A journalist’s frantic search

Deborah Campbell2Book Review: A Disappearance in Damascus­ — A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War by Deborah Campbell

By Cathryn Atkinson

In May 1991, I spent two weeks travelling alone by train from Belgrade, Serbia, to Split, Croatia, by way of Zagreb and rural Bosnia.

I was there as a freelance photographer, covering the referendum by Croatians wanting to leave the Yugoslavian federation, and checking out the rest of the country.

I was still a student and totally wet behind the ears. And I was completely self-financed, with no newspaper behind me watching my back.

I did not see war, I saw the build-up to war: troop movements of Yugoslav soldiers on the train with me, Croatian exiles who came home prepared to fight, nationalistic posturing with big displays at shops and even weddings.

A dangerous energy was around every corner. There was much uncertainty and unspoken anxiety.

At the Associated Press office in Belgrade, I was schooled in the geopolitics of Yugoslavia. “The Serbs and the Croats are behaving like children and it will be bad. If Bosnia gets involved it will be Hell on Earth,” the AP correspondent said.

Six days after I got home, the war began. The AP man was right. Many died, including a dear friend, another photojournalist. I never went back.

When I picked up A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell, I had this in mind.

Subtitled A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War, the book tells the story of her local fixer Ahlam, an Iraqi woman who secretly provided information and guided Western journalists in Syria.

Campbell went to Syria in 2007, several years before the start of its catastrophic war — this decade’s Hell on Earth. Ahlam got into the work for the money to support her family, and immediately placed herself in danger with the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

A friendship between the two developed and when Ahlam disappeared; Campbell witnessed her being taken away by men who said she “would be gone for a few hours.” Campbell spent months trying to find her, ironically noting that Ahlam’s specialty had been locating disappeared prisoners. She eventually discovered Ahlam was in the notorious Douma Prison.

In war, intrigue is in front of your face. Campbell’s ability to note the details of her time there and the people she encountered with journalistic clarity makes A Disappearance in Damascus compelling.

She captures the fear and frustration she felt, the impact on Ahlam’s family and the journey of Ahlam herself, in prison and beyond.

It is a bold snapshot of the Assad regime prior to the start of the war, and will give readers an idea of why so many have fought to be rid of that dictator.

As reviewed in Pique Newsmagazine.

Campbell is now a non-fiction lecturer and journalism teacher at the University of British Columbia. She will be in Conversation with Marsha Lederman and Ronald Wright on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 2 p.m. at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Tickets are $15.