Last Friday, Syrian government minders took CNN reporter Arwa Damon to a pro-government demonstration. There, the crowd told her that what she had seen taking place in their country simply had not happened: that no innocent people have been killed, that there were no refugees fleeing from the violence.
This, of course, contrasted wildly with what Damon herself had seen across the border in Turkey, where she met with Syrians who had left their home in terror, or with what the world has seen in shocking amateur video showing government brutality and dead children.
Speaking to The Huffington Post from Damascus later that day, Damon said that this was an example of the "two narratives happening in the country." It has been difficult, she said, to get a clear picture of what exactly is going on because the government has been watching her and her crew so closely.
"We're not allowed to film anywhere on our own," she said. So why even bother reporting from the country at all?
"It is the government's view and it does need to be reported on," she said. "It's still something, and it gives us additional insight into the government's psyche. Also, I speak Arabic, so the more I'm out on the streets, the more I can pick up the hushed whispers."
Syria is the latest stop on Damon's Arab Spring tour. Since uprisings broke out across the region in January, she has been in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and now Syria, reporting on the historic tumult and change sweeping the Middle East.
Damon, whose mother is Syrian and who spent much of her young life in Turkey, said that the last seven months have been "incredible" for her. The wave of mass protests has been so electrifying that even her mother, never a huge fan of her trips through danger zones, has gotten on board.
"My mom has always been super worried about me going [through the Middle East]," she said. "In Egypt, she called me and it was the first time she wasn't berating me for being a selfish child who was causing her anxiety. She said, 'now I understand why you do what you do.'"Watch Damon's report from Syria:
For Damon, the sheer emotional jolt of the uprisings has been the most charged experience for her.
"When a country is going through this kind of a change ... that is so raw and so real that the human emotion of trying to do all of it is so out there," she said.
The place where Damon said she felt this most powerfully was in Libya during the run-up to the NATO attack on that country. She said there was a "gut-wrenching, palpable fear" among the rebels hoping for international backing.
Damon was notably forceful in her support of the military intervention in Libya. At the time that President Obama sent American planes there, he could at least a plurality of support for his actions. As war has dragged on, though, public support has dropped, a restive Congress has begun making noises about its role in authorizing the attack, and Obama himself has made highly controversial legal decisions about his war-making authority. Asked if, given all this, she still thought the intervention was a good idea, Damon was blunt.
"I think those who are questioning it right now need to ask themselves what would have happened if the resolution hadn't happened," she said. "Do they really want all that blood on their hands?"
Damon went further in discussing the U.S. and European response to the wider uprisings in the region--most of which have been met with much less condemnation than Libya, especially in countries allied to the West. She said that she had been "disappointed" and "upset" by the West's "reactions to some situations" in the region.
She was not clear about whether she was advocating a wider military intervention in the Middle East or whether she simply wanted the West to be more outspoken about the repression occurring in U.S. allies like Bahrain and Yemen.
"I realize that America has its own strategic interests," she said. " ... That's not necessarily surprising ... the U.S. does tend to have a skewed policy."
For Damon, and for the other reporters following the Arab Spring, there is a much more direct challenge than global politics: how to keep the stories they tell on the air. Interest in the region has waxed and waned, as it always does; Americans who thrilled to every moment of the Egyptian uprising have not been paying nearly as much attention to the prolonged conflicts in Libya, Bahrain or even Syria.
"We all know that the U.S. has a very short attention span," Damon said. "But that's where we have a responsibility." It was her job, and CNN's job, she continued, to "figure out ways to keep capturing their interest."
Beyond capturing interest, Damon said she and other reporters have a vital role to play in peoples' perception of the Middle East.
"I think the West's biggest detriment is that it looks at the Middle East through a Western prism and Western ideologies," she said. "The West tends to try and simplify Middle Eastern dynamics." That's where Damon said she thinks she comes in.
"It's up to us to try and build human bridges," she said. "The more you can humanize the story of what is happening here, the more [you can fight] the image out their of the Islamic extremists and the seeds of terror ... at the end of the day it's one human being talking to another human being through a television screen. It's not ideal but it's the best you can do."
Damon said she did not know what country she will go to next. For now, the government is allowing her to stay in Syria for about another week.
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