Friday, 20 October 2017

Journalist who risks life in Syrian war shares her story

The people of Syria of inspired Reem al-Halabi to document the abuses of her government. (Reuters)

 Reem al-Halabi:

 "I was a university student in Aleppo, but there was civil unrest in my city. The Syrian government was responding to that violently. At the time, the Syrian government had no trouble with Western and Arab reporters report on these events. At the time, I was working with a few Arabic channels, giving them the news, and telling them what was happening in my city. I was broadcasting live to the news channel Al Arabiya, covering the funeral of someone who'd' been killed the day before by the Syrian government. There was extreme anger on the streets and at the funeral that day. My goal was to document and film for people outside and inside Syria to see what was happening in my city and how the Syrian government was responding to the protests with violence. People were chanting for democracy and freedom and denouncing the violence that the Syrian government was using. I was carrying a cellphone to film and I stood up on a car to get a higher view to what was happening and to show how the security forces were targeting protesters. But unfortunately, I was the one who was targeted because it was very clear that I was filming. And the Syrian regime has always been afraid of journalists, of the cell phone, the camera, because that's the eye through which the world can see what was really happening in Syria.

 There was a lot of civil unrest and protesting. My job as a citizen journalist was to show people what was happening. I had to be there to show people the reality of the crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime. I had to be there. The Syrian government targeted me directly and on purpose because I was carrying the cell phone.

 Because they were watching us, and Syrian security forces were targeting the protesters. And I was filming that, live. So as I was filming, that's exactly when they hit me - and others - who were filming. They're so afraid of any pictures or videos being transmitted live to news stations, or any involvement at all of citizen journalists because that would prove their crimes.

 As soon as I was shot, I hoped that I died. In that moment I really wished I was dead. I was so afraid of being injured and falling into the hands of the Syrian government and being tortured. I have a lot of friends who have died while being tortured by the Syrian government. So I was terrified of that. My friends took care of me, they gave me first aid, and then took me to a private hospital. Of course, the security forces found out where I was being treated, they came to my room, and they put me in handcuffs and shackled my feet until I told them what they wanted to hear. I basically said that I didn't see who hit me, that I had no idea who it was, and that I happened to be at that funeral by pure coincidence. They told me I had to go to court, and then told me I couldn't travel. That's when I left Aleppo and snuck out of the country, and towards Turkey.

 The Syrian security forces are known, they're the ones that are there, with weapons. At the time in Aleppo, there were no other factions or militias, or anyone else who would have had weapons except the Syrian regime. I saw them with my own eyes, firing from their cars, wearing their uniforms. It was clear, and I was filming that, but unfortunately that's when I got hit. Even international observers came to Aleppo, the month after I was injured, they came to Aleppo and saw with their own eyes too how the Syrian regime was targeting protesters, and how protests at the university in Aleppo were dispersed, and how people were injured, and started to leave the city in droves.

 I was shot in the back, in my back, and it came out through my arm. So it went through my back, and came out through my arm. I'm very lucky. I see that incident as a huge push for me. I could've died because of the work I was doing, but I'm going to live so that I can keep going and encourage and tell people that we can make our voices heard and that journalism can be strong in our country.

 It wasn't just that I got shot, it was because security forces were after me too. I used to use pseudonyms to report for different channels, I used the name Noor, or Reem, or Abeer, or Lana. But once I got shot, a lot of people found out my true identity and name. So there was a lot of fear. There were security raids, looking for me, at my house, luckily I wasn't home. I was in training with Al Jazeera in Gaziantep, Turkey. I learned that security was after me at my house. My family told me never to come back to Aleppo. And from there, I thought: how can I keep going with my journalism work if I can't go back? And I came up with the idea to start the radio station.

