November 7, 2017 / 10:18 PM / a year ago

Preparation and prayers before heading to Raqqa’s front lines

In Raqqa – formerly the Islamic State’s de-facto capital – death was never far away from Reuters journalists who documented the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces side of the battle last month.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters ride atop of military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Each day, the teams drove several hours to Raqqa from their base. Once at the front line, threats included mortars, shelling, airstrikes, snipers, land mines, suicide bomb attacks and kidnapping.

What is key to operating in unpredictable hostile environments like Raqqa? A mental shift that begins well before the journalist gets to the location.

“You need to ask yourself: ‘Can I go there and cover the story and come back safely, when there are no guarantees when it comes to safety? Can I take the risk?’ This is the question and only you can answer it,” cameraman Hamuda Hassan said.

For others, like Reuters photographer Erik De Castro, preparation begins in a more domestic fashion, from ensuring that his family in the Philippines has enough groceries to keep them supplied during his absence to more introspective rituals.

“I’m not a very religious man, but I’m a Catholic,” said De Castro. “Before I go on a dangerous assignment, I make sure to visit a church in Pangasinan in northern Philippines - about a 12-hour trip - to pray for my safety.”  

Reuters journalists covering conflicts like Raqqa regularly attend hostile environment training courses and frequently travel with a security adviser when entering combat zones. They study the geography of the locations they plan to visit and speak with colleagues who have already been in the area.

The teams traveled either in an armored car or on the open back of a pickup truck with the SDF fighters they were shadowing, before dashing from house to house with fighters.

For personal safety, they wore body armor and helmets and carried gas masks, and first aid kits. For work, they brought a veritable arsenal of cameras, tripods, lenses, spare batteries, satellite phones and laptop computers.

Collectively, the Raqqa reporting crew shares extensive experience covering conflicts around the globe, but that does not immunize anyone from danger.

“There are no rules for the front lines,” Hasan said. “Each one is different from the others.”

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