Czech journalists track refugees’ plight in Iraq and Syria

Iraqi border, photo: Jarmila Štuková, Lenka Klicperová

Two Czech journalists, Jarmila Štuková and Lenka Klicperová, recently returned from a working trip to Iraq and Syria. Their mission was to document the situation of refugees in the war-stricken region in order to drum up support for a humanitarian aid project run by the Czech branch of the Catholic charity Caritas. I spoke to one the reporters, Lenka Klicperová, just a few days upon her return to the Czech Republic, and I first asked her about the project itself:

Lenka Klicperová, photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“The project was initiated by the deputy head of Czech Parliament Jan Bartošek. He wanted to involve some media in the project so he approached me and my colleague Jarmila Štuková.

“We were asked to go to Iraq and Syria to do a report and photos about refugees and the war itself. So we went there and it was very nice to see the country again, because we love it, despite the fact that there is a war.”

Why did Mr Bartošek approach the two of you?

“He first approached just me, but I told him I needed another person to go with me, because it is not easy to work in a war zone. We also wanted to make some videos, which is not that easy to do in under the circumstances, so I decided to involve my friend Jarmila. And that was it.”

What exactly was your role in the project?

“Our goal was to bring a lot of reports and photos from the war zones and refugee camps to show the public what is really going on in Syria and Iraq and to show them the real stories of the refugees. To show that behind every person there is a story, which is really important to know. War is not just a word. Behind every war there are stories of ordinary people.”

What was the most powerful story you came across?

“We witnessed a lot of stories and all of them were really moving. But the most powerful one was the story of the Yezidi women reportedly raped in a very brutal way by radicals from the Islamic State.

“It was really sad to hear the story of the two very young girls, whose lives were destroyed by this brutal act. It wasn't easy to work with them, because it was very emotional.”

Our goal was to bring a lot of reports and photos from the war zones and refugee camps to show the public what is really going on in Syria and Iraq.

Was it difficult to win the girls' trust?

“Yes, of course it was, because the Yezidi community is really very traditional and it is not easy to make them talk to you. But finally we succeeded and I think it was mainly due to the fact that we are women as well.”

I guess in that case being a woman was an advantage. But in other cases, wasn't it a disadvantage?

Did you have to take special precautions, being women?

“In most cases, being a woman was actually an advantage. The society in Iraq is controlled by men and you have to deal with men everywhere, not only in the army. But especially in the Peshmerga Army it was really an advantage because the generals were quite impressed to see female journalists and they were very helpful, to tell the truth.”

Did you get into any life-threatening situations during your mission?

“Yes. We went to Sinjar, especially to the city of Sinjar. Eighty percent of the city is controlled by the Islamic State. We went to the front line in the city, where a dangerous urban war is taking place. Snipers are everywhere.

“When we were trying to get to the city, they were firing at us with rockets, which fell just thirty meters behind our car. So that was really dangerous. And the front line in the city was very dangerous as well. There are a lot of open spaces between the ruins of the houses and you have to run very fast through them. So it is an adrenalin-filled job to work there.”

How did you prepare for these kind of situations? If you can prepare for them in any way...

Jarmila Štuková, photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“The problem is that you never know in advance what the place will look like. Of course we discussed the situation before going to the frontline with the commander of the PKK soldiers. Because they control about twenty percent of the city of Sinjar.

“The problem is that the army is not well-trained and they are more like partisans. For them, security is not the most important issue. So when we asked if it was safe to go there they would tell us: it's your decision. So we decided to give it a try because we wanted to get a picture of urban war in Sinjar. And we simply wanted to see it with our own eyes.”

After you announced that you would be going to Syria and Iraq, some people said it was too risky for you to go there as women. What do you say to these reactions?

“The risk is always the same, no matter whether you are a man or a woman. This is a war zone and that's it. I can't see any differences between the risky situations for women and men. A bullet is always the same, no matter whether it comes through a female or a male body.”

Your first stop on your mission was a series of refugee camps in and around Erbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq. Did you manage to visit all the places you planned to go to?

“I think in general we did. We did a lot of work in refugee camps. We wanted to go for instance to Domiz, one of the biggest refugee camps in the Middle End, in Iraqi Kurdistan. But in the end we decided against it and we chose another place to visit.

“I think that in the end it doesn't really matter because refugee camps are more or less the same, especially in Iraq. We visited a lot of them, we spoke to a lot of people and we made a lot of photos. And I think we succeeded in showing the public how difficult is the life of refugees.”

The risk is always the same, no matter whether you are a man or a woman. This is a war zone and that's it.

What place was the most difficult to reach? Was it the town of Sinjar?

“Of course it was. It was really complicated to get permission to go there but afterwards it was actually quite easy, since we had a contact on the local PKK fighters. So it wasn't so hard to get to the city itself.

“But frankly, the most complicated thing was to leave Syria. It was really complicated because we were facing a lot of bureaucratic issues. Bureaucracy is really huge in Syria, especially in the Kurdish area controlled by YPG, Kurdish left-oriented militias. So for us, it was really difficult to get back to Iraq from Syria with our translator and fixer Hassan.

“He was threatened by having to join the YPG Army and for us it was a great deal of trouble to get him back.”

But finally you succeeded, didn't you?

“Yes, in the end we were successful.”

The aim of your mission was to boost the fundraising charity campaign. Was the project successful and do you know how much has been collected so far?

“So far we have collected about half a million Czech crowns and the project is to be continued. This was just a start. Now we have to prepare exhibitions of the photos taken by the two of us in Iraq and Syria. And we will of course continue to raise awareness about the situation there. And of course we would like to go back.”

So are you already planning to go there again?

“We would love to, but of course there is a problem with the funding. You need a lot of money to hire a car, a fixer and so on. All these things cost a lot of money, especially in the war zones.”

Iraqi border, photo: Jarmila Štuková, Lenka Klicperová
Were there some places you didn't manage to see during this trip and that you would like to visit next time?

“That's of course the city of Kobani. We really wanted to go there, but the bureaucracy and complications were so huge that we didn't manage. But I hope that in the future we'll be able to go there and document it in our photographs because the city is like a symbol of the war against ISIS. So for us it is really important to go there.”