Just before Marie Colvin died, she was looking for her shoes. Rockets had already hit the top floors of the makeshift press centre where she was holed up, in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs in mid-west Syria. Another landed and she was killed before she made it out.
Her death was widely mourned and reported on around the world, partly because she was an award-winning war correspondent and partly because it underscored a turning point in how the outside world came to understand the horrors of the Syrian war. It had become the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. Few dared to enter.
From that moment international media organisations held back from dispatching their own reporters to Syria and turned instead to locals who used their smartphones to capture the protests. They were students, artists and engineers whose lives took an unexpected turn when they found themselves in the centre of a war.
Propelled by a desire to relay what they were living through, these citizen journalists took to the streets and challenged the monopoly of state media and the propaganda that had dogged the mainstream news for years. They wanted to show the Western world what was happening at home, and they did so without formal protection from the organisations they were working for.
They were not only inexperienced and often very young, but they continued to work in deadly conditions without the training or protective equipment that foreign correspondents benefit from, outlines a recent report published by the French NGO ASML Syria.
Across Syria, journalists are targeted not only by the government and their allies and also by armed groups. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, between March 2011 and May 2019, 695 journalists were killed, some permanently handicapped, yet few of them receive help from their employers.
Their names are less familiar than Colvin’s, but their stories are no less important. What has happened to Syria’s reporters?
Tim Seofi, Damascus
As one of six brothers living in Damascus, Tim Seofi’s family were constantly hassled by the security services, even before the demonstrations broke out.
When the revolution reached Damascus, Tim was in ninth grade and his father had been arrested four years earlier. He joined the peaceful marches and as the regime opened fire on its own people, he felt the only way to protect himself was to record what was happening.
“My options were to carry a gun or to carry a camera and document the voices of these people… all we wanted was freedom and not to be harassed and hurt. We just wanted our very basic rights.”
Tim was 19-years-old when he bought his first camera. As the official journalists turned their lenses on the violence and blood, Tim wanted to capture everyday life. He set up a Facebook page with his friends, an outlet for all of their work. He was contacted by a German publishing company who used his photographs of Idlib and Ghouta in a book, “Salamat from Idlib.”
As he became more serious about his profession, Tim began working for several local and international news agencies; he recorded the sounds of the city, especially the bombs, and his work was picked up across the world.
When he was injured covering one story, he was given just $100 compensation. “That was a time when a bag of flour or sugar was $300,” he recalls. “So it was basically nothing.” He didn’t have high expectations from them anyway, he says. The most important thing for him was that the world saw what was happening in Syria.
Some years later Tim found himself in Douma, a city some 10 kilometres northeast of Damascus. It was 2018 and the Syrian and Russian government’s last campaign on the city.
At the time, Douma was the last of the eastern suburbs to fall, and the most dangerous place in the world to be. By then, Tim was 24. He captured hundreds of hours of footage in the shelters.
“So many people died,” he recalls, his voice breaking up. “People who I didn’t expect to die, died. I lost all of my neighbours who I filmed. About 23 people, one of them a child. And people that I expected to die, didn’t die.”
He tried again to focus on what the mainstream news wasn’t seeing – where people were sleeping during the bombings, capturing shots of people gathered around a television set, waiting for a ceasefire announcement.
Because of the siege he struggled to buy hard drives to save the footage he had. It was difficult to charge his equipment because of the frequent power cuts.
Tim eventually left Douma on one of the buses that followed negotiations between Russia and the opposition. As they passed through regime held areas, supporters of the Syrian government threw rocks and dirty water at them. At the checkpoints the convoys were searched and he feared they would find the material he filmed.
What followed was a devastating chain of events. His last $800 was stolen from his bag; his brother was held ransom by militants; his wife had a miscarriage and he was threatened with arrest for being an atheist.
