As demonstrations began in Syria last year, Sara decided that she wanted to participate and join the growing number of civilians who were demanding reform in the country. As the situation worsened and her activities placed her in danger, she was forced to flee and is still unable to return to her homeland. Here, DCMF speaks to Sara about her work as a citizen journalist and her experiences over the last year.
“For me it was a question of freedom and dignity,” explains Sara, “we are all humans and we deserve our human rights.” This belief formed the basis of many of the revolutions throughout the Arab Spring, but few countries have witnessed such barbaric abuses of human rights by a government against its people as those which have taken place in Syria.
“I was always politically aware, even before the revolution, and we used to speak about reforms in Syria,” she said, adding “we used to watch what was happening in the other countries and wonder whether it could ever happen here.”
Attending early demonstrations had a profound effect on Sara and her political ideology. Participating in public protests provided a sense of purpose and power that she had never before felt, and she was determined to become as involved as possible in opposition activities.
Commitment to this cause and her work as a citizen journalist led to Sara fleeing her country in December 2011; another Syrian forced from her home, fearing for her life.
Move into citizen journalism
At the beginning of the protests, Sara began speaking to her friends and fellow revolutionaries, and they began to produce brochures and handouts to be distributed at the weekly Friday demonstrations.
Providing information about the opposition’s aims and intents as well as the wider political situation, the brochures were distributed each week to thousands of protestors.
Following a brainstorming session with some of her closest friends, the group decided to take their work onto the next level and begin publication of a newspaper.
This would enable the group to write and publish whatever they wished, which they could then distribute throughout the local area. However there were numerous significant challenges the aspiring journalists would have to overcome if they were to produce their own newspaper.
Financial backing was provided by an expatriate Syrian group and the team was able to purchase the necessary items to print their own monthly newspaper Syria: Al Oum or Syria: The Mother, in August 2011.
The paper was designed, written and published by the group, and activists who had helped to hand out the original brochures, distributed the newspaper to 5,000 people.
“Everyone liked it so much – we could write what we wanted,” she noted, adding “but it was so dangerous, if anyone had found us we would have all been arrested.”
Communicating with fellow opposition members was not the only aim of Sara and her group of citizen journalists. As atrocities were committed with increasing regularity, the activists realised that they needed to reach further afield and communicate the reality of the Syrian situation on the ground to the rest of the world.
Again they faced challenges as they lacked the necessary equipment to reach international news agencies safely and efficiently.
However, Sara was determined to tell the world about what she and her people were suffering, and she began reporting for numerous international agencies.
“I was speaking to Al Jazeera Arabic, CNN, AFP, BBC and other agencies and I was often broadcasting live, which meant that I had to get to the surface for a clear signal,” she explained.
“They wanted to speak to a Syrian activist about what was happening, they wanted to hear about the situation from Syrians themselves,” said Sara.
Her work was hazardous and she was fully aware of the dangers she faced on a daily basis. Two of her brothers and a number of her newspaper team had been seized and tortured by security forces, and it was common for Sara to witness unspeakable acts of brutality being committed outside on the streets near to her family home.
During her time working as an activist, Sara was continuously on edge, but there were a number of occasions when she was particularly fearful for her safety. One such moment came after she was spotted filming security forces during the night and her uncle’s home was raided. Sara explained how she removed her memory card from her mobile phone and hid it in her mouth as security forces searched her belongings and checked the contents of the phone.
A similar incident saw government forces examining her computer. Despite the incriminating evidence housed on the laptop’s hard drive, Sara kept her cool and managed to put her potential captors off the scent.
Witnessing the way that security forces treated her and her family after breaking into their home provided a clear indication of the problems at hand in Syria. People from either side of the conflict have been completely dehumanised, making it acceptable to rape and murder at will. When Sara asked one security officer why he had acted with such violence while entering the house, he told her that he owned her entire family. This was completely unacceptable to Sara, and this sense of injustice has inspired her throughout her activism.
Danger for citizen journalists and members of the media
Sara was always aware of the danger surrounding her work as a citizen journalist. As her people continue to suffer the effects of an increasingly violent revolution, members of the media and citizen journalists have not been left immune. DCMF has been documenting the loss of life among journalists, more than 60 of whom have already been killed in the violence.
Wanted on various charges by the security forces, Sara decided that she had to leave the country and fled to Jordan. A friend there helped her to get her papers in order and she travelled here to Qatar earlier this year.
However, her experiences over the past 17 months have left her constantly nervous, unable to sleep and in constant fear of the Syrian security forces. She is also fearful for her family as three of her brothers have been taken back into prison since she left the country.
Yet she has no regrets about the work she has done, and feels that she simply could not have stood by and watched people being killed without attempting to convey the message of the Syrian people to the rest of the world.
Move from peaceful protest to armed conflict
The revolution in Syria did not begin with demands for regime change, instead the initial aim was reformation. However, as the regime continues to kill its own civilians it has become clear that there can be no future without wholesale change in Syria.
“Being part of peaceful protests was a beautiful thing – the feeling of dignity was inspiring,” explained Sara.
She told the story of Bara’a Yusuf Al-Bushi, an army defector who lost his life on August 11.
“He sold his weapon and used the money to buy a laptop and a camera so he could tell the story – this is a beautiful message,” said Sara.
However, Al-Bushi’s death while covering fighting in a suburb of Al Tal, and the deaths of countless other opposition activists and innocent civilians has forced the opposition members into picking up arms, something which has made Sara feel particularly upset, as it leads to more death and destruction.
“I am so sorrowful that the conflict became armed but this was forced by the regime,” she said, adding “we tried to prevent it, but they shot and killed us and in the end you cannot allow this.”
“If we do not protect ourselves then who will protect us?”
Remarkable commitment to the truth
Sara has not trained as a journalist. She was not paid to cover the events which have unfolded in her country over the past year, but did so out of a rare sense of duty.
“At first I was an activist because of personal pride,” she said, adding “but as things got worse I felt a responsibility to help people, I felt this was my duty.”
“I have a dream of being a correspondent in Syria, telling people all around the world what is really happening – I am a Syrian and can understand exactly what is happening more than foreign journalists,” she noted.
But for now, Sara is forced to watch her country continue to be destroyed. She is able to contact her mother only intermittently and lives in constant fear of the treatment to which her brothers might be exposed.
She cannot understand why the international community has not done more to prevent President Assad’s forces from killing civilians, suggesting that the delay in action is likely to sow the seeds of a negative relationship with the west.
“No regime has been allowed to do this – the regime is killing us and lying about it,” said Sara, “it is so important that we show the world what is happening.”
“All we want is to feel that we are humans, with human rights; we want to feel freedom and dignity, but the security forces continue to kill.”