60 minutes: With Kholoud Waleed Society

‘Jamal Khashoggi and Marie Colvin were killed for telling the truth’

Photo: Vidya Venkat

Photo: Vidya Venkat  

Syrian journalist Kholoud Waleed speaks of how she began and still runs an underground newspaper against the Bashar al-Assad regime

Her hazel eyes have seen a lot of suffering. Yet Kholoud Waleed is stoic as she narrates the story of how her world turned upside down in March 2011, when the Syrian uprising against the regime led by Bashar al-Assad began. An English teacher in a high school in Darayya, near Damascus, at that time, Waleed witnessed the school being shut down because 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,” she recounts.

Her youngest brother, who was a student there, had to drop out. But what happened in Dara’a, in southwestern Syria near the Jordan border, jolted her. “Twelve children, all under 13, were tortured and two of them killed for writing graffiti against the regime. One of them, 12-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, was falsely accused of raping the Army General’s wife and shot dead,” she says, anger in her eyes.

This was the 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 2012, Waleed’s brother was picked up. “They arrested my brother-in-law as well. As of today, there is no way to confirm whether they are dead or alive.”

Underground newspaper

It was to bring to light such stories that Waleed started Enab Baladi (meaning ‘The Grapes of My Country’), a Syrian newspaper, in 2011. “I realised there was no way by which civilians like us could keep track of incidents of oppression when the state media was controlled by the Assad regime. 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 we had to narrate our own stories.”

Reporting the truth

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 IS was the sexiest story coming out of Syria. “It was upsetting how sections of the press would present Assad as a great, civilised face and would label most of the people opposing the regime as fanatics. “Only a few journalists reported the truth and had an ear to the ground. Marie Colvin, for instance. But she was killed.”

I remind her of the more recent death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist murdered in his country’s Istanbul embassy. “It’s all the same thing. They were silenced for telling the truth.”

Women on board

When Waleed started her newspaper in 2011, there were 25 other women and only a few men on board. They 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 was later discovered to have been killed in prison.

Knowing full well the dangers, Waleed kept the entire operation secret. “We used encryption to secure our communication lines. Even my family or closest friends didn’t know I was running a newspaper.”

The first issue of Enab Baladi was released on January 29, 2012. All the contributors wrote under pseudonyms. “We printed the issue at home on A3-sized sheets and folded them. For the first edition, we printed 300 copies, a few weeks later we were printing about 1,000 copies.”

Because it was too risky to be spotted with a newspaper in hand in public, Waleed and her team used trash bins to transport copies. “We dropped the printed copies next to a trash bag and signalled 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 homes and carrying out searches in Darayya and other towns. “Some of my teammates were arrested after their homes were 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 three million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Inside Syria, most towns have been evacuated and people live in camps in Idlib, in the north-west.

“It took my family two years to join me in Turkey. In May 2012, the regime raided Darayya. About 1,000 people were killed; my family hid in a farm on the outskirts of Darayya. My mother kept waiting in the hope that my brother would be released from prison. I had to beg them to come to Turkey.”

Through all this, Waleed has continued publishing her newspaper both online and in print. “We are printing over 5,000 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 of her journalistic efforts. A feature story in the French magazine, Marie Claire, described her as the bravest journalist ever, but she is still without a passport and a safe home.

“Four months ago, my Turkish residence permit expired and my Syrian passport too expired last month. So now, I am a person with nowhere to go.”

Last September, Waleed came to London as a Chevening scholar for an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She hopes to get asylum status in the U.K.

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 children 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 Assad will get away with what he has done.”

Waleed fears that the Western powers, intent on fighting the al-Qaeda and the IS factions that operate out of Syria, will continue to depend on the al-Assad regime to tackle these groups. And reach a compromise with him. “He is a war criminal and must be brought to justice. That hope is the only thing that keeps me going.”

The writer is pursuing a Ph.D in anthropology at SOAS, London, and worrying about submission deadlines.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 5:02:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/jamal-khashoggi-and-mary-colvin-were-killed-for-telling-the-truth/article25525399.ece

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