Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 1

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

Reem Haleb

I think it’s safe to assume that Reem Haleb still has a scar from where a bullet broke her skin five years ago.

Today, Haleb runs Nasaem Radio Syria, a station broadcasting out of Gaziantep, Turkey. In 2012, she was shooting footage of a protest in Aleppo, Syria, where she is from. A large group had gathered in opposition to the death of a local man. The belief among civilians was that he died at the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

When gunshots rang out, she moved towards the front of the crowd. Her goal was to obtain video proof that the people firing weapons were Syrian Government troops, and that they were firing on unarmed civilians. As she held her camera up, a bullet pierced part of her back and her arm.

She still has a video, taken by someone else. In it, you hear the shots ring out, then see civilians carrying her away from the scene. There is blood on her arm and she appears unconscious. The people carrying her can be heard shouting “she’s dead” in Arabic, and you can see why they believed that.

When Haleb shows the video and tells the story, she smiles and even laughs at times, but there is a hint of a tear in her eye at the same time. Everyone at the table can feel how powerful that video is, and I think it’s fair to say that we all get a bit emotional, as we sit on a patio at a Turkish dessert restaurant, eating a tasty treat I can’t pronounce.

What I have learned in just one day in Gaziantep, is that stories like hers are remarkably common. Syrian journalists have gone through hell in their home country. Many of them now work out of Gaziantep, the closest major Turkish city to the Syrian border.

On Monday, we spent time with five journalists at Nasaem Syria. Some of them use fake names in their reporting. Most of them face imprisonment or worse if they try to return to Syria. Yet they keep telling stories. They continue their work to give a voice to the Syrian people.

I am there with two people from Journalists for Human Rights, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization. Our role is a mentorship one. We are attempting to help Syrian journalists improve their broadcast news writing, empowering them to tell the human rights stories affecting their war-torn home country.

It’s a challenging role for me. They speak Arabic. I do not. We have a translator, but it’s difficult to directly translate complex questions and concepts that don’t necessarily make sense in a literal translation.

I sense some level of pushback, when I explain the need to balance stories between what the opposition and international organizations are saying and what the Assad government (they only call it “the regime”) is saying. In case you’re not familiar, several major organizations including Amnesty International and the United Nations have concluded that Bashar al-Assad has committed atrocious acts against the Syrian people, from chemical weapons attacks, to the use of other internationally-banned weapons, like barrel bombs.

It’s fairly widely accepted that he did, in fact, commit what may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but UN Security Council efforts to have the matter sent to the International Criminal Court have been blocked by Russia and China. Even if it was eventually supported, Syria is not one of the countries involved in the resolution that established the ICC, so any attempt to prosecute Assad would be messy and difficult.

As journalists, we have to report that Assad denies committing these acts, no matter how ridiculous that may seem to our viewers, listeners and readers. That’s up to them to decide. When all sides are presented in a fair and unbiased way, you hope most people can see their way to the truth.

Besides talking about ethics and balance, we are helping them improve their technical writing. There are techniques broadcast journalists use to make stories easier on the ears and eyes. We are teaching them to tell stories through the lens of humanity, not objects and actions. When news stories are built around everyday people, it’s easier for people to relate to and understand them. It’s the only real way to tell stories about human rights, with an ultimate (and admittedly lofty) goal of improving a situation.

After day one, I am getting a better picture of the challenges we face. There are several. But I didn’t make my way from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to Gaziantep, Gaziantep Province, Turkey in search of something easy. We are up for the challenge. And these people are smart. I’m amazed by how smart they are. They’re passionate and they are already doing remarkable work with a staff of just a few journalists, crammed into small spaces.

As for Reem Haleb, she tells us she and her husband sometimes drive close to the Syrian border, just to smell the air and to know that they are close to their home country. She and her staff will continue to fight for the people of Syria, not with guns and bombs, but with words.

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