International correspondent Roy Gutman spoke to a small group of students about his coverage of the civil war in Syria at the Melville Library during Campus Life Time on Wednesday, March 29.
Gutman is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning work as a correspondent for Newsday, playing an instrumental role in uncovering the Bosnian Genocide during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Dean of the School of Journalism, Howard Schneider, Gutman’s editor at the time, called his work in the Balkans “one of the proudest moments of my life as an editor.”
While both Schneider and journalism professor Pablo Calvi praised Gutman’s efforts in covering conflicts all over the world, the bulk of the lecture focused on Gutman’s current work in Syria. Gutman claimed his interests lay not so much in war itself, but in its impact on human lives.
“Syria may be the thorniest problem on Earth today,” Gutman said. “Syria today is a scene of huge tragedy, a wellspring of terror and war crimes. It’s hard for the public to even grasp these conflicts, but it’s easy to grasp what it’s led to.”
Gutman described the outflow of five million Syrian refugees into Europe as a prime motivator for both Brexit and the travel ban issued by the Trump administration. Recently, Syria has seen the bombing of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian government forces and alleged deaths of hundreds of civilians in American airstrikes.
Gutman repeated his controversial claim that the rise of ISIS and the Kurdish PKK — as well as several other militia forces in the area — was actually instigated by the Assad regime. In a desperate bid to retain power, Gutman believes Syria effectively ceded its portion of Kurdistan to the PKK, and released Al Qaeda terrorists from prison in Iraq who would go on to form the keystone of the Islamic State.
“Syria is one of the least reported places on Earth because ISIS is killing journalists and aid workers for the shock effect,” Gutman said. “There is a vast criminality in Syria, which the U.S. has allowed to happen without comment. I think it’s about time we come to grips with the crisis.”
In conjunction with Stony Brook’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, Gutman has begun a project that encourages local Syrians to become journalists themselves, chronicling daily life in their war-torn homeland, through originally-written letters, for the rest of the world to see.
“Roy is taking the amazing initiative to give voice to local reporters in Syria,” Calvi said. “I’ve never heard of any initiative of this quality and magnitude. Having locals reporting on their trials and tribulations gives us a much more direct perspective as to what’s happening, as opposed to our mediated Western point of view.”
While Gutman has served as the primary curator and editor of the letters since the project’s inception half a year ago, the Colvin Center plans to involve journalism students in the editing process, once the initiative gets its feet off the ground. According to Calvi, paid editing internships will be offered as part of the project by next summer.
Audience members were given copies of the first article in the series to be published. Houssam Muhammad Mahmoud, a Syrian who submitted a letter to the project entitled, “Letter from Madaya, Syria, Under Siege by the Assad Regime for Nearly 2 Years,” provided in his account an up-close and personal view of the Syrian civil war that journalists like Marie Colvin died trying to acquire. Formerly a student of French literature at the University of Damascus, Mahmoud has born witness to tragedy on a scale few can imagine:
“I am haunted by what I’ve witnessed,” Mahmoud wrote. “I recall trying to extricate the body of a man buried under the rubble — along with his wife, a daughter, and another relative — only to have his limb separate from his body. We stayed three hours into the night to bury them because a sniper was shooting at us. I have nightmares. I see the bodies of people who died in bombings. I see the people who died of starvation and who I helped to bury. I will always remember Suleiman Fares, a farmer, aged 50, who weighed only 50 pounds when we buried him.”
When asked what the United States could do to make a difference in Syria, Gutman pointed to the lessons of Afghanistan, stressing that the answer is far from simple.
“There’s no 25-word response to this question,” Gutman said. “It’s not a question of sending in the 82nd Airborne, it’s a question of understanding the local politics. You have to find which of these forces are most likely to produce stability. You cannot vacillate between Assad and the opposition.”