon and Syria where a lot of smuggling goes on, and these activists were working in that area. And they made it possible for us to get across the border.

And we ended up riding motorcycles on dirt paths from a town called Watihalid(ph) to what's become I think a center of the uprising in Syria, and that's the town of Homs. It was just a matter of - I wouldn't say it was much more than 10 miles or so, but it ended up taking us five or six hours to try to navigate that path.

And, you know, I've done things that I probably wouldn't have done in hindsight, and this might be one of them. It was - turned out to be much scarier than I thought it would be.

GROSS: What made it scarier?

SHADID: Well, I think the idea of getting caught, probably, first and foremost. I had had a bad experience in Libya earlier in the year. You know, I did feel that Syria was so important and that that story wouldn't be told otherwise that it was worth taking risks for, but the repercussions of getting caught were pretty dire.

And, you know, my family, my wife was very anxious, and I think Moises and I were, as well. I think we expected the trip to be a little bit better planned than it was. Once we actually got underway, we realized how we were playing a little bit loose. I think the activists that brought us in there were playing it by ear a bit.

And when I look back on this year, and the reason I think that those risks - you know, again, I'm not sure if I would have done it again given how risky it turned out to be, but when I look back at this year, I think there were two moments that were so inspiring and so remarkable to me, especially again - I hate to keep saying this - but coming out of just the carnage and the disappointment and the record of Iraq.

I mean, Iraq is a society that in some ways has been torn apart or torn apart at least for a generation. But what I got to see in Tahrir Square, in Cairo in January and February, this idea of a new notion of community coming together, a community defining itself on its own terms, a youthful generation, you know, determined to create a place they would live in that was far better than the place their parents lived in.

And watching that being rendered on such a small stage, which Tahrir Square in a lot of respects. I mean, you might have fit a million people in there on some days, but often it was a much smaller stage where you got to see ambitions and hopes and frustrations as well play out there right before you.

GROSS: So we were talking about - we've been talking about reporting from Syria, the risks you took to get in there and the things that you witnessed there that you otherwise absolutely could not have reported on. Were you concerned that the government would start hunting for you knowing that you were there, or did you not file until you safely got out?

SHADID: Yeah, I waited until I got out of the country. And they have such bigger problems to deal with than a foreign journalist at this point.

GROSS: Oh no, they really seem to like arresting foreign journalists from this country.

SHADID: Well, you know, they have a very - a somewhat sinister past when it comes to dealing with journalists, especially Arab journalists and especially in Lebanon. You know, they're horrific stories of what they've done to critics of the regime.

This is a government that plays by the rules of a much older school, and it - and it strikes me time and again how unable it is - and for lack of a better phrase - how unable it is to update itself in some respects. I don't think it understands to this day what it faces in terms of the uprising. And it also - I also don't think it understands how deeply the world has changed since it took power.

GROSS: So you covered the uprising in Libya, and to do that you went into Libya, you risked your life. You, I think it's fair to say, nearly lost it because you were captured by Gadhafi's soldiers. What was the discussion like that you had with the three journalists that you entered Libya with about whether it was worth going in or not?

SHADID: You know, we all, I think, went in - I'm trying to think. I'm trying to think - I think we all went in separately and we ended up meeting up in Benghazi. Tyler, Tyler Hicks, a photographer, and Lyndsey Addario, another photographer, and I had been covering the fighting on the front lines for quite a while, and Steve Farrell, a videographer and also a reporter, joined us later.

You know, I think if I take a step back and look at what was going on there, the events that are taking place are so overwhelming, and they feel so historic and so important that you feel a real challenge to get it right. You feel a real challenge to do justice, I think to what's happening around you.

And I think that sometimes does figure into your thinking, that you end up taking risks that you might not have otherwise, and you know, Libya might have fit into that category.

And here's a country ruled by - 40 years by Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. It was one of those places I had no sense of. I had been there once before. It was a surreal experience. It happened back in 1995. It was a country that felt to me beyond traumatized. I mean it's very - civil society had been wiped out. Almost every institution that would have knit the country together had been destroyed by Colonel Gadhafi.

So you come into this country, and you're seeing it, you know that in some ways Libya could prove to be the most fundamental of any of the revolutions that happened in the Arab world because what was overthrown was so complete.

What was left behind was so minimal. And what might emerge is going to start from scratch. You know, very powerfully. So you know, I'm sure like all this stuff is kind of playing on the back of our minds.

And then, you know, I hate to say this, and I hope it's not the case, but I'm sure ambition was as well, that you want to be there. You want to see what's happening. You want to do your job as a journalist, and I think in the end we all got taken by surprise by how quickly things unfolded and where we ended up.

