THE BLOG

When the Sun Comes Out, Syria's War Does Not Stop

03/06/2014 16:39 BST | Updated 02/08/2014 10:59 BST

Standing in the shade of olive trees on a hill in north-west Jordan, the peaceful spring afternoon was suddenly shattered. From across the valley came the heavy thud of shelling from Syria's border villages.

The nightmare which we had been covering for the past six months was suddenly all too present, each thud the loss of another home, livelihood, neighbourhood or life - in real-time. We'd heard the shelling before, one quiet, winter evening in Irbid when the cold had forced everyone inside. But it was here on the bright hilltop that sound and setting collided most eerily, as the war penetrated the scene of picnicking families. The sun was shining, but the war was not stopping.

Covering the crisis from Syria's neighbouring countries has become a necessity for many journalists, and the sound of the war from across the border is the closest we get. With more than 60 reporters killed, and many more snatched by kidnappers since the conflict began, Syria is today ranked as the worst country in the world in which to be a journalist. Just last week, Times journalist Anthony Loyd and photographer Jack Hill were abducted and tortured by rebels supposed to be protecting them. Whilst it may be possible for a select few to work inside Syria - generally within government-held territory - for freelancers like us with no official backing, crossing the border is not exactly a responsible option. This war is an all-consuming beast in which everyone and everything is a target, and we don't want to be the next headline.

This is not the 'lazy option' - outside Syria, there is no shortage of stories. This is a conflict no longer contained within borders. Just as the sound of the shelling filters out, Syria's tales weave their way through surrounding states with each path a refugee or exile takes.  In Amman, we hear about the siege of Homs from a writer smuggled out of the city through the sewage system. From Istanbul, we hear an activist's description of the brutal torture techniques used by Syria's Airforce Intelligence Branch. From Yerevan, we hear of Aleppo's destruction and of the echoes of the city's Armenian choirs which no longer sing.

Told within the safe context of a stable country such as Jordan, the stories from Syria are unsettling at an extreme. There is a stark contrast between the events of which they speak, and the environment in which they are spoken. As we listen to the writer's experiences during the siege of the Babr Amr district in Homs, we sit in the relative comfort of his flat in the suburbs of Jordan's capital. Cramped and cold, yes, but relatively homely, too - a couple of posters on the walls, a small collection of books on the shelves, grandchildren absorbed in watching Tom and Jerry on TV.  His descriptions of hunger, fear and pain don't seem to fit.

But there is a degree of continuity at least. Every day, a bus departs Amman for the Syrian border, Homsi and Damascene number plates frequently pass you by on the highway, and the lyrical Syrian accent is often heard. Simply put, in Syria's neighbouring countries, the war is never far away.

Reporting from London - which many of us often have to do - is simply surreal. The context just feels too wrong. WhatsApp messages with updates from refugees whilst sitting on the top deck of a bus; Skyping a medic to discuss war injuries whilst sitting in a busy cafe; looking at photos of a female friend's dead son whilst walking down Oxford Street; reading a press release reporting the latest figures of the dead and injured whilst squished into a packed tube carriage during rush hour. So far away from the battlefield, and within the comfort and buzz of the city, it all seems almost unbelievable.

The contrasts between the content of our articles and the world in which they are written do, however, illustrate an important point. What is happening in the country is not normal, it is not part and parcel of some kind of 'chaotic middle east', and it is not something which we can ignore. Embedded within the constancy of war, it is understandably all too easy to develop a sense that this is the 'new normal'.  Sometimes it is important to view war from afar, to be reminded just how out of place it is, the seeming remoteness of what we write serving to accentuate the horror and the pain.