Trials of Being a Journalist in Aleppo

Reporter describes harsh conditions for all those living amid conflict in Syrian city.

Journalism is one of the hardest jobs around. It is the search for the truth, and its difficulties and dangers are multiplied during periods of armed conflict, as is now 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 the regime’s 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 living conditions, while maintaining the secrecy of my work because of campaigns of imprisonment that target women as much as men.

Before I am a journalist, I am a citizen, suffering in the same conditions as the rest of the citizens here.

In addition to 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 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 between water-supply cuts, heating up water when it is actually available, washing clothes by hand because of power outages, and securing gas, the price of which keeps rising.

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 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 them 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 are known as “Hell’s Cannon” – improvised rockets fitted with gas canisters, which are used by opposition fighters.

The search for the truth, and the insistence on conveying the facts as comprehensively as possible, requires one to interview citizens who are caught in the heat of the conflict. They 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, there is the continuous interruption of the internet and the difficulty of using mobile phones within the city because of the weak network. That makes it hard to both obtain the information I need and to transmit it to the world.

Everything here is vague and obscure, rumours spread like wildfire, and even when you are 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. As a result, there are unrelenting traffic jams, and the heavy security presence makes it impossible to carry a camera or take photographs openly, unless a 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 and trying to report on what is happening on the other side, such as the constant bombardment by the regime’s 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 them 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 like media activist Abdel Wahab al-Mala, who was kidnapped in November, presumably by ISIS, and is still missing.

In Aleppo’s western neighbourhoods, too, kidnappings are also increasing, as are crimes ranging from muggings in which people are relieved of their money and mobile phones to car-jackings that take place at gunpoint and 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. No one knows the identity of the gangs responsible for these acts. Are they “shabiha” [pro-government militia] 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 not to be late coming home.

Our families’ watchful eyes and their fears, however 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 work without their relatives’ knowledge, because parents fear that their children might be kidnapped and bring even more trouble to the family. It is known that the Syrian security services 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 being burned and destroyed before one’s eyes, without being able to say anything most of the time.

Lina al-Hakim is the pseudonym of a journalist living in Syria.

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.