Brave New Words

The continuing struggle to reveal the truth about the Syrian conflict

Kholoud Waleed, the recipient of the 2015 Anna Politkovskaya Award, leads a collective on a mission to smuggle out the truth about the conflict in Syria to the world. LUKE MACGREGOR / /ALAMY PHOTO
01 December, 2018

For 33-year-old Kholoud Waleed, August is the cruellest month. It was a punishingly hot day in August 2012 on which Syrian government forces stormed her birthplace of Darayya. The Damascus suburb had been active in protests during the Arab Spring and was a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army. There was no option for her family but to flee. When they returned a week later, the civil war that had already raged for a year seemed much closer.

“All I could see were mortar shells, pieces of windows thrown onto the powdery ground,” Waleed told me when we met in London this June, her voice breaking and her sea-green eyes filled with angst. The four years that followed the retaking of Darayya by rebel forces in November 2012 saw an unprecedented escalation of violence and a devastating siege, until a brutal campaign by the Bashar al-Assad regime forced civilians out of the area in August 2016.

Today, Waleed leads a collective whose mission is to smuggle out the truth about the conflict to the world. As part of the Syrian diaspora in London, she has found herself translating a widespread impetus for change into an ever-growing form of resistance.

Her first exposure to the revolution came in the beginning of 2011, when the residents of Darayya took to the streets in large numbers, demanding greater freedom of expression and basic civil rights. The Assad regime responded by arresting, torturing and killing hundreds of activists. The ensuing chaos made it impossible for citizens to keep abreast with the dystopia unfolding before their eyes. Waleed felt compelled to take action to dispel this climate of confusion.

In April that year, a group called The Free Women of Darayya began to gather in the hope of taking a step back and discussing the motives behind each demonstration. “We would just pretend to be celebrating a friend’s engagement party or simply going about our leisure activities, but we were talking politics instead,” Waleed said. “In this way, we would keep ourselves from raising any suspicion.”

As the number of people falling victim to violence kept rising, a different kind of grassroots activism was urgently needed. Raising awareness about the crisis, Waleed realised, was no longer enough. It became necessary to deliver aid and survival tips. Sworn to secrecy, a group of medicine students began teaching friends and acquaintances how to stop bleeding, carry the injured, deal with fractures and so on. “The idea was that by learning a new technique, everyone could save a life.”

Although these efforts helped mitigate the toll of the looming tragedy, there was a bigger conundrum facing Syrian activists: the resistance to the Assad regime was not being heard around the world. “No one was covering what was really going on in Syria,” Waleed told me. For one, local media was mostly state-owned. Also, international journalists were unable to file their dispatches from the field, which was deemed too hard to access. “The things we were seeing on TV, notably a predominance of pro-Assad demonstrations, was what the government wanted us to watch. What was left of the other side of the debate?”

In a bid to provide a counterpoint to the dominant discourse, Waleed and her friends started thinking about launching their own media platform. On 29 January 2012, the group of 21 young men and women brought out the inaugural issue of a new weekly newspaper called Enab Baladi—The Grapes of our Homeland, referring to the fruit Darayya was famous for. Self-funded and printed in secrecy, the newspaper had a simple idea at its core: the people of Syria were bearing witness to history, hence there was no need to wait for the international press to come along. “We were the target of the war and the pulse of the revolution,” Waleed said. “We were making history.”

The weekly distribution of Enab Baladi posed a significant risk to both writers and readers. Being a woman helped somewhat. It was a common practice for distributors on duty to thrust a bunch of copies into bags filled with feminine items, which reduced the chance of being searched by the mostly male security forces. People would grab their copy on the street and have a furtive read indoors before getting rid of it. Most readers would burn the paper after reading to prevent detection.

Waleed said that only one member of the group, Nabil Sharbaji, was trained as a professional journalist. (Sharbaji disappeared under mysterious circumstances in February 2012. The group found out last year that he had been arrested and tortured by government forces, and that he had died in custody in August 2015.) The rest were amateurs, for whom a sense of duty outweighed their fear of getting caught.

