I recently pitched a story to a prominent magazine about refugee returns to Syria. The editor I was speaking with said they were very interested but needed more pre-reporting before they could commit.Thread on what it’s like to be a freelance foreign correspondent in 2018. I recently pitched a story to a prominent magazine about refugee returns to Syria. The editor I was speaking with said they were very interested but needed more pre-reporting before they could commit.— Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson) July 10, 2018
I recently pitched a story to a prominent magazine about refugee returns to Syria. The editor I was speaking with said they were very interested but needed more pre-reporting before they could commit.
Also important in this context to note that until last August, Arsal was overrun by ISIS and kidnapping is still very much a threat there. I was reporting without any security & with this editor's encouragement. She kept telling me they needed more info before they could commit.Around 800 refugees were recently returned to Syria from Arsal, a town in Lebanon near the Syrian border currently hosting over 50,000 refugees. These are photos I took when the refugees gathered for the journey to be returned. pic.twitter.com/XGlNrsrLfZ— Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson) July 10, 2018
Over the course of two entire days spent at the camps, I spoke with many people who said they were essentially being forced back into Syria because of horrific humanitarian conditions as well as persecution and harassment by local residents.
I was told that some local men recently doused a 15-year-old mentally retarded Syrian boy with gasoline and electrocuted him to death. Lebanon prohibits the establishment of permanent refugee settlements and private landlords have recently been carrying out many mass evictions.
I wrote this VICE piece in 2015 about the desperate situation of Syrians in the country. Sadly, conditions have only become more inhospitable for them since it was published. https://t.co/lQ2tj9DeXn— Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson) July 10, 2018
The recent returns from Arsal were negotiated with certain vague, rather disturbing terms. The regime has demanded that refugees coming back into the country be questioned and processed by Syrian intelligence. I've been told that many returnees are being imprisoned and tortured.
Upon arriving in Syria, the refugees are to be greeted by the regime army, which takes them to their local municipalities to pay fees for all utilities they would have paid during the years they were gone. Keep in mind, most of these people are struggling to feed themselves.
Then they must try to claim and register their homes, if they're still standing. In April, the Syrian government passed a law that demanded all displaced Syrians claim their homes by early May or risk forfeiting them, so the regime can confiscate any of their properties at will.
Upon arriving, the refugees are to be strictly monitored by the regime and confined to their municipalities for six months without being allowed through checkpoints. To further complicate matters, Hezbollah just announced that it will also be processing prospective returnees.
According to the refugees I'm speaking with who are still in touch with those who have been returned to Syria, it's very difficult to get accurate information from the returnees because they're terrified of Syrian intelligence monitoring their calls. That fear is likely valid.
From what the people I've spoken with have heard, some returnees managed to find relatives to stay with and are settling in, while others have simply disappeared into Syrian prisons or are being terrorized by the shabiha, notorious pro-Assad militias renowned for sexual violence.
One 36-year-old man in an Arsal camp has 3 daughters. He put his family on the waiting list for the next group of returns despite knowing that he will be immediately conscripted into the regime army. That would leave his wife and daughters to brave dangers like the shabiha alone.
"We are very desperate," this man told me with tears in his eyes. "Because we fled our country, [the regime] will probably put us right at the front of the battle. But I would prefer war to living here in Lebanon. I'd willingly die to keep what's left of my pride."
Because I spent hours in the camps gaining people’s trust, refugees told me things I haven't seen in any other news coverage. I had over 5 hours of interviews and was planning to write a story that explores how the return process really plays out, something I have yet to see.
After all this work and the emotional toll it takes to report on such horrific human suffering, the editor tells me she’s sorry but they can’t take the piece. I was not compensated for any of my work and when I tried to sell the piece elsewhere, I got crickets from other editors.
I’m tired of fighting so hard to do an important job I love and know I’m good at. This was the last straw. I now intend to give up being a freelance foreign correspondent, move back to the States and focus completely on writing my second book, which is on radicalism in America.
I’m one of many journalists i know who have made the same decision in recent years. It has become completely unsustainable for my mental health to continue doing this job. The end result is that countless important, life-or-death stories like this will go untold. End.