GROSS: So you and three other journalists entered Ajdabiya together, and you describe this as having being the front line of the desperate rebel stand against the advancing Gadhafi forces. You weren't sure if it was wise to go in, but you went in. Did you discuss the wisdom of it before going in?

SHADID: Well, here - see this is a great example, Terry. I mean this - you know, when I left Hama and what I saw, and I know I took risks to go into Syria and those risks felt warranted to me. I think Ajdabiya I got wrong. And I don't think Ajdabiya was as important as I thought it was at the time and it came at great cost. Not just to us. I mean we lived. I mean our driver was lost in Ajdabiya.

GROSS: By lost you mean you think he died.

SHADID: He - that's right. You know, we came, we were leaving the town trying to go back to Benghazi and, you know, I'd say within a few minutes of leaving Ajdabiya we hit that checkpoint that from a distance we thought was a rebel checkpoint but, you know, when it was too late we realized that this was in fact an army checkpoint that had just been set up by Gadhafi's soldiers, probably, you know, not more than a half-hour before.

GROSS: So what are some of the decisions you have to make on the spot when you realize these are Gadhafi's soldiers at the checkpoint? They will likely capture you if they see you. Do you try to like escape? Do you - I mean what do you do and then what do you do when they take their guns out and ask you to get out of the car?

SHADID: You know, Terry, I don't - the only thing I remember feeling when we hit that checkpoint was fear - almost a paralyzing fear, and we hit it so quickly. Yeah, I think three of us were in the backseat, and one of us was in the front, and we stopped at the checkpoint, and the driver, Mohammed, said journalists, and I'm not sure, you know, why he said journalists.

I think he was as scared as we all were. But the minute that word was said, you could just see the kind of - that sheen across the soldiers' eyes at that checkpoint, you know, just - not even just anger, it was fury. And they began taking us out of the car.

At the very minute that they began taking us out of the car, rebels attacked the checkpoint, and that's where we believe the driver was killed, when the rebels attacked that checkpoint. There was gunfire everywhere. I mean we could see it, you know, the impacts in the soft dirt, and we all made a run for it.

I think Tyler was the first to go, and I followed him, and we stumbled across a sand berm and then just ran for our lives, basically. I mean there was so little decision-making at that point. It was just how are we going to survive.

And I think Tyler - we talked later about it - Tyler was going to try to make a run for it, but, I mean, there was almost no way he could have gotten away. And in the end, we all just sought cover behind a very small concrete school that was set up near the checkpoint.

And once we got there, the soldiers set upon us and, you know, they emptied their pockets, you know, slapped us around, put us on our stomachs and then bound our hands and legs with wire, or whatever they had, actually. I think all of us had something different that we were bound with.

And I remember, it remains, you know, it remains one of the scariest moments of my life. I've, you know, I've had to face death twice in my career as a journalist - once when I was shot in the West Bank, almost nine years ago now, and then this time, and it was the same exact feeling, is that you just - you have to make peace very quickly with the idea that it's over.

And I remember looking up at that soldier, and he says shoot them in Arabic. And you just lose almost every sensation at that point. It probably felt like two minutes before another soldier said something; that feeling seemed to last so long, but then the other soldier that was standing next to him said you can't shoot them, they're Americans.

And I'm not sure if I believed him when I heard that, but you know, I think almost a kind of a, you know, the ability to sense things came back after you heard those words. And then you thought, well, maybe this is going to play out, and you try to get your wits back about you.

But it's, it's tough, and that's feeling, it's, you know, the beatings heal, the bruises heal, you can get over that kind of stuff over time, but I think that fear - how visceral that fear actually was - that's the hardest thing to get over in terms of what happened to us. I mean I think absolutely, we're all going to be haunted - you know, haunted by it from here until we die, is what happened to our driver.

GROSS: Now, you said, you know, that wounds heal, bruises heal. Did your hands heal? You had a - your hands were bound so tightly. You described in your article about this ordeal that they went numb, and you started shouting for help, and I think they loosened the cuffs a little bit. But did you have permanent nerve damage from that?

SHADID: I didn't. I didn't. But that had - I think that was, you know, next to what happened at that first moment we were captured, I think that was the scariest thing because you lose, you just lose reason, you know, and I was sitting on that plane, my hands had gone numb; all I could imagine - I'm a writer, and all I could imagine was that my hands would be amputated.

And it was crazy fear, and I think I shouting for help at that time. And again, you know, even in the worst moments that you experience in some of these places in Iraq - say, in Syria and Libya, you know, they're still, this is a deeply humane culture that you're dealing with.