The final time he tried to escape his country, Tim made it to Turkey. The bathroom in the apartment he was staying in had a window that overlooked the street and he spent a lot of time looking out of it, in disbelief that such a normal life existed – “there were traffic lights and cars and it was just so normal,” he says.
Tim lives near an airport and every time he hears a plane, he gets scared, because the sound reminds him of the bombing. He thinks a lot about his family and his siblings that are still in Afrin. As for the country he left behind – “I just dream of a free and democratic Syria where everyone lives peacefully.”
Tim eventually gathered the courage to look through his reels of film from Douma. “For a long time, I just couldn’t go back and look at the footage but then I felt there was nothing else I could do… when I finally had the courage to go through everything, I made a short film out of it.”
Douma Underground was shown in festivals across the world. “I felt pressured because thousands of people had gone in front of my lens and I felt the responsibility and pressure that they are holding me accountable and I needed to get their stories out.”
Dergham Hammadi, Aleppo
In 2018 Dergham Hammadi was working as a correspondent for Focus Aleppo, an electronic website which published news and features about the city where he was born.
By then militants were entering the country from all over the world, and the men used kunya – pseudonyms – on their marriage licences to Syrian women. It was a long way from the watercolour landscapes he painted during peacetime.
Since the start of the Syrian war, thousands of women have been forced to marry Daesh fighters, with devastating consequences. Many committed suicide – the ‘lucky’ ones managed to escape to Turkey. “Some women have told me outright that they were victims of sadism,” says Dergham.
Without knowing the real name of their husband, the women can’t register their marriage or their children. Dergham wanted to research the 16,000-17,000 unregistered children living in camps, effectively under house arrest, who had no access to aid.
He approached the Syrian Salvation Government, associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and spoke to the justice minister and other departments to present the idea of helping the women register their marriage.
He was told about a camp in Kherbet Eljoz, Idlib, where some of these women lived and asked if he could visit. They agreed, so the following Monday a friend gave him a lift.
“I was surprised when I arrived and asked to go to the legal office, the person at the door asked if I was Dergham and I found seven or eight armed men and they put me in a van. They asked how I came, I said by car, and they also took the man who dropped me off. They held me for four days.”
Dergham was taken to Harem Prison where he was charged with working with the US, but they misjudged the amount of support he had.
Focus Aleppo stood by him in his absence, for example helping with his expenses, and drumming up support for him. Outside, whilst his supporters were demanding his release, inside the prison authorities were becoming flustered. Why was he the centre of so many Facebook campaigns? They asked.
“They fear the media,” Dergham explains. “The Aleppo Revolutionary Council organised the campaign, since I am from Aleppo, and they had a legal team and whenever they asked about me, the prison would say I wasn’t there and I was beaten.”
As media coverage grew, so did Dergham’s indifference: “I said if you kill me, my wife and children would be okay. Any organisation helping orphans would help them. They would get more money than what I can provide.”
Dergham slept on the dirty prison floor for 28 days. “This was all fine,” he says. “I only cared about the issue of Syrian women. In prison, I was at peace because I knew I was trying to fix a problem and find a solution.”
Around the same time he was inside, Judge Mohammad Nour Hamidi, his friend, was also kidnapped. “They pulled out seven of his fingernails and asked for a ransom of 35 million Syrian lira and released him after it was paid. But I was released without paying because they saw I had nothing. What were they going to take? My phone? My legs that I use to walk?”
The prison administration finally buckled under the media pressure, released him and then, in a bizarre turn of events, invited him to a restaurant.
“I refused to go, I had just been with prisoners who were starving, fed as much as a young child would eat. I just asked to be dropped off at the nearest [café] for coffee and smokes.”
Yarub Al-Dali, Homs
As a teenager, Yarub Al-Dali undertook a number of highly dangerous assignments a seasoned reporter may never embark on throughout their whole career.
When he was just 19-years-old he says he went undercover to watch an oil-money exchange between Daesh and the regime. In 2015 he wrote a report criticising a battle waged against a Christian village by Al-Nusra Front: “This offended the revolution,” he says.
