The Current

'Real heroes': Journalist highlights invaluable role of fixers in foreign reporting

Journalist Deborah Campbell tells remarkable stories in her book, A Disappearance in Damascus. It's the story of her fixer, the trusted emissary relied on by foreign correspondents to get the story. But in the case of Ahlam, she became the story herself.
Journalist Deborah Campbell says her fixer Ahlam's courage is representative of a lot of invisible fixers who don't get credit. Campbell shares Ahlam's story in her book, A Disappearance in Damascus. (Deborah Campbell)

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In 2007, journalist Deborah Campbell travelled to Damascus, Syria, with the intention of documenting the exodus of millions of Iraqi refugees into Syria. But soon Campbell's focus turned to the story of one woman. 

Ahlam — a name that means "dreams" — is an Iraqi woman who became Campbell's fixer — a local person hired by a foreign journalist to help navigate a new place, set up interviews and translate for them. Not only would Ahlam become Campbell's fixer  — she also became a friend. 

"Often the real heroes of the story aren't the ones who get the credit," Campbell tells The Current's Fridayhost Piya Chattopadhyay. "We never see them. Yet all of us as journalists rely on these local experts, and the world does too." 

One day, Ahlam went missing —  almost before Campbell's eyes. It is the story of Ahlam disappearance and detention in a Syrian prison  that is detailed in Campbell's new book, A Disappearance in Damascus.

'Stories that we're hearing are coming because of people like Ahlam,' says journalist Deborah Campbell. (Courtesy of Deborah Campbell)

After around nine months of working together, Campbell tells Chattopadhyay, things started to feel unstable. 

Campbell recalls a particularly scary moment. Campbell went to visit Ahlam at her home, but before she could get to the front door, Ahlam stepped out of her apartment and in the stairwell told Campbell to leave immediately.

"The atmospheric pressure in the room changed." 

With Ahlam was a man who Campbell says she knew "was [the] secret police. Even though he wasn't wearing a uniform you could feel it. He said to Ahlam about me, 'Get rid of her'. She came up to me and said: 'Go. Go now!"

Campbell left with one thought "I need to hide my notebook, I have names of people in this book."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.