She has traveled across the Arab world for more than a decade, reporting extensively on the ongoing conflicts in some of the most war-ravaged zones, and in 2012 covered the civil war in Syria.
Regardless of the constant shelling and sniper fire during her last trip to Homs, Arwa Damon’s persistence, strength, and focus on bringing forth what needs to be known in order to help document history, has her standing tall amidst the rubble.
Arwa Damon, 36, is CNN’s Emmy-award winning Senior International Correspondent, living and working out of Beirut and covering stories from some of the most precarious, yet captivating places on Earth that have few or no laws protecting press freedom and widespread intimidation of journalists.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts to an American father and a Syrian mother (Damon’s grandfather was former Syrian Prime Minister, Muhsin al-Barazi; and assassinated in a military coup in 1949), Damon would spend much of her childhood traveling and living abroad in places such as Turkey and Morocco. She would later travel back to the United States, where she graduated with honors from Skidmore College in New York with a double major in French and Biology, and a minor in international affairs. As a multi-lingual speaker (fluent in English, Arabic, Turkish and French), Damon would take up a variety of temp jobs, eventually working with a New York-based Turkish textile company. However, after the events of 9/11, everything changed in Damon’s world and she looked towards journalism as means of communication with the world.
“I was living in New York,” she says. “Afghanistan had happened, the United States was gearing up for war in Iraq; and being an Arab American, I grew up deeply entrenched in both cultures and felt an inexplicable sense to a certain degree — a desire, a need, to go out there and because of my own personal life experiences, [and] try to build cross-cultural bridges of understanding and compassion.”
Though she had no real journalism experience to her credit, Damon headed to Baghdad with an adamant goal in mind—to work for CNN. She would spend three years covering Iraq and the Middle East as a freelance producer for numerous news organizations like PBS, FOX News and CNN. Damon officially joined CNN in 2006, immediately reported on various stories like that of the U.S. Army’s battle in Najaf; the 2010 Iraqi Election and Iraq’s Constitutional Referendum vote; the trial and execution of President Saddam Hussein; and report on the Egyptian protests against President Mubarak.
“When it comes to the Middle East, the problems there are so multi-faceted and so difficult to understand that a lot of times there’s a sense that it’s too overwhelming to be able to cover — and it’s not, because every single issue that is transpiring can be simplified to the story of a single individual,” she says. “From a child who all of a sudden is looking up to the sky as jets are flying overhead and pointing to barrel bombs because it’s a sickening twisted game that they play, ‘Where’s the bomb going to land next?’; and the others that find themselves convulsing in fears that they don’t understand. We need to continue to strive to tell these different stories.”
However, the present environment isn’t always easy or encouraging for journalists. While she has worked nonstop in Middle Eastern countries where journalists have a price on their heads, Damon has come under fire multiple times by government forces, risking capture and arrest.
During the second week of 2007, Damon traveled to Baghdad where she was stuck in a 10-hour street fight and shot at by snipers while embedded with the U.S. military, covering the assault in Fallujah. Four years later, she would boldly cover the revolution and fall of President Mubarak, reporting from Tahrir Square in Egypt for days amidst protests and gunfire. It was known that Damon was at great risk while in the country, traveling to pro-Mubarak areas to interview those opposed to the regime. Colleagues at CNN noted that her reporting was repetitively “peppered with the constant sound of artillery and small arms fire.”
In July of 2011, Damon traveled to Bahrain, covering the anti-government protests. While interviewing the demonstrators, government troops opened fire on the crowds as she continued her reporting. Damon also helped find medics who were treating the wounded and interviewed families of those killed. That next month, she would travel to Libya where she was the only Western journalist to report live during the last counter-offensive in Tripoli during the Muammar al-Gaddafi regime. She was trapped there for days and slept in an airport that was repeatedly hit with shelling and gunfire.
With the Arab Spring taking shape in the Middle East in these last few years, Damon has continued to face physical dangers throughout her reporting, being subjected to first-hand threats and gunfire. In February of 2012, she covered the ongoing siege in Homs, Syria, and has admitted in past interviews that it was the most frightening war zone she ever stepped into. Upon her visit to Syria’s third-largest city, Damon was illegally smuggled into the country and constantly traveling to different safe houses as the area was full of snipers and undergoing enormous amounts of shelling. Holed up in a bunker in Baba Amr with late war reporter Marie Colvin (the IWMF’s first Courage in Journalism Award winner from the United Kingdom), Damon was pulled out of Homs the day before the media center they were in, was bombed. Returning to Libya in May of 2013 in an effort to unearth the truth behind who planned the Benghazi Embassy attack — a report for which Damon drew heavy criticism from the U.S. State Department on account of the fact that she was one of the first few journalists on the scene after the attacks took place, for discovering the journal of slain Ambassador, Chris Stevens, and stating that the attacks were not a spontaneous demonstration – contrary to what the State Department was stating at the time. In subsequent findings Damon was later exonerated.
