In the Line of Fire
Journalists—the good ones at least—are essentially two things: truth-seekers and storytellers. Ramita Navai is both. She travels to far and dangerous corners of the globe, uncovering the ugly truths that are all too often brushed under the rug in order to bring a human connection to those that are ignored.
The fight for democracy throughout the Arab world, while at times fascinating and inspiring to witness, has been an arduous and bloody affair. No place is this truer than in Syria, where thousands of peaceful pro-democracy protesters have been systematically targeted and intimidated through torture and murder.
Navai and her director Wael Dabbous were among the first Western reporters to make their way into the country. Foreign press coverage had been outright banned, and journalists have been said to be targeted by government security forces. After hooking up with a dissident network in London, the two snuck into Syria posing as tourists, then embedded themselves in within a network of activists. “I’ve never felt so connected to a story,” she tells us candidly.
Looking back, it’s unsurprising that Navai found herself dispatched in a country under siege, shuffled through a series of safe houses in an underground dissident network. As a child, she witnessed the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran. “I remember dancing in the street,”—until, she says, the movement was hijacked by Islamists, those who remain in power today. After emigrating from Iran, the family began anew in Britain. Growing up, throughout her studies and on to post-collegiate existential wanderings, those early memories never left her. “It’s a driving factor,” says Navai. “For all of us Iranians that were children of the revolution, it’s something the we can’t quite get over and put behind us.”
She’d been stuck in a series of unfulfilling jobs—“It started to make me question what I was doing with my life”—so she set her sights back on a lifelong aspiration to be a journalist. Her career in the field began with a trip home. When a devastating earthquake struck western Iran, Navai was on the scene. Her poignant coverage of the disaster garnered her a position as the Tehran correspondent for the Times of London. She was in good company: their sister newspaper, the Sunday Times, was home to one of the most daring and respected war correspondents in the world, the late Marie Colvin. “I was completely in awe of her,” Navai remembers. “She whisked me to lunch in Tehran. She was so magnetic—she was really sexy—you were completely sucked in. She was brilliant.”
Shortly after Navai filed her own report from Syria, Colvin and photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed in the infamous Baba Amr district of the city of Homs. It is suspected that Syrian authorities targeted the location for its use as an unofficial media building. Not long after, Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times, suffered a fatal asthma attack while escaping to Lebanon from Syria. Investigative journalists of this nature, especially those in war zones, have a unique approach to life. Marie Colvin had been described as almost ludicrously brave. When asked about this innate motivation to continually report from places of peril, Navai tried to put into words the feeling: “It’s a compulsion, it’s a feeling of obligation to bear witness to what’s happening. When you meet people who feel totally disenfranchised, totally sidelined from society or alienated or victimized—they have nothing, they have no one. So, journalists are, sometimes, the only way people in bad situations will be heard.”
As a correspondent for the investigative TV series “Unreported World,” Navai hikes the globe covering heavy issues—blood diamonds, human trafficking, child assassins—the things we hear about, but few really understand. Many of her stories describe deep injustice. During a trip to the east African nation of Burundi, she entered an unstable prison system to expose the plight children, hundreds of them locked up for years without trial and held in adult jails. In India, Navai encountered first-hand the institutionalized oppression of the Dalits by upper castes. In one interview, a schoolboy described being regularly called a “rat-eater” by his own teacher. Then he recounted the day he was trapped in a bathroom for six hours by the instructor. Navai remembers being flooded by a deluge of emotions. “We were not going to cry in front of that little boy, but the moment he walked away, we were just so sad.”
Navai’s pieces are carefully researched, and nuanced details are not spared, but part of what make the stories so captivating is the gripping connection she makes with her subjects. “There’s a trust; we look in each others’ eyes and in that moment there’s a connection. It goes deeper than journalism.” Critics have accused of her being too emotional. To this, she simply says, “I’m a human above being a journalist.”
The United Nations has estimated that over ten thousand dissidents have been killed by Syrian authorities. Activists on the ground say the number is much higher. Funerals are often held in secret, under the cloak of night, for if the families of protesters are picked out, they will be targeted next. With snipers mounted on rooftops, the Syrian people are struggling to get by day to day. Navai relayed the utter sense of terror brought down through the communities, “Nobody trusted anyone. You can’t trust your neighbors because they could be informers.”
Social media has played a massive role in both organizing dissidents and bringing their struggles into focus. “Where there is no international witness, where there are no Marie Colvins, where there are no journalists,” Navai explains, “there are ordinary guys, women, being eyewitness, putting things on YouTube. It is evidence.” She can’t help but gush admiration for the democracy fighters, “These are the bravest men I’ve ever, ever met. I’ve never encountered such courage. These guys go to the streets, just to the death, knowing they could be killed. They’re just chanting freedom.”
The journalist and the dissident maintain a symbiotic relationship. Navai works to ensure that the safety of activists remains paramount—they would surely be killed if they were caught working with a Western reporter. “[The activists] were so moved that we were there and that we wanted to tell their story,” Navai says. “They felt ignored, as though the world was turning away while they were being slaughtered.”
Self-serving political posturing aside, the international community has done little to nothing to step in on behalf of the Syrian people. The Assad regime has become increasingly isolated, but it’s had at least implicit support from Iran, Russia, and China. Iran and Russia shuttle arms to the Syrian government, while China, for its part, drags its feet on most international issues that might be interpreted as violating a nation’s sovereignty.
Despite the immense darkness that Navai has encountered, she remains optimistic and adamant that people are intrinsically good, “Covering these stories, you see the worst of humanity, but you also see the best—it’s really profound.” There is something deep that ties her reporting together. It transcends boundaries. Regardless of class, social status, language and culture, she’s realized that we really are all the same.
“That gives me the most joy when I’m connecting, anywhere in the world, and we don’t speak the same language, but we understand each other. There’s something in that moment.”
In our conversation, Navai glowed as she described her heroes, inspirations, and taste in music (she’s a fan of Radiohead and Led Zeppelin). Ramita’s WILD Wish is to “teletransport.” This might help her to tell many more untold stories, but she’ll surely do that anyway. “Most underdogs in the world don’t have a voice. I really believe that our job is giving the voiceless a voice.”