In the summer of 2013, the Turkish side of the Syrian border was sweltering. I was near Antakya, within spitting distance of Syria, where bombs were more felt than heard—a kind of sonic judder.
My fixer and I had arranged to meet with a Free Syrian Army fighter that evening. The FSA was an early rebel group cobbled together to fight the Syrian government. Hour after hour passed as we waited at our small, low-lit hotel for the young man to arrive so we could debrief him. He showed up eight hours after we’d expected him, saying that because he thought he was being tracked he’d taken greater precautions than usual while slipping across the border. When we finally sat in a booth at the hotel restaurant, he recounted women being raped and men being tortured. Hearing directly from Syrians at the front lines was difficult in those first few years. I went to bed that night feeling we’d learned a lot.
The next morning’s sun amplified the blue sky. A glorious nearby café breakfast included the greenest cucumbers, reddest tomatoes, blackest sweating olives. But then I started noticing the huge men with oddly thick beards glancing our way. And when I say “huge,” I mean MMA-fighters-on-steroids huge. My fixer excused himself for a minute.
“We have to get out of here,” he said when he returned. “Now.”
The men watching us were shabiha—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed thugs. Word was going around that Western journalists, even here in Turkey, were their targets.
We booked it out of there.
Decades ago, journalists were mainly off-limits in war. They died, but rarely were they deliberately targeted. But already, at least three journalists have been killed in Ukraine and one has been injured. The Peabody Award–winning American documentarian Brent Renaud, 50, was shot by Russian forces as he moved through a checkpoint on Sunday in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, reported his colleague Juan Arredondo, who was wounded in the attack. And on Monday, the Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, 55, died after his vehicle was struck by incoming fire in Horenka, outside Kyiv.
“Pierre was a war zone photographer who covered nearly every international story for Fox News from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria during his long tenure with us,” Suzanne Scott, CEO of Fox News Media, said. “His passion and talent as a journalist were unmatched.” Based in London, Zakrzewski had been working in Ukraine since February, the media outlet said. His Fox News colleague, Benjamin Hall, was injured and remains hospitalized.
Their colleague 24-year-old Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, who also worked as a journalist, was killed in the same attack. She was a fixer, the term given to local reporters who help out with everything from translation to finding confidential sources. “She was helping our crews navigate Kyiv and the surrounding area while gathering information and speaking to sources,” Scott told Fox News staff on Tuesday. “She was incredibly talented and spent weeks working directly with our entire team there, operating around the clock to make sure the world knew what was happening in her country.”
Doctors and nurses, ambulances, and medical facilities have traditionally been off-limits as well. But Russia does not abide by such rules and tradition.
In just two weeks of unprovoked war, Russia has dispatched explosive weapons at multiple hospitals—including a horrific attack on March 9 on a hospital for women and children in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, in which three people died, including a little girl. Some 100 children have died in the conflict, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, and that number is likely low and sure to rise.
Such carnage is Putin’s signature. In Syria, his forces targeted hospitals and medical tents. But because Putin’s slaughter in the Levant has been brutal but often far from the cameras, the world long ago fell ill with compassion fatigue even while having seen only a small number of the atrocities.
Between March 2011 and July 2021, there were 600 attacks on at least 350 separate medical facilities in Syria, according to Physicians for Human Rights, a New York–based NGO. Ninety percent of these were perpetrated by the Syrian government and their allies, the group says, with 243 of them carried out by “either Russian or Syrian government forces.” In just one hit in 2016, the PHR reports, Russian or Syrian air strikes killed eight medical personnel at a facility supported by Doctors Without Borders.
As a journalist who writes about war, I’m not easily shaken, but I’ve been shocked by the collapse of barriers between “legitimate” targets and people and places that have been historically (and legally) out of bounds. From the unthinkable 2002 murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter in Karachi, Pakistan, to multiple reports of the deliberate targeting of clearly marked Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances throughout the world, to intentional hits on schools, global combatants—including the United States—have crossed a very dangerous line.