CNN Chief International Correspondent and ember of the IWMF Board of Directors, Christiane Amanpour, told Net-A-Porter last year that Damon’s main and important contribution to the industry is that she is a real reporter, going on to say, “she goes out and tells stories. What she does is so rare these days when talking-heads and armchair warriors dominate. She believes in being there.”
It is evident that Damon truly believes in the power of her position. Regardless of the all the violence and threats she faces during the events, she consistently manages to put together an impartial series of masterpiece reports covering the realism of war; exploring neighborhoods where residents hide their children, to makeshift clinics set up to treat the wounded. Damon risks her own life to stay in the cross-fire in order to show audiences at home the true story from the victim’s eyes.
“I think I ended up being the accidental war correspondent,” she says. “I didn’t set out to have that be a focal point of my career. I most certainly am not an adrenaline junkie, but what really keeps me going out there every single day is those human stories.”
Damon’s segment from 2007 of 5 year-old Youssif who was severely burned in an attack, became an enormously admired and appreciated story from viewers. Impressed with her dedication and courage to show the other side of war, CNN allowed Damon to find the boy medical care in the States and follow his story for four years.
Showcasing such a strong level of engagement between Damon, her subject and the audience was a first for the network, catapulting her to acclamation both inside and outside CNN.
Damon is currently one of the network’s Iraq specialists and continues to report from Baghdad on assignments throughout the year. With her stories, she has been able to shine a light on those who suffer brutality and violence in silence, particularly women. She is one of the few reporters who were granted rare permission to visit the Khamiya women’s prison, focusing on how the Iraqi government keeps women and their children locked up. Later in 2011 she gained access to women that were forced to become “Al-Qaeda” wives. In circumstances no less dangerous than a combat zone, Damon has also had the chance to report from Pakistan and Afghanistan regarding infants who are fed opium, and examine the way victims of rape and abuse are treated.
“On one level, the challenges that we [women] face as opposed to our male counterparts are very practical. [But] on another level, there is perhaps something of an added risk especially in certain environments, like Egypt where there have been numerous, horrifying cases of women, not just female journalists, but women being raped by the masses,” Damon says. “At the same time, being a female out in the field does bring with it certain advantages, especially as a Western journalist. We tend to exist in this gray space so I can access the men, I can sit with them, have tea with them, speak with them and they will to the most part treat me as something of an equal or at least as an unknown. And then I can turn around and spend time with the women that my male colleagues can’t, and they open up to me even more, and I think there’s a tendency, just generally speaking amongst people to feel more comfortable opening up to a woman, so I would actually view being a woman out there as being an advantage.”
In an interview with Politico earlier this year, Damon said in order to be a foreign correspondent amidst the danger, you have to have an understanding of who you are because it is eminent and at one point, you will sacrifice yourself.
“Of course people are impacted by the violence,” she tells the IWMF. “Of course I’m impacted by the violence, and you do lose a part of yourself when you’re out there that you won’t ever get back. But when you’re faced with the losses that the people whose stories you’re covering—what they’ve gone through—it makes that part of yourself that you have to give up to tell their stories, absolutely worth it.”
Damon doesn’t believe there is necessarily any one story worth dying for, but affirms that the stories are worth the threats. “If we look back at the body of work that exists because people are willing to keep going out to these front lines and taking the risk to tell those stories — if we look at how in the past those risks have helped individuals or demanded accountability, if we look at what has been created because of the existence of war zone correspondents, then that body of work and the changes that we have managed to bring about are worth dying for,” she says. “And fighting for the integrity of the profession and fighting for the populations that are vulnerable and innocent, that is worth the risk as well.”
Arwa Damon’s quest and dedication to finding meaningful stories through the thick and thin of war eclipses the risks and threats that come with the responsibility of reporting objectively and factually. With her incredible sense of compassion, sincerity, purpose and understanding of self, and others, Damon courageously faces challenges head-on as a female war correspondent dodging bullets that do not discriminate between gender and life, which is ever so precarious out on the frontlines. All that matters is the story. Truly this dedicated journalist lives in constant motion bringing news.
Follow Arwa Damon on Twitter: @arwaCNN
by Tania Hussain
Photo credit: CNN
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 2014