Covering war in Aleppo, trying to stay alive
(Editor’s note: For Karam al-Masri, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter, photographer and videojournalist in rebel-held Aleppo, the past five years have been a series of tragedies: Detention by the regime and then the Islamic State (ISIS), the death of his parents in an air strike, the siege of his hometown, hunger and bombardment. Through it all, he has continued to report, with unwavering courage, the story of his ravaged city. Here is his story, in his own words and those by Rana Moussaoui, his colleague in Beirut who works with him daily.)
Aleppo - Before the revolution in Syria began in 2011, my life was very simple. I was a law student at Aleppo University. Today, I have lost everything — my family, my university. I am an only child. What I miss most is my family, my father, my mother. Particularly her. I think about her every day. I see her in my dreams. To this day, losing her hurts me. I live alone. I do not have anyone. Most of my friends are gone, either dead or in exile.
My life since the beginning of the bombing in Aleppo has become about trying to stay alive. It is like I live in the jungle and I am trying to survive until tomorrow. When the planes come, I try to shelter in a more secure building. When there is artillery fire, I go to the lower floors. I am constantly fleeing.
Before the siege, I relied on fast-food places but now everything is closed. I do not know how to cook and there are days when I only eat one meal and others when I have none at all. Before the siege, I spent the day outside looking for stories to film. Since the siege, I am hungry and weaker and I stay at home more.
When the uprising began in 2011, I was nearly 20 years old. Two or three months later, I was arrested by the regime’s political intelligence services. I spent a month in prison, including a week in complete isolation in a tiny cell. It was awful but I was released during an amnesty in 2011. At the beginning of the uprising there were peaceful demonstrations. There was no bombing. There was nothing to fear except detention and snipers in the street.
The following year, in July 2012, Aleppo was divided into two, with the eastern side held by rebels and the western side by the regime. In November 2013, when I was 22, I was kidnapped by Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS). They took me from an ambulance with my friends, a paramedic and a photographer. We were all taken to an unknown location. It was worse than the regime’s prisons. It was very, very tough.
The photographer and I were released six months later after an “amnesty” but our third friend, the paramedic, was not as lucky. He was decapitated after 55 days in prison. They filmed it and showed us the video: “Look at your friend, that is what will happen to you soon.” We were utterly terrified. I was constantly afraid. I thought: “Tomorrow it will be my turn, the day after tomorrow it will be my turn.”
I still remember every detail. The 165 days in ISIS detention are etched into my memory. In the first 45 days, they only fed us every three days. The food was a half portion of Arabic flatbread, or three olives or an egg. I did not see a single shabbih (pro-regime militant) — all those held with us were rebels, activists and journalists.
I was tortured during both detentions but it was worse with the regime because they wanted me to confess who I was working with. With Daesh, the charges were set from the beginning — I had a camera and for them I was an infidel — so there was no need to interrogate me.
I lost my family at the beginning of 2014, when I was still being held by ISIS. A barrel bomb hit our building, killing all the residents inside, including both my parents. I only found out when I was released. My friends tried to persuade me not to go to my house and told me what had happened. I spent a month in complete despair. I knew nothing about my parents when I was in prison and, then when I was released, they were gone. They had been waiting for news about me and in the end they were not there to celebrate my release.
In 2016, the city came under siege but for me the siege is less difficult than prison and the loss of my parents.
I got the idea of becoming a cameraman in 2012, when I filmed protests with my cell phone and uploaded the images online to show what was really happening, that it was not just ten people or just terrorists like the regime said. There were people who did not want the regime anymore, they wanted freedom, democracy, justice.
In 2013, I started as a freelancer with AFP and gradually I improved. I would watch reports on foreign channels and see how they filmed, what angles they used and try to do the same.
I never thought about becoming a reporter but over time I have come to like this job. I have enormous respect for journalism and I am honest in how I practise it. Even if I sympathise with the opposition and I live in opposition-held territory, even if I participate in anti-regime demonstrations, I avoid filming subjectively and taking the opposition’s side in my work.
I think this job is sacred and I am very careful. If something is in doubt or does not seem real, I do not film it.
Working with journalists abroad or outside of the besieged areas is like a window for me to send a message to the outside world.
The massacres and the bombings have become normal, along with images of children under rubble, the injured, bodies torn to pieces. I have gotten used to it, not like before. At the end of 2012, during the first massacre, when I saw a man with his leg torn off, I felt ill and I fainted at the sight of blood because it was the first time. Now it is something normal to me.
The hardest thing for me would be going back to my family home. Until today, I have not had the strength to go. Since 2014, it is the only area in Aleppo that I prefer to avoid, I cannot bear to. It would stir up old memories. I am told the building has been destroyed…