As its readership increased, Enab Baladi soon succeeded in expanding its network of writers. Reporters who could be trusted were enlisted through social media, with virtual private networks being used to evade the prying eyes of the police. Waleed would not even know the names of her fellow journalists with whom she would work on a Google document, since the use of pen names had become common practice in the atmosphere of terror they inhabited.

This citizen journalism has proved to be a beacon of hope. In 2015, Waleed received the Anna Politkovskaya Award, which honours female human-rights defenders in conflict zones. Enab Baladi is now internationally recognised, and several foreign news outlets rely on it for being one of the main providers of news from within Syria. Francesca Gnetti, who edits the West Asia section of the Italian news weekly Internazionale, told me that the magazine “provides an insider perspective on specific issues that can nonetheless be widely grasped by international audiences. Although leaning towards the opposition, it features a well-balanced editorial line that does not leave room for any ideology or propaganda. Also, it tackles themes and topics that have rarely come under the international spotlight, but are close to real people and real situations. By doing so, a stronger, more vivid light is shed on the conflict as a whole.” Printed in Turkey in both English and Arabic, the newspaper is shipped to Syria, where it is circulated in the few areas still held by the opposition, particularly the region surrounding Aleppo.

Printed in Turkey in both English and Arabic, Enab Baladi is shipped to Syria, where it is circulated in the few areas still held by the opposition, particularly the region surrounding Aleppo. Courtesy Enab Baladi

“In Syria, loads of coverage has alternated with utter radio silence,” Gabriel Huland, a Brazilian expert on media representations of Syria who is pursuing a doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told me after we attended a class on Middle-East politics in June. “Enab Baladi was born out of a necessity. Therefore, it is definitely a more democratic space than the local and part of the international news scenario.” The Syrian youth, he added, were pushed by their circumstances to practise journalism. “They did not choose to do it.”

Throughout the seven years of the Syrian conflict, Enab Baladi has positioned itself as part of a social movement aimed at challenging subtle forms of power embedded into the media discourse. Nevertheless, the conditions for practising independent journalism inside Syria remain dire. “Enab Baladi might as well have to reinvent itself to keep human networks of fact-tellers thriving within Syria, perhaps relying further on a certain clandestine-type circuit in the future,” Huland said. “One thing is certain: citizen journalism is one of the most important legacies of the revolution, and it must be preserved as such.”

With the human exodus from Syria, the writers at Enab Baladi found themselves spread out across the world, particularly Europe. This, however, did not prove disruptive for the media group. Citizen journalism has instead made a renewed push towards reclaiming the narrative for the people of Syria.

While pursuing a Master’s degree in media and development at SOAS, Waleed joined the Syria Society, of which Huland is also an active member. The student body aims to revive grassroots processes in Syria from abroad, emphasising the efforts of the Syrian people through media and youth-led activism. “Despite the war and the whole pain,” Waleed said, Syrian women were waging “different kinds of war, day after day, who survive the shelling, the radicals and single motherhood amidst hatred and protracted unrest. There are many layers of pain we all too often take for granted and which we as diasporic media believe fully deserve to be given exposure.” This approach has provided a corrective to coverage that privileges certain identities more than others.

“There has been much talk about, say, the Yazidi women,” Waleed said. “But the rightful demand of people who do not fall into a specific category keep being placed away from the headlines. This has fuelled misleading tropes and stereotypes palatable to a Western audience. And yes, we are refugees and internally displaced persons, but khallas! We are also much more beyond that.”

Waleed’s contribution to the revolution also included the long-distance mobilisation of Syrian women, as part of a programme called Tamkeen. “I worked closely with women inside Syria to build their capacity in local government systems, to help them become decision-makers within their local communities and have their say in the service delivery,” she told me. The women were enabled to design, manage and monitor projects such as paving roads, constructing health facilities and rehabilitating schools throughout the opposition-held regions. “What we try to do is create a safe space for Syrian women to realise their potential as they endure the war,” she told me with visible pride.

Whichever form it takes, youth-driven activism for Syria maintains an acute awareness of the power of words. “It’s been a long, restless journey,” Waleed said. “As conscious makers of the revolution, we have fought hard to make our rights heard, using words as our only weapons. Now that many of us work in the fields of media and development in Europe or elsewhere, our struggle must go on from afar. And all we can do is ensure that if we fall down, we fall standing.”