And I remember somebody coming up to me as I was, I was almost frantic, I think, at that point, and he came up to me, and I could feel that, you know, his breath in my ear, and I remember turning my head thinking he was going to hit me again.

And he got very close to my ear and he whispered, you know, I'm sorry, and it was in English. And it was one of those moments where you just, you know, it almost, you know, I remember - I think I shuddered when I heard that, when he said that to me because even as bad as it was getting and as scared as I was and as unreasonable as I was being, you just realize that there's still, you know, there's still something here and what's going on around you that you don't completely lose hope.

GROSS: So after you were released, you were with three other journalists, did you all have the same reaction about returning to reporting in war zones?

SHADID: I think Tyler and Lindsay understood what they do, the two photographers. They understood what they do and that this is part of what they do and the risk they take.

And I guess I had, I think I went through - you know, I think I had questions of whether I should put myself in these places again, and I think I had to think about what, you know, the worth of what I do as a journalist. And again, that's where I come, you know, what I said earlier, that I think it is important what we do and, you know, maybe I'm just justifying it to myself. I don't know.

Maybe I'll have a clear sense of it 10 years from now. But, you know, at this point, I think when I first got out I just didn't, these risks weren't worth taking, especially after what had happened to our driver - that, you know, that's on us, and it's going to be on us for the rest of our lives.

And then as the weeks pass, I think as you try to heal, you know, both, you know, mentally and physically, you try to make sense of what, you know, what you do as a reporter and as a journalist. And, you know, I hope it is the right call. I hope I don't put too much on my family. I think I've put an - an unfair amount on them already.

But I do come back to that point that I think what we do is worthwhile, and what we do is important. And there's so many, there's so fewer people who do it these days than when I started 15 years ago as a foreign correspondent, that I think it takes on even more importance, especially given the events that are happening around us.

GROSS: Our interview with Anthony Shadid was recorded last December. He died of a severe asthma attack yesterday while reporting on the uprising in Syria. He was 43. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid. He died of an asthma attack yesterday while reporting on the uprising in Syria for the New York Times. He was 43.

So I'm wondering where you feel most at home in the world now. You grew up in the United States. You studied Arabic in Cairo. Your family is from Beirut, and you've been rebuilding your ancestral home there, literally the house. Where do you feel most at home in the world, if any place?

SHADID: You know, I guess home is probably where you want to be. And you know, for me it has to be the family's ancestral home in southern Lebanon. It's in a very remote corner of the country. It's not all that easy to get to. But you know, I think - and my wife and I, I think, feel the same the way, that once we're there, you know, you know, we feel tethered - you know, we feel tethered to it.

I'm not sure how else to describe it, but you know, there's a certain peacefulness, I think, that I feel at least when I get back to that home in Mazra 'at Jamjin.

GROSS: So when you say you rebuilt it, you hired contractors, or you lifted stones yourself?

SHADID: You know, it was a shell of a house. It's a century-old house. It's - my grandmother, you know, was born there. It's stone, and they call it (unintelligible) in Arabic. It's red tile, but it's these very distinctive red tiles that you see often, kind of a Levantine notion of - it kind of, I think, suggests a Levantine community.

I had gone there after the war in 2006. I had covered the war between Hezbollah and Israel. And again, you know, like Libya, like what I'd seen in Iraq, it was a horrible conflict. You know, you spend most of your time in reporting those conflicts just trying to, like, you know, cling on to the humanity of the people you cover, you know, humanity that's so pronounced among the people you cover.

But conflict is scary, and I think conflict really takes its toll, and, you know, at a certain point, you worry about your eyes getting calloused to so much bloodshed and so much carnage.

And I had come out of that conflict very tired and wanting to not do any more, war reporting or however you want to describe it. And I ended up taking a year off and going back to my family's ancestral village and decided - I decided right after the war that I was going to do it and took a little while to arrange lave from the - I was working at the Washington Post at the time.

And then I spent a year doing it, and I found, you know, contractors and workers. My contractor turned out to be a 76-year-old man named Elijan(ph), who wasn't quite up to the task, but we managed to work together. And amazingly, within a year, we got it done. We're still doing things. I feel like every time I go down there, there's a thousand more things to do, but we managed to get it done in a year.

And, you know, for me, it was the first time - I had spent so much time, you know, trying to chronicle other people's lives. It was the first time I actually tried to create something on my own, something that was lasting. And that's, I think, what the house became in the end.

GROSS: Anthony Shadid, recorded last December. He died in Syria yesterday while covering the uprising for the New York Times. He was 43. The book he wrote about restoring his ancestral home is scheduled for publication next month. We are so sorry that he's gone.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


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