There are rules on how to conduct a war, as summarized by the International Committee of the Red Cross:
- Protect those who are not fighting, such as civilians, medical personnel, or aid workers.
- Protect those who are no longer able to fight, like an injured soldier or a prisoner.
- Prohibit targeting civilians. Doing so is a war crime.
- Recognize the right of civilians to be protected from the dangers of war and receive the help they need. Every possible care must be taken to avoid harming them or their houses, or destroying their means of survival, such as water sources, crops, livestock, etc.
- Mandate that the sick and wounded have a right to be cared for, regardless of whose side they are on.
- Specify that medical workers, medical vehicles, and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work cannot be attacked.
- Prohibit torture and degrading treatment of prisoners.
- Specify that detainees must receive food and water and be allowed to communicate with their loved ones.
- Limit the weapons and tactics that can be used in war, to avoid unnecessary suffering.
- Explicitly forbid rape or other forms of sexual violence in the context of armed conflict.
While the press is not explicitly included, journalists are considered civilians for the purposes of international law so long as we don’t carry weapons or take part in hostilities. A protocol added in 1977 to the Geneva Conventions gives the press the same protections as civilians in international armed conflicts. But the strongest step taken since then was a UN Security Council resolution introduced by Lithuania in 2015, expressing concern about the growing threat against journalists, then coming from groups like ISIS, says Frank Smyth, the CEO of Global Journalist Security, which provides secure training for journalists and others. Smyth has testified before Congress and the UN Human Rights Council about journalists at risk.
“Enforcement continues to lag as impunity reigns,” Smyth told me. “No more so than in Mexico, where the murders of journalists seem to exceed the ability of press freedoms to keep count. What is lacking in nations from Russia to Mexico is to have a judiciary both willing and able to prosecute murders of journalists.”
The biggest problem in prosecuting crimes against journalists has long been—and is still—the enforcement of existing international laws.
You’ve seen journalists in war zones wearing vests clearly labeled “PRESS.” Yet a journalist who has worked extensively in Syria recently told me that she was advised by others in the field to remove the Velcro word patch because it would make her an identifiable target. Obviously, the vests use Velcro for a reason.
It wasn’t always like this. International media were rarely specific targets in, for example, Afghanistan, despite high-profile cases like the kidnapping of then New York Times reporter David Rohde. Local fixers and translators haven’t been as fortunate, as we saw in Kabul last year, when those who aided the international press corps scrambled for the last flights out of the city, knowing full well that their work for the media had guaranteed—instead of prevented—their imprisonment or execution at the hands of the conquering Taliban.
George Sullivan, the author of Journalists at Risk: Reporting America’s Wars, notes, “In days past, correspondents were rarely deliberately fired upon. The greatest risk comes from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Sullivan points to the death of Ernie Pyle, the lauded World War II correspondent who survived combat in North Africa, France, Italy, and Sicily before being killed on a Pacific Island by machine gun fire. In addition to Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, journalists during the Libyan conflict were in the cross hairs, including in 2011, when the South African photographer Anton Hammerl was murdered by government forces, who also detained three international journalists.
The murders of health workers and the press are a trophy for cowardly fighters and regimes out to prove their ruthlessness. For example, over the years—from Kabul to Israel to Nashville—bombers have detonated a first device with another set to go off after medical personnel and other first responders arrive.
The same brutality is inherent to attacks on media and medical buildings. “The bombing of health facilities to put them out of service is a field-tested tactic that is part of a broader strategy aimed at achieving military gains through the collective punishment of civilians, regardless of the human toll,” Physicians for Human Rights said in 2019.
A few days ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Gulnoza Said, called on “all parties involved to ensure the safety of journalists before the worst happens again.” Unfortunately, the laws protecting journalists aren’t working, and the worst is likely to come.