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Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012

Photojournalist recounts the fighting, cruelties both sides commit

Syria war reporting risky, and a hard story to sell in Japan


Staff writer

When photojournalist Shin Yahiro heard compatriot video reporter Mika Yamamoto was killed in late August in Aleppo, he was not surprised, because he too has come under fire while covering the civil war raging in Syria.

News photo
War zone: A photo by Shin Yahiro (below) shows Free Syrian Army soldiers fighting with government forces Aug. 14 in the Salah ad-Din district in Aleppo. SHIN YAHIRO PHOTOS
News photo

Yahiro had never met Yamamoto but learned from a friend's email that she was gunned down while he also was covering the war in Azaz.

"Anybody can die in Syria, with the war escalating," said Yahiro, 32, who like Yamamoto was also embedded with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo last month. There were many occasions when Yahiro thought he would die, as the battalion he was with came under tank fire four times during his 10-day reporting stint.

"Because I knew the Arabic word for tank, I could hide when one fired."

The 18-month conflict in Syria, set off by sweeping unrest across the Arab world, has turned into what the United Nations termed a state of civil war. In July alone, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based expatriate group with a network in Syria, estimated that more than 3,000 people were killed in the relentless violence. The U.N. estimates that some 18,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed over the course of the 18-month conflict.

Journalists have also fallen victim amid the intensifying clashes between rebels and government troops. According to the France-based nonprofit organization Journalists Without Borders, which advocates for freedom of the press and information, nine of the 38 journalists killed so far this year were slain in Syria, including Yamamoto. She was among fellow journalists when gunmen suddenly approached and opened fire.

Some news reports have said the Syrian military intentionally targets journalists and tries to lay the blame on the FSA.

But the dangers do not scare off many journalists, including Yahiro, who recently returned from reporting on the war. He entered the country from Azaz, a small town on the Turkish border that serves as an entry point for many journalists without visas, because the Syrian government issues very few.

Once he entered the country, Yahiro, like many journalists, went to a "press center" set up by the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel group supported by the Turkish government. Unlike the Syrian government, the FSA welcomes foreign journalists to cover the warfare by arranging for them to go to the front in Aleppo with the FSA fighters. Journalists hire a driver for $100 a day to drive back and forth between Azaz and Aleppo. Yahiro paired up with a French journalist based in Addis Ababa who speaks fluent Arabic.

"Unless you can speak Arabic, the FSA would not let you go to the front," he said.

Yahiro first became interested in covering conflict zones when he went to Iraq in 2004. Having never covered a war, he worked with many foreign journalists and learned from them. Being a freelance photojournalist doesn't pay enough to support his wife and 3-year-old daughter, so he works as a freelance video engineer to sustain his journalist career.

He has extensive experience now in covering conflict zones, including Afghanistan and Sri Lanka as well as the recent Egyptian revolution. His photos have been published in prominent Japanese magazines, including AERA, Shukan Shincho and Playboy.

During his time in Syria, Yahiro aimed to capture the everyday life of the FSA soldiers and acts of torture they carried out — acts that have not gotten the same coverage as the torture and other abuses committed by the government forces.

One day when he was at one of the FSA strongholds in Aleppo, a man suspected of being a member of a govenment-backed militia was taken in and interrogated because he was carrying a video camera. When an FSA soldier checked what was in the camera, he found footage of the man wearing a government uniform taking pictures with other soldiers, indicating he was not a member of the militia but instead a government spy.

When Yahiro and his French colleague saw the man hanged from a ceiling by his feet, the two journalists persuaded the FSA not to torture him. Even though the man was forgiven, Yahiro saw FSA soldiers bring men in almost every hour for interrogation and possibly torture.

Yahiro said that when he asked about the fate of one of the prisoners, he was shocked to hear a soldier say without emotion that he had tortured and killed the man.

News photo
A prisoner is interrogated Aug. 16 by the FSA on suspicion of being a government militiaman. It turned out he was a soldier in the Syrian army.

"This is how they vent their animosity against (Syrian President) Bashar Assad," said Yahiro.

Although the FSA welcomes media coverage, they did not allow Yahiro to photograph acts of torture for fear that it would give them bad publicity. Yahiro gave up the thought of documenting such scenes because he thought "it would negatively impact other journalist and possibly endanger their lives."

Even though Japanese photojournalists cover these conflict zones at the risk of their lives, there are increasingly fewer chances for them to publish their work. Most of the Japanese television networks and magazines depend on freelance journalists to cover conflict zones, but unless the stories have a Japanese angle they are rarely interested.

That is why Yahiro had to carefully consider when to wrap up his reporting. The longer he stays, the more his budget runs deeper in the red. But he intends to return to Syria to learn the Arabic way of thinking and come up with better ideas to cover the conflict zones in the Middle East.

"I have no intention of dying," said Yahiro. "But only experience can make you a better photojournalist."



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