More civilians have been killed in Syria in the last year than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. As a journalism producer and publisher, most recently of Razistan, an outlet on the Afghan war and its people, I have quietly worked to develop a similar publication on Syria’s increasingly savage revolution.
Since Syria’s uprising erupted 14 months ago, Syrian journalists living and working abroad returned home to report on the growing conflict from within their own country. Among those was Bassel Al Shahade, 27, a Syrian filmmaker who interrupted his graduate studies at Syracuse University to return home. Two days ago, while reporting from the embattled city of Homs, he fell under mortar fire and was killed.
From the beginning, journalists attempting to report from Syria confronted perilous threats. After contacting a core group of Syrian journalists willing to regularly contribute to a new digital publication dedicated exclusively to Syria, I suspended the project. Morally, the risks to journalists were so severe that they outweighed any potential benefit.
Even the act of speaking to journalists, as Mohammed Abdel Marla al-Hariri experienced last month, risk conviction of treason by the Assad regime. Last month, Mawla Al-Hariri, was sentenced to life in prison for appearing in an interview on Al-Jazeera — a well-funded Qatar-based news organization that acted irresponsibility by failing to obscure his identity.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, during the Arab Spring, more journalists were killed in Syria than any other country. But as Western news agencies such as the Associated Press continue to report, “numbers are impossible to verify.” I have kept tabs on Syrian journalists, who, over encrypted emails, have implored me to publish images.
Many of the original group of journalists I contacted were detained or killed. Others disappeared. Of those still living in Syria, each has shifted from journalism to activism, snapping photographs from mobile phones while under sniper fire. This week, in the wake of the Houla massacre, in which 108 Syrians were killed, many of them women and children, I caught up with one Syrian journalist turned-activist. An excerpt from our conversation is amended below. The individual’s name and revolutionary pseudonym is being withheld.
How are you holding up?
Regardless of the bloodshed, I smell freedom. But the situation is fucking hell, all over Syria, even in central Damascus. I’m trying to stay strong, not to collapse. I lost two friends this week.
What did you do today?
I went to a protest, a very big one, and the slogans and banners were amazing. It was against sectarianism, which cast doubts on the reports and statements coming from around the world. As you may know the sectarian tone is getting louder and louder. Especially after the Houla massacre.
Is there an aspect about Houla massacre that isn’t being reported?
Yes, it’s the implications. The inside story is not as the West and the regime is promoting it. We are not in a civil war. Not at all. The guys here on the ground understand that the killers do not belong to any sect or religion and understand very well that the regime is utilizing Alawites for his own ends.
What is Assad saying to garner support from Alawites? Is he making explicit demands?
The Assad regime is explicitly giving them arms and brainwashing his followers. They are being told that if Assad goes the Sunnis will burn the Alawites. It’s either you crush the Sunnis or they’re going to kill you. For them, it’s an issue of survival. Fueling sectarianism are the sheikhs outside Syria in the Gulf States. When ministers in Kuwait appear on TV calling his government to arm the Sunni in Syria because otherwise they are going to be killed by Alawites is totally insane.
What’s your biggest fear at the moment? And has it changed over the course of the last few weeks?
I’m afraid of death. I do not want to die. I want to live for Syria. I do not want to be killed for Syria.
What is the answer to all of this? What are you actually protesting? If Assad fell, whom do you want to fill the power vacuum?
To be honest, I’m dreaming of a coup. I do not wish to be ruled by a military man. But during this stage, I believe that a military man would be the best solution, in order to avoid chaos. As you may know a transition to democratic state is a process. A long process.
What’s the consensus about Alawites by the general population, which is mostly Sunni? Is there a deep-seeded hatred? Are all Alawites perceived as Assad’s cronies?
Yes, most protesters consider Alawites to be Assad’s guys. But they also know that those Alawites are brain washed, so I do not believe that there would be a revenge.
Is there any possible truth to Assad’s claims that his regime was not explicitly responsible for last weekend’s massacre in Houla?
No, the army was directly involved. And the thugs are armed and managed by the regime. Some of them wear uniforms and some are plainclothes.
What’s the purpose of killing women and children?
To spread fear among citizens, and fuel the sub-state identity.
What would happen if someone in the regime were to suspect that you were reporting or taking pictures?
I would be killed.
Tell me about your friend who was killed last week? What were the circumstances around his death?
Bassel Shehada, he was 27, and he was filming in Homs. He had left his university in U.S. where he was studying photography at the beginning of the revolution to go back to Syria in order to report to the world what was happening in Syria. He came back to Homs several months ago, and became one of the most important and courageous photographers reporting in Homs.
During his stay in Homs, he trained more than 15 people. His last report was about the issue of displacement in Homs. He was shot dead on May 28 in in Bab Sba’ under the fire of the regime’s army.
Why aren’t more people seeking refuge in neighboring Lebanon? Why do you remain in Syria?
I came to stay. I won’t leave. This is my country, and I’m in need of her as she is in need of me. Thousands and thousands of Syrian died in order to let me live in a free country. I am here to protest and to shout everyday in the streets.
To write stories and take pictures, raise political awareness among the guys here. To take part in building a strong and democratic Syria. And to tell my kids what their [redacted] was doing in such a historical period.
But since I escaped bullets a month ago, it is really a personal issue for me
I was about to die because I was taking part in a funeral for an 18 year-old boy, who was killed by the army. The bullets, the voice, the smell, and the blood, sometimes it’s too much.
Can you describe the smell?
It was a mix of bloodshed and bullets. It is the smell of protest in Syria. That day, I got injured. I broke my camera, and the bullets were missing me while I was running. The next day, I took part in a funeral for five boys. I took a picture by using my mobile phone. I’ll never let them stop me.
Will Assad ever step down while he’s alive?
No. I wish. He will be killed. But I wish that we could get him alive. And then put him in jail. And then let each Syrian go in and spit on him.
By: Marcos Barbery, Founder, THREAD Inc.
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