Excerpt from A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Disappearance in Damascus

Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

by Deborah Campbell

A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell X
A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 352 pages
    Sep 2018, 352 pages


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I couldn't blame him. Next to us was a high concrete wall topped with barbed wire from which wind-blown scraps of plastic fluttered like tiny flags. Beyond the wall was Iraq. Like the refugees, most of the press were getting out of there. Iraq had become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists: they were being hunted, kidnapped, blown up, found in ditches with bullets in the backs of their heads. A few made headlines—Steven Vincent, abducted by men in police uniforms and shot execution-style, his female interpreter shot three times and left for dead; Jill Carroll, kidnapped by masked gunmen, her interpreter murdered—but local staffers, whose deaths barely registered, did most of the reporting now, and even they couldn't be seen with a notebook, much less camera equipment.

The cameraman ventured inside the checkpoint in search of a toilet, so I chatted with his producer. The producer was tall and steel-jawed, just in from Washington, DC, clad in chinos and button-up shirt in the style known as "business casual." Despite the heat he looked depressingly perma-fresh. I had spent several years in the Middle East, reporting from Gaza or Cairo or Tehran, and more remote places where I never saw another journalist. I was suddenly conscious of the jeans I'd been living in since arriving in Syria more than two weeks ago.

I asked him how he'd convinced the Syrians to let them film the crossing. Since invading Iraq in 2003, Americans—journalists at least—came in for special scrutiny in Syria. Getting press credentials for a high-profile news team would require lengthy negotiations and serious clout. I did everything possible to avoid such formalities, but then again, I wasn't hauling around a camera crew.

"We have a big fixer," he said—a fixer being a well-connected local who could leapfrog them over the bureaucratic obstacle course and help them find the information they wanted. "What are you here for?"

I explained that I was writing a story on the Iraqi refugee crisis for Harper's magazine. I wanted to see the war from the civilian point of view, to figure out what had turned an invasion predicted as a "cakewalk" into the bloodiest civil war of our times, one that was reverberating through the region. "Iraq is an atomic explosion," a European aid worker in Damascus had told me, echoing the prevailing sentiment. "It's a chain reaction that hasn't ended yet."

While most reporting focuses on those who "make history," what interests me more are the ordinary people who have to live it. I wanted to put a human face to the war. As an immersive journalist, my work, the work I love, involves getting as close as I can for long periods of time to the societies I cover, most recently six months in Iran. But that was not possible for me to do inside Iraq. So I had come to Syria to meet the eyewitnesses. "I want to get a sense of where it's all going," I said to the producer, squinting at him through my sunglasses. I knew what had already happened.

The US invasion of Iraq had toppled Saddam Hussein, the strongman who had run the essentially secular Baath Party state for nearly a quarter of a century using methods of which Machiavelli would have approved. Even members of his own party feared him; many had joined only to save their own skins. On April 9, 2003, the day that US forces captured Baghdad—Saddam having escaped into hiding, to be plucked eight months later, like a derelict, from a "spider hole" in the ground—mobs of poor Iraqis walked out of the slums, saw no one in charge, and started looting whatever they could carry. They ransacked ministries, hospitals, schools, banks, libraries, factories, utilities, weapons depots—even the world-renowned National Museum, home to archaeological treasures that told of the birth of civilization.

"Stuff happens," said US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, mocking the media coverage as a "Henny Penny—the sky is falling" overreaction to what he predicted would be a temporary blip: "Freedom's untidy."

Excerpted from A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell. Copyright © 2017 by Deborah Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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