Published on May 19th, 2014 | by EJC0
The Trials Of Being A Journalist In Aleppo
This article was written by Lina al-Hakim* and originally published at The Damascus Bureau on 6 January, 2014. Republished with permission.
*Lina al-Hakim is the pseudonym of a journalist living in Syria.
(Aleppo, Syria) – Journalism is one of the hardest jobs around: it is the search for the truth, and its difficulties and dangers are multiplied during times of armed conflict, as is the case in Syria.
It is no easy feat being a journalist in Aleppo. I live and work in the western part which is under regime-control, trying to report on the humanitarian situation there.
This requires me to maintain a wide circle of connections in order to obtain accurate information about the latest developments and the living situation – while maintaining the secrecy of my work amid rampant campaigns of imprisonment that target women as much as men.
Before being a journalist, I am a citizen, suffering under the same conditions as the rest of the citizens here.
In addition to the fear of imprisonment, a journalist faces the same daily hardships as all those living amid conflict, from water shortages and power cuts to inflation and the intermittent availability of essential foodstuffs and fuel.
Securing the basic necessities of life, something that is taken for granted in other parts of the world, is a challenge for me and family, just as it is for most others here.
The difficulties include heating homes during one of the harshest winters ever witnessed in the city, trying to shower around water cuts, heating water (when it is actually available), washing clothes by hand because of power cuts, and securing gas, whose price keeps rising.
But topping our list of concerns is the fear of dying from a shell, or from a bullet – stray or intended – because this part of the city is also subject to almost daily shelling by the armed opposition, which causes many human casualties as well as economic damage.
Even the names of certain areas and streets have felt the effects of war and destruction; residents have changed the names in accordance with what they suffer daily.
Part of the Sulaimaniya neighbourhood is now dubbed Mortar Square, because of the heavy shelling it receives.
The Jamiliya neighbourhood also comes under heavy bombardment, mostly by what is known as Hell’s Canon, improvised rockets mounted with gas canisters and used by opposition fighters.
The search for the truth, and the insistence on conveying the facts as comprehensively as possible, requires interviewing citizens caught right in the heat of the conflict, who shy away from recorded interviews because they are afraid of surveillance by the security forces.
After that, I have to go back home and regurgitate all this pain in written form, through intermittent electricity cuts that go on for days, with the power coming on for only brief periods – from four to eight intermittent hours a day in the best of cases.
In addition to that, there is the continuous interruption of the internet, and the difficulty of using mobile phones within the city because of the weak network.
This makes it hard to both obtain the information I need and to transmit it to the world.
Here, everything is vague and obscure; rumours spread like wildfire, and even when you’re right on the scene when something is happening you find yourself unsure of exactly how it happened.
You might be in a specific area when shells fall, but still, each person has their own story about what really happened, about the number of casualties, and there are no official sources you can speak to or get information from. Today, the street is the source of all news.
The roads in this part of the city are blocked by sandbags, or divided by army or Baath Brigade checkpoints.
Because of that there are unrelenting traffic jams, and the heavy security presence makes it impossible to openly carry a camera or take photographs, unless the journalist is part of some news organisation loyal to the regime.
At the checkpoint dividing the two halves of the city, you are searched and all IDs are closely examined.
This hampers the movement of reporters living in the western part of Aleppo trying to report on what’s happening on the other side, like the constant shelling by the regime air force, which resulted in a large number of civilian casualties in December.
The difficulty of working in the eastern part of Aleppo is largely due to the rampant kidnapping of reporters by different Islamic factions, chief among which is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
This stands in the way of those who cross into areas that are not under regime control, as well as those who live there permanently, such as media activist Abdel Wahab al-Mala, who was kidnapped in November, presumably by ISIS, and is still missing.
In Aleppo’s western neighbourhoods, cases of kidnapping are also rising, as well as crime ranging from muggings where people are relieved of their money and mobile phones to car jackings that take place at gunpoint in broad daylight. Or you can park your car and go home and simply not find it there the next morning.
There are also increasing numbers of kidnappings to extort ransom money – and no one knows the identity of the gangs responsible for these acts. Are they shabiha, or simply thieves taking advantage of the general chaos in the country?
All of these security risks add to the pressures we young women and men face from our families, who worry daily when we leave our houses and warn us repeatedly about not coming home late.
Our families’ watchful eyes and their fears, even if justified, add to the difficulty of our jobs, because a reporter must be able to leave at a moment’s notice in order to get the maximum amount of information on whatever story he or she happens to be working on.
Most reporters’ activities take place without their relative’s knowledge, because of parents’ fears that their children might be kidnapped and bring even more trouble to the family. It is known that the Syrian security apparatus will make life difficult for the entire family, not just the detained activist.
In the shadow of all these challenges, there is still the huge pain of watching one’s city, one’s country, burn, destroyed before one’s very eyes, without being able to say anything most of the time.
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Photo: Beshr O