How a Reporter’s Quest for Online Bargains Led to a Network of Syrian Contacts

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How a Reporter’s Quest for Online Bargains Led to a Network of Syrian Contacts


BEIRUT, Lebanon — As the Syrian war erupted in 2011, Hwaida Saad, a Lebanese journalist in The New York Times’s Beirut bureau, rummaged through her contacts, looking for phone numbers.

She found only a shepherd near Raqqa, several hundred miles northeast of Dara’a, the southern city where antigovernment protests first flared in March 2011. Ms. Saad had once interviewed him about a devastating drought. She dialed.

The call-waiting music on the shepherd’s cellphone was an ode to President Bashar al-Assad. “Of course he said everything was fine,” Ms. Saad said later, laughing at the memory.

As the uprising spread across Syria, communication among those challenging the government switched rapidly from cellphones to satellite phones to Skype — a method the security forces, at first, struggled to control. Ms. Saad signed up for her first Skype account, and soon she was chatting online with insurgent fighters, commanders and activists each night, even joining about 30 private-communication channels the rebels normally reserved for themselves.

Now, Syrians of all political stripes communicate with Ms. Saad, not only on Skype but also on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. She has built an extensive network of hundreds of contacts across the spectrum, from Syrian government officials and soldiers to members of the Islamic State, plus doctors, businesspeople, teachers and community leaders in government-controlled and insurgent-held areas.

At one military conference in Turkey in 2012, just the sound of Ms. Saad’s voice drew scores of fighters who wanted to meet her in person. More recently, social media companies have shut down several of Ms. Saad’s accounts, presumably because she is in touch with too many jihadists.

Ms. Saad, the daughter of a cafeteria worker, was not trained as a journalist. For years she helped manage the Lebanese office of a Syrian auto supply company. In 2005, when international reporters poured into Beirut after the assassination of the prime minister, fixers were in short supply. As a favor for a friend, she spent several days translating and arranging appointments for The Boston Globe, and she discovered a knack for the work.

Correspondents loved her doggedness, her enthusiasm, her never-fading humor and her special genius for learning about people’s lives. She started working for The Times in 2008, as an interpreter and news assistant, and now is a crucial member of the team reporting on Syria.

She is also an inveterate Internet shopper, which proved serendipitous as the Syrian uprising took hold. Ms. Saad had, for years, spent late nights scrolling through style websites. Suddenly, rebels who fought during the day would see her online after hours and reach out on Skype. These days, she gets hundreds of notifications daily, and conversations often continue until 2 or 3 a.m.

“It is this big wave that engulfs me,” Ms. Saad said. “I go online every day and every night. When you are away from it, you feel deprived.”

Combatants confide in her both because they hope to get their story out and because she is the rare woman on the network. They want to hear a motherly voice, and some even flirt. They detail their worries, talk about their wives or girlfriends, wax nostalgic about the food they miss.

“You talk to them in a sweet way, and they are not used to it,” she said.

The first two questions young fighters invariably ask are her age and marital status. In the beginning, Ms. Saad allowed to one that she was 30. (Not quite true.)

“I have an aunt who is 30 with five kids!” he exclaimed. “Should I call you auntie?”

No, don’t call me auntie,” Ms. Saad responded, appalled.

For years, Ms. Saad — who resembles the singer Amy Winehouse, but with more unruly black curls and no tattoos — did not display her picture online, mostly for security reasons. As she has become better known on all sides, she has relaxed the rule.

But still, owing to unreliable Internet speeds inside Syria, as well as in Lebanon, a majority of chats do not include video. Instead, Ms. Saad communicates by voice or text, remaining invisible to most of her contacts. As Islamist fighters — foreign and Syrian — multiplied in Ms. Saad’s contact list, some wanted to know if she wore a hijab. Others demanded to know her religious views, or urged her to embrace their version of Islam.

There are constant, insistent requests: Find me a weapons supplier. Buy me a satellite Internet connection. Marry me.

And, more recently: Can you get me a visa? Can you help me get asylum? Do you know any smugglers?

Ms. Saad parries them all, emphasizing that she is an observer, not an actor in the conflict.

Sometimes, she feels badly about living comfortably in Beirut while her interlocutors are mired in an intractable war, but the hours online are transporting. “You live through their experiences,” she said. “I do not want to be rude to them, ever — some of them have risked their lives to help me.”

As the war dragged on, contacts died. Some were kidnapped, imprisoned or beheaded. One drifted toward extremism, becoming first a useful source on the Islamic State and then, to Ms. Saad’s horror, a suicide bomber who killed civilians in his hometown.

Now, there is a new category of correspondents: the parents, friends and relatives of the dead and disappeared. The mother of one slain activist found Ms. Saad’s information in his phone and calls now and then saying, “I can smell him through you.”

For Ms. Saad, a project that began as “something fun” — online chats to supplement reporting on hard-to-reach Syria — has become a solemn calling to give voice to people mired in conflict, which resonates with her own experience growing up during Lebanon’s civil war.

“It’s important to listen to them,” she said. “Maybe I’m the last one who’s witnessing what they’re going through. Maybe I’m the last one to pass a message to their families.”



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