 My focus was on local residents. When I started this work, I wanted to know how I could get our voice out to the world, to say, listen world, and look what's happening to us in Syria. Look at the violations taking place, look at the demands that we're making. When things started to get worse and the world wasn't paying attention, the Syrian government began to punish residents. They cut off electricity and the internet in Aleppo, and all people could hear was the sound of shelling and attacks. And through it all, residents couldn't even communicate with each other, even if they were in the same city. That's when I thought FM radio can help. It can be broadcast over wide areas, and you don't need special equipment to use it. That's when I thought we could do a local broadcast to help Syrian citizens figure out what was going on in their neighbourhoods in case of emergencies, when the shelling started, the security situation, the living situation.

 I saw the radio as a platform for people to tell their stories. Official media channels were under Syrian government control. But Nasaem Radio gave people the chance to express their opinions, to send text messages, to speak their minds without phone lines disconnecting. So for people, this was a space for expression. And we were trying to provide them with information, news, with hope, with music, songs.

 When someone has a will to do something, that's something that keeps you going. The people around me also really encouraged me. My family, the people who wanted to help me work on it. It was like a dream for Syrians to have radio that's different from what they'd been hearing every day, the same old speeches, the same agendas. They wanted to hear the truth, to look for the truth. To go after the truth whether you're the person behind this idea or part of the public, that's something that really helps. I got so much support from our local listeners in the beginning. At first we would only broadcast for a few hours a day and our listeners would say, we want to hear more, we want to hear you longer, we get so bored after you go off the air. So that reaction really gave us courage to keep going.

 We talked about everything. Sports, art, lifestyle, emergencies, sewage problems in the city, the intensity of the shelling, the lack of hospitals available, the school situation, whether they were closed or open because of the attacks. We talked about how children in the city were doing, how they needed vaccines. All the things you need to live, from education to women, to work, that's what we talked about. We saw our job as radio people as connectors between all these subjects we were talking, and our listeners, and organizations doing aid and relief work. For example, an issue we're facing is the landmines that have been left behind by Daesh, or ISIS, after they leave the areas they had taken a hold of. So we go to organizations that remove landmines and ask when can they remove them? How safe are the fields and the farms now? So it becomes a source of connection between average people who need help and organizations that can help these very people through radio and our programming.

 We’re getting a lot of threats. These are hard to face for our reporters, our journalists inside Syria and outside in Turkey. But journalism is a line of work that's rife with danger. Whether they're from the Syrian government, or Daesh, or ISIS or corrupt groups who don't want our attention on them, it's dangerous work. So if you're a journalist, you have to live with the risks and be up to it, you can lose your family, your friends, and it'll change your life but it's a choice. I chose this line of work, and I know it's a job that's full of risks.

 Of course. Our news, our radio, covers Northern Syria, in cities like Azaz, Jarablos, Kafranbel, we're doing a lot of work in these areas. Because this is where Daesh was in control, and now they're gone. So these areas need a lot of media attention and work because people were so scared to talk or express their opinions for so long. These people there were under the very strict control of extremists, so as a media organization we are trying to help them get back to living normal lives.

 As a media organization, we want to help Syrians live their lives, democratically, where they have freedom of expression. We want to support Syrian women to get to decision-making positions, helping children with their education, to fight extremism and terrorism. So we have so much work to do.

 It's important to me that people know that to this day in Syria, people are dying, through shelling, arrests, drowning at sea, at the borders, people are still dying. And as Syrians, we need a lot of support. From Canadians, from the people, governments, from the Americans. These people are all far from us, but it's important that our voices get to them so that they know what's really happening. It's not just about refugees and helping them settle. Let's also ask how we can help them and support them, and find out what organizations can do to help them. For example, I'm here with Journalists for Human Rights, and they've really helped us with how to think about our news, our stories, and our storytelling, and our strategies, so that we can get the voices of Syrians out to the world. If people can't support us, they can at least listen to us. Listen to our stories, and find out what's happening in this world that's so far away from them.

 We're after the truth, and credibility. All we do is relay the realities of what's happening, convey what's being said and talked about, and give it to people. And it's the people that can decide and say what's right and what's wrong. We're trying as much as possible to speak out, and shine a light on things that governments, and other groups don't want people to know. We're just a light that's highlighting these problems."


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