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23 Mar 2018 18:20
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  •   Home > News > Motoring

    Backstory: The difficult and dangerous road to Raqqa

    Correspondent Matt Brown tells of huge logistical challenges and side-stepping unexploded mortars to produce the Four Corners program on the Syrian town of Raqqa after the defeat of Islamic State.

    Travelling to the former Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria for ABC News and Four Corners was a complicated and risky assignment for Middle East correspondent Matt Brown and cameraman Aaron Hollett.

    If you think the journey, not the destination matters, then you haven't been to Raqqa.

    The scale of destruction caused by US-led air strikes is disorienting — it's like entering another world.

    Middle East camera operator Aaron Hollett and I travelled there in December last year to gather stories for ABC News and Four Corners.

    We had some startling and inspiring experiences.

    But let me start with the journey, because it reflects the fractured mirror that the Middle East has become.

    The easiest way would be to fly into the Syrian capital, Damascus, then fly up to the regional centre, Qamishli, where the Syrian Government controls an airport and several neighbourhoods nearby.

    From there it's just a five-hour drive to Raqqa.

    But the Syrian Government isn't just giving out journalists' visas.

    And it probably wouldn't allow us to fly to Qamishli anyway.

    After all, the city is under the control of Kurdish parties who, after a long, tacit understanding with Damascus, have teamed up with the US, to force out the IS group and claim a large stretch of northern Syria.

    So journalists enter the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria right up in the far north-east, at a border crossing from Iraq.

    That's how I did it in 2015, as IS was being bombed out of that north-east pocket.

    We got to the border by flying into the Iraqi city of Erbil, which is controlled by a Kurdish group that's a rival to the one in Syria but also has good relations with the US.

    The beauty was that you didn't need a visa.

    But when the Iraqi Kurds voted to secede from the rest of the country last year, Baghdad shut the airspace, banning direct flights.

    Which meant you had to get an Iraqi journalist visa and fly in via Baghdad.

    Easier to get than Syria.

    But a complication, especially when timing is of the essence.

    Because the Kurds still control the land borders in northern Iraq — and still don't insist on Iraqi visas — crossing by land became the easiest option.

    That meant flying in to Sirnak in Turkey's remote south-east and staying overnight in Cizre.

    The breakfast room at the hotel had a spectacular view of the Tigris river, which forms the border between Turkey and Syria.

    It was one of those moments where, despite the immense hassles and headaches, I felt the wonder and privilege of being able to do this job.

    From Cizre, in a taxi with the right licence, you can drive south, to the border crossing into Iraq.

    After the referendum, the Iraqi military had forced Kurdish troops to abandon significant territory and we were concerned they might also seize control of the border crossing.

    But a lot of international politics behind the scenes kept it open and we made it through to the Iraqi city of Dohuk.

    With its rugged mountains and dry, cold air, Dohuk is another one of those places where you just feel lucky to be soaking in the atmosphere.

    But Dohuk also presented another hurdle to clear.

    Since the referendum, the Kurdish Regional Government's President, Massoud Barzani, had resigned and some of the bureaucracy we'd used to arrange our previous trip was very stressed.

    Countless emails to the border crossing into Syria went unanswered.

    Phone calls delivered "no news".

    With a security adviser on the team, the bills were piling up fast.

    Eventually our old contacts came through and, after a few days of waiting, we climbed into a large, flat-bottomed tin boat, with various other travellers including Syrian Kurds heading home (one woman had a full oven and stove as her baggage) and motored the short distance across the icy waters of the Tigris.

    I won't take you through the blow-by-blow of driving across northern Syria, or being turned away by one bureaucrat who insisted we go back to the previous town for a particular piece of paper, but suffice to say, it took two days to get to Raqqa, arriving in beautiful, golden, winter light to see utter devastation.

    We couldn't stay in the city and had to sleep at a safe house at Kobane, right up north, on the border with Turkey.

    The house was large and secure, but freezing.

    You could leave a beer on the window sill to get cold!

    It was also a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive away from Raqqa.

    So our time to gather the story each day was limited.

    And the old adage about the dangers of the job came into play: you're more likely to get killed on the road than by a crazed jihadist.

    We sacked two drivers.

    One was behaving like a clown and, more than once, leaving us or the car while he did his own poking around.

    The other stayed up all night watching his phone and, if not for the security adviser's quick grab of the steering wheel, more than once would have driven us off the road at 100kmh while he rested his eyes.

    Getting around to film and interview people in Raqqa was made all the more difficult because every foot step there could be your last.

    Every day someone was being killed by unexploded bombs and, mostly, mines and booby traps left by the IS group.

    One man showed us the blood-stained concrete where a neighbour had been blown up after entering his garage.

    A truck carrying wounded militiamen appeared out of nowhere, taking their bloodied bodies to one of the only clinics operating in the city.

    Lots of roads were still blocked by rubble.

    We found an unexploded mortar amongst the broken concrete and realised we'd almost stepped on it several times while filming.

    Its detonator had been smashed off but still it was a reminder of how dangerous the place could be.

    And, while all that was happening, we heard explosions in the distance as mines went up elsewhere.

    For all that, I still count the assignment as a privilege.

    We met one family who secretly sent some of their kids to a private tutor, risking punishment by IS which had banned them going to school.

    We sat in what was a bedroom at the front of their third-floor apartment, with the roof and front wall blown off by what was probably an artillery strike and looked out over their neighbour's roof tops, sipping tea and talking about what they'd endured.

    Up the road we met a woman, a single mother of six, who'd defied IS fighters, including one who hit her in the face, so she could keep her shop open and feed her family.

    We also took row boats across the Euphrates river to reach the former home of Australian jihadist Khaled Sharrouf.

    That part of the trip was the culmination of a three-year long journey.

    It started when I interviewed Yezidi women in Iraq who'd escaped after being held as domestic slaves by Sharrouf in Raqqa.

    They'd taken photos of the house and sent them to their families who gave them to a smuggler sent to rescue them.

    I used the photos to search satellite photos for Sharrouf's house and, by cross referencing with the description from the Yezidi women, managed to locate it.

    Finally, in Raqqa, I used the GPS coordinates and a mobile phone mapping app to set our course.

    When we arrived and Sharrouf's former neighbour emerged, I couldn't believe my luck.

    He went on to scornfully recall the thuggish behaviour of the stranger who'd come so far to join the extremists of IS and gave Australians a new insight into Sharrouf's infamous life in Raqqa.

    At the end of our time there, we had to make that whole trip in reverse.

    So in a way, meeting those amazing people was just part of the journey, one that mattered much more than the simply reaching the destination.

    Watch Matt Brown's Four Corners report City of Ghosts.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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