A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction:
In the midst of an unfolding international crisis, the renowned journalist Deborah Campbell finds herself swept up in the mysterious disappearance of Ahlam, her guide, "fixer," and friend. Her frank, personal account of her journey to rescue her, and the triumph of friendship and courage over terrorism, is as riveting as it is illuminating.

The story begins in 2007 when Deborah Campbell travels undercover to Damascus to report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There she meets and hires Ahlam, a refugee working as a “fixer”—providing Western media with trustworthy information and contacts to help get the news out. Ahlam, who fled her home in Iraq after being kidnapped while running a humanitarian centre, not only supports her husband and two children through her work with foreign journalists but is setting up a makeshift school for displaced girls. She has become a charismatic, unofficial leader of the refugee community in Damascus, and Campbell is inspired by her determination to create something good amid so much suffering. Ahlam soon becomes her friend as well as her guide. But one morning Ahlam is seized from her home in front of Campbell’s eyes. Haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend’s arrest, Campbell spends the months that follow desperately trying to find her—all the while fearing she could be next.
 
Through its compelling story of two women caught up in the shadowy politics behind today’s conflict, A Disappearance in Damascus reminds us of the courage of those who risk their lives to bring us the world’s news.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

The day began like any other. Awakened at dawn by the call to prayer, I fell back asleep for another hour. When I woke again I felt along the wall for the light switch, scanning for cockroaches before stepping barefoot to the kerosene stove, where I struck a match to heat water for coffee. I took a quick shower, since the water in this part of Damascus was not only undrinkable but in short supply, then pulled on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt that covered my arms to the wrist—there was no need to stand out any more than necessary. Descending the empty stairwell I entered the marvellous cacophony of a perfect late-spring day.
   
   The morning light ignited the gold dome of the shrine. The rattle of taxis, motorcycle carts, vendors rolling up the metal shutters on their shops. Already the Internet cafés were filling up with Iraqi boys who spent all day playing first-person shooter games, pretending to be American soldiers on urban combat missions in neighbourhoods that must have reminded them of home. Outside a storefront, a swarm of happy little schoolgirls in uniform were lined up to buy sweets, giggling and jostling. A boy swerved past on an adult-sized bicycle, weaving precariously on through the gathering crowd.
   
   As I wended my way through the alleyways towards Ahlam’s apartment, I thought I felt something. A pair of eyes, a man standing next to a motorcycle, staring intently. The sense of being followed occurred to me but I abandoned it like a whim. After years spent working undercover in places where journalists were unwelcome, my radar could be oversensitive; as the only Westerner in the neighbourhood, I shrugged off curious stares.
   
   By nine a.m. we were drinking tea alone at Ahlam’s apartment—the teaspoons of sugar dissolving into a glass, my notebook as usual on my lap—when a man knocked at the door. Ahlam went to answer it and stepped out into the stairwell. I could hear them speaking but not their words. Nevertheless I felt an immediate shift in the atmospheric pressure of the room. Without getting up I looked around, wondering where I might hide my notebook, estimating how long it would take to find something that had been concealed in here. Not long. The living room was a box except for a doorless closet crammed with her two children’s belongings. I placed the notebook back into my bag and sat there, waiting for her to return. The minutes stretched out, timed to the beating of my heart.
   
   When she returned, the man walked into the room ahead of her. He was short, unsmiling, a vain little moustache like a hyphen above his mouth. The kind of man who, whatever he is wearing, always appears to be in uniform. I knew, without a word from either of them, that he was one of those responsible for keeping order among the newcomers, to ensure that the war did not come with them to Syria. A man of limited powers and yet—for those under his authority—unlimited.
   
   She was to accompany him to their headquarters to answer some questions. Men were waiting downstairs to escort her in a car. They told her she would be gone for a few hours. This had happened before, such official summonings, at least half a dozen times. When she was sick in bed for a week after her husband left, they had panicked and sent a man to check on her: why was she staying at home, changing her patterns? But never before had a group of men come for her.
   
   By now I was on my feet. It was a long and awkward moment as the three of us stood stock-still in the room, none of us moving or meeting the others’ eyes. Finally the man broke the silence. “Get rid of her,” he said to Ahlam in Arabic.
   
   She had been standing beside him and now she walked over to me. “Go,” she said, her face close to mine. “Go now.” In her voice was an urgency I had never heard before, though her face betrayed nothing. Her expression was flat as a becalmed lake. This vacancy, this flatness in someone always so animated, someone whose face I knew as a stage on which every sort of emotion played, was far more menacing than the presence of the stranger.
   
   I took my bag with my notebook and left, retracing my steps of earlier that morning. I barely recall the walk back. Only the acid flush that carried up my face like a rash, the pulse in my ears, the sensation of being watched. And yet, when I looked around, no one was paying me the least attention. The locals were used to me now, a neighbourhood fixture. “Doktorah!” A shopkeeper I knew shouted greetings from the shadowy interior of his shop. His voice was friendly, unaffected. That feeling I had of being watched earlier this morning—was it as fabricated as the one I felt now?
   
   At the door of my hotel, I studied the face of the young security guard who slept at night on a mattress inside the front door. He smiled, greeted me as usual, asked after my health. Up the flight of stairs, taken two at a time. In the glass-panelled office across from my room, the hotel manager was playing solitaire on his computer with his little son on his lap. He waved to me, indicating that I should join them for tea.
   
   No one had been here to ask about me.
   
   My room was like a cave, self-contained and insular. Inside, everything was as I had left it: my audio recorder still lying in a tangle of cords, books pell-mell, a half-made single bed, a towel drying on the door of the wardrobe that I never used. Through the window high up on the wall I could hear the sounds of the day unfolding as it should, horns honking, children laughing, the clatter of working life.
   
   How strange that I had come to love it here.
   
   The air-conditioning unit had a leak. The pot I had placed below it was about to overflow, so I emptied it into the sink and then lay down on the bed with the lights off.
   
   Before, the leak had not bothered me but now each drop was a question that rippled outward. Drip—She is gone. Drip—Where has she been taken? Drip—Just a few hours, he had said.
   
   This had happened before. It was nothing unusual. Was it my presence that had drawn them this time? Did they take me for a spy? Perhaps I had set off a tripwire. For all my bullshit lectures to her about not working with journalists and putting herself in needless danger, I had overlooked something. I was a journalist.
   
   I thought it wise not to sleep in my room that night. Instead I stayed at an American friend’s apartment in downtown Damascus. Awakening in the middle of the night in the dark, I couldn’t remember where I was. The air was hot and sticky, claustrophobic, a ceiling fan barely nudging the air. The next morning she asked me to leave. She was a freelance journalist and didn’t want trouble. For the first time I understood something that had managed to evade me all of my life: trouble is a contagious disease.


From the Hardcover edition.
Publisher: Vintage Canada