(First published in The Hindu Sunday magazine dated Nov. 18, 2018)
Her hazel eyes have witnessed utmost suffering. Yet Kholoud Waleed remains stoic as she narrates the story of how her world turned upside down in March 2011, when the Syrian people started an uprising against the country’s dictatorial regime led by Bashar al-Assad. An English teacher in a high school in Darayya, near Damascus, at that time, Waleed witnessed the school being shut down as the regime saw the children studying there as a threat.
“The boys from our school used to hold demonstrations against the government. They wrote graffiti on the school walls demanding the fall of the government. After shutting the school down, many of the children were arrested and tortured by the Army,” she recounts calmly. Her youngest brother, who was a student there, had to drop out as a result. But what happened at the same time in Dara’a, in southwestern Syria, near the Jordan border, jolted her completely. “Twelve children, all under the age of 13, were tortured and two of them killed by the regime for writing wall graffiti against the regime. One of them, 12-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, was falsely accused of raping the Army General’s wife and shot dead,” she continues, anger welling in her eyes.
This was the precise moment when public rage exploded in Syria. In the city of Hama, for instance, half a million citizens demonstrated on the streets demanding change. In May, 2012, Waleed’s brother was picked up by the Army for voicing opinions in favour of the Arab Spring in college.
“They arrested my brother-in-law as well for holding opinions against the regime. As of today, there is no way for us to confirm whether they are dead or alive…”
It was precisely to bring to light such stories that Waleed started ‘Enab Baladi’ (meaning ‘The Grapes of My Country’) in 2011.
“I realised that there was no way by which civilians like us could keep track of incidents of the regime’s oppression when the state media was controlled by them. Even the so-called “independent newspapers” were owned by members of the ruling family and foreign correspondents were being refused visas to enter the country. We decided that since we were the actors on the ground, the eyewitnesses, we had to narrate our own stories…”
The need to start a community-led newspaper was also driven by the dissatisfaction with the manner in which Syria was being reported in the Western press.
“We were always a “subject” for the media. And for a long time, the ISIS was the sexiest story coming out of Syria. It was upsetting how sections of the press would either present Assad as a great, civilised face or they labelled most of the people opposing the regime as fanatics. Only a few journalists reported the truth and had an ear on the ground. Marie Colvin, for instance. But she was killed by the regime…”
I remind her of the more recent incident of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist, being murdered in his country’s Embassy in Istanbul. Similar to Syria, Saudi Arabia is also headed by a dictator. “It’s all the same thing. They were all silenced for telling the truth…”
When Waleed started her newspaper in 2011, there were 25 other women and only a few men joining from different parts of Syria. She and her teammates collected news reports from local coordination committees formed by other citizens and activists to monitor anti-regime mobilisations.
“We had a Facebook page and a Skype group that we used for communication because it was too dangerous to meet in one place in person. None of us had studied journalism before, except for one, Nabeel Sharbaji.” Sharbaji was arrested by the Army in 2012 and later discovered to have been killed in prison.
Knowing fully well the dangers of running such a newspaper, Waleed kept the entire operation secret.
“We used encryption to secure our communication lines. Even my family or closest friends didn’t know that I was running a newspaper…”
The first issue of Enab Baladi was released on January 29, 2012. All the contributors wrote under a pseudonym.
“We printed the issue at home on A3-sized papers and folded them. For the first edition we printed 300 copies, a few weeks later we were printing about 1000 copies.”
Because it was too risky to be spotted with the newspaper in hand in public, Waleed and her team members used trash bins to transport the copies.
“We dropped the printed copies next to a trash bag and signalled nearby members to pick them up from there. This was also useful because we couldn’t risk keeping the printed copies at home.”
In late 2012, however, the Army started breaking into the homes of people and carrying out searches in Darayya and other towns.
“Some of my team mates, 3 girls, got arrested after their homes had been searched. I decided to flee the country that day. The Army had found out our numbers and other details. I left for Beirut by car. Luckily, my name was not listed in the border check post as yet, so I made it outside safely.”
Life as a refugee
After living in Beirut for six months, Waleed left for Gaziantep in Turkey, where she got temporary refugee status. There are about 3 million Syrians living as refugees in Turkey and life is a struggle for them. Even inside Syria, most towns have been evacuated and the people are forced to live in camps in Idlib, in north-western Syria.
“It took my family two years to join me in Turkey. In May 2012, the regime raided Darayya. In a brutal massacre that followed, about 1000 people were killed. My family members hid in a farm in the outskirts of Darayya. Most of the houses in the town were burnt. Almost 2, 50, 00 people had left the town. It remained besieged till 2016. Because of all the shelling and bombardment, my parents had to move places almost four times since I left. My parent’s house in Darayya was shelled, but my mother kept waiting in the hope that my brother is released from prison. I had to beg them to get to Turkey…”
Through all this Waleed has continued publishing her newspaper both online and in print. “We are printing over 5000 hard copies every week out of Turkey,” she says. The newspaper is filled with stories of people fleeing the war and struggling to find safe passage into neighbouring countries. Many of them have died en route or been held in detention centres.
In 2015, Waleed won the Anna Politkovskaya award from the Reach All Women in WAR group in recognition for her brave journalistic efforts. A feature story in the French fashion magazine Marie Claire described her as the bravest journalist ever, but all that publicity will come to naught if she has to end up without a passport and a secure home.
“Three months ago, my Turkish residence permit expired and my Syrian passport expires this month (in October). So now, I am a person with nowhere to go…”
In September last year, Waleed came to London as a Chevening scholar to study for an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is hoping to get asylum status here in the UK.
Is she afraid of what the future holds? I ask.
“You know I have witnessed so much death and suffering in the past few years – my uncle and his three kids died in a shelling in Darayya in 2013 – that I no longer fear for my own life. But what I do fear is that in the end Bashar al-Assad will get away with what he has done to us…”
Waleed’s argument is that with Western powers intent on fighting the terrorist groups – Al-Qaeda and ISIS – operating out of Syria, they may continue to depend on the al-Assad regime to tackle these groups and in the end reach a compromise.
“He is a war criminal and must be brought to justice. That hope is the only thing that keeps me going…”