I was with Steve in Istanbul last year. We were talking to a British Special Forces veteran, who was sunk in drink, knocking back beers one after the other. He was now moving stuff into Syria. I-pads. Walkie-talkies. Satellite phones. The guy just wasn’t shutting up. Steve was all ears. Prodding away in the late night. Although, he shouldn’t have been: another friend was waiting for him at Taksim Square. He looked ruefully at the steep incline from Cihangir up to Taksim (he’d put on a few extra pounds) before disappearing into the night.
Six weeks later he was kidnapped in Aleppo Province. It was August 4, 2013. A spike in kidnappings had dealt a deathblow to reporting from rebel-held areas, meaning that few western journalists, no matter how brave, were there to document the suffering — and resilience — of ordinary Syrians.
He’d checked it out. It was extremely risky. But Steve was a journalist through and through. More importantly, his previous trips into the country had given him a sense of responsibility — to not go would be to fail Syrians.
A few short kilometers inside Syria, two SUVs intercepted Steve’s vehicle — extremist militants pouring out, separating him from his armed guards before spiriting him away.
It’s a strange compulsion to spend a life among conflicts, amid the dying and the already dead; the displaced and hungry; buildings with rooftops sunken and walls pockmarked; surrounded by all kinds of suffering and misery.
Steve dedicated precious years of his youth to understanding the Middle East, from impoverished Yemen to the chaotic decline of Libya, and on to Syria. He cared for the people of these countries in equal measure and without discrimination. He reported of his own volition. There was no big media company paying him a regular wage. There was no guarantee that if things (as they do) went bad, support would be forthcoming.
Steve wanted to contribute to the public’s understanding of global events. To inform, educate and stimulate debate. His reporting displayed the acute intelligence that lay behind his rotund, disarming face, often bearded like some kind of Yemeni sheikh. Or an Ewok. One analyst, over a beer in a bar observed that Steve was capable of effortlessly weaving historical narratives into contemporary reports.
More importantly, his reports spoke to the empathy and respect in which he held all those he met. He was a gentle person; and in many ways that made him an odd fit for the harsh realities of the Middle East or for the cutthroat, ultra-competitive world of freelance journalism.
His hotel rooms were disaster zones. Candy wrappers, flak jackets, laptop cords, printouts of long pieces from academic journals. A bottle of whisky, sheets spread about the place, atop chairs or, on one occasion, on the bathroom floor.
At a live music bar in southern Turkey — while mulling the logistics of a potential trip into Hama a few weeks before he vanished — he spoke of feeling worn out. Of wanting to get out of the region and clear his head, relax in an environment of stability. To play rugby. His eyes peeked out from behind his glasses; he was like a lost puppy. Yet, as a local fixer showed up, conversation immediately swung to Syria. And Steve engaged with gusto, his enthusiasm clear.
The men who murdered Steve are of little importance here. In his last moments, as throughout his life, Steve stood in absolute opposition to them, embodying morality and dignity. That’s a power his killers are incapable of understanding.