He has lived with the consequences ever since – when they read the piece, the militant group captured and punished him. “During the torture I was tied up and this caused my sciatic nerve to become blocked. I am receiving treatment now. I took many doses of cortisone to be able to move due to the absence of a doctor while I was in the besieged Homs,” he recalls.
Yarub didn’t receive any compensation and until now suffers from this back injury.
One of the stories he covered, about people who had become handicapped by war in the city of Rastan in Homs, was picked up by several newspapers across the Middle East. The Goodwill Ambassador in Qatar, Princess Aisha Abdul Ghani, was among the readers and she sent aid for the handicapped people.
“Among the cases was a handicapped [person] who might lose his life but thanks to the aid he survived. My pen was saving a person’s life.”
Yarub hadn’t always dreamed of working in the media. When he was a student he wanted to benefit from the close relations between Syria and Iran and work in an embassy so he studied Farsi. Then came the revolution and everything changed: Yarub wanted to draw attention to the regime’s crimes, so he became a print journalist.
“I was focusing on humanitarian stories and success stories during the war, of people who challenged the conditions of war,” he explains.
He started to post his work on his personal Facebook page to train and develop his writing skills. Before long an editor from the Syrian Net website contacted him and asked him to work for them as a correspondent.
However, working as a freelancer amid war was not always easy Yarub admits: “I was without rights. If I don’t send [good reports] easily, they will contact other people.”
With help from local activists and Reporters Without Borders, Yarub eventually left Syria and went to France, where he now lives. But he has regular nightmares about his life in Syria. “When I remember Syria, I feel that I have been uprooted and that it is a long road to freedom, and I must return there.”
Obaida Al-Omar, Idlib
When the revolution broke out, Obaida Al-Omar started photographing the local demonstrations and reporting for Radio Fresh, the station founded by his friend and civil society leader Raed Fares, who was shot near Kafranbel in 2018.
He was studying at the University of Sports in Hama before the demonstrations. Now, Al-Omar wrote about how hospitals, ambulance services and blood banks were in danger of being put out of service.
Health care services were already struggling to cope with the tens of thousands of people who had been injured by the fighting. Now there was a fuel crisis as Daesh was interrupting transport routes to cities like Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and Latakia, he wrote in one of his reports.
In June 2014, when he was just 27-years-old, like thousands of other young Syrians Obaida was wanted by the regime for taking part in the protests. He made his first attempt to get to Europe, left his home city of Idlib and crossed into Turkey.
On the no man’s land between Syria and Turkey, Turkish police shot at him and he was attacked by dogs. He arrived in Izmir in Turkey and found a smuggler in Basmane Square who took him to a forest where a group of Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians, including a two-year old baby girl, were hiding.
Hopes that they would cross to Greece on an inflatable dinghy came crashing down when the Turkish coast guard approached their boat, arrested them and imprisoned them for nine days. When he was released, Obaida was told he should leave within one month because he had tried to cross to Greece.
Obaida, now a father of five children, made several attempts to get into Turkey, and then finally succeeded. But it was short lived. In July 2019 he was arrested in Antakya and forced to sign a document in Turkish, which he didn’t understand, and which he later found out was a request to be voluntarily returned to Syria.
“The Turkish authorities deported me in 2019 despite my illness and the fact that I ran away from the war, and tried to bring my family to Turkey, but I could not.”
Back in Idlib, Obaida tried to survive with his family in a ruined house that was being frequently bombarded. Eventually the French government granted them a visa and he travelled with his family to Paris. “I am currently waiting for my residence permit,” he says. “My condition is good, but my father’s family and brothers in Idlib are in danger.”
His memories still haunt him. “When I think about Syria, I remember hundreds of my friends who were killed by the Assad regime and Russia. I feel sad and sometimes cry. I love Syria very much.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.