Following on from her piece for the English PEN magazine, Samar Yazbek describes the dangerous, often fatal struggle of capturing the truth of the Syrian revolution

Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss     

The young man in front of the camera points at the cloud of smoke as it rises from behind the buildings, drawing nearer to him. Breathless as he runs, he gasps, ‘Look, it’s an explosion…everyone, look at what’s happening to us here in Homs. We’re dying here. Look, they’re shelling us.’

The image wobbles, shakes, the cameraman’s hand trembles. Suddenly footsteps appear, dusty shoes, pavement splotched blood red, then a crashing sound, some gasping, and the screen goes black.

The event is over.

This scene comes from one of the young men reporting the events out of the heart of the Syrian revolution. A scene that encapsulates the death of Syrians but also their defiant will to live, in spite of the destruction all around them; that tells the story of the Syrian people by relaying the truth of their revolution now that the Syrian regime, its security apparatus and its shabbiha have denied them access to the media, and after a number of foreign journalists have been killed.

The Syrian people report the event alongside death, not from on high, never from below: they proceed side by side with death. Our young men move with the gunshots, the artillery fire, carrying their miniature mobile devices or a concealed micro-camera, but mainly they carry their cell phones, decamping towards death. Here in Syria, from where the young men report the event, news becomes part of a deathly cavalcade. Those who report the news aren’t professional journalists; they don’t know how to mould the story, they have no idea how to stage the scoop on camera or how to angle the right shot. They take their lives in their own hands, placing them before the eye of their cell phone, and set out. Reporting the truth could cost them their lives.    

The young men who cover the demonstrations get ready beforehand. They make placards that express the Syrian people’s thirst for freedom, signs that criticize the positions of the international community, others that are sarcastic, maybe a few drawings. They take up their positions, set back a ways from the demonstrating crowd, in order to capture the images of the protestors, crouching in some corner so they won’t be spotted by the security forces and the shabbiha and the snipers who are posted up on the rooftops and who kill demonstrators in cold blood.          

Other times, when shells crash down on some neighbourhood, the young men don’t have enough time to get ready. They thrust their cell phones into the air and start filming, even as the bombs fall and they run away from the shelling, one eye on the road, the other on the decimated buildings, or else towards where the rockets are being launched, which makes their shots hurried and confused as they struggle to force the words out of their mouths, with death looming over their heads. Still, somehow, they manage to focus their cameras on the sight of the truth.

Those young men, who know that the regime of Bashar al-Assad fabricates truths in order to spuriously repeat them in the media, realise the importance of what they are doing. Now they are creators of the Truth. These scenes that they record might just be capable of creating something that can put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people who are being slaughtered on a daily basis, the Syrians for whom massacres beget only more massacres.         

A number of the young men who were transformed into reporters without any past experience have become heroes. Some have been killed, others arrested. One of the young men whom the Syrian security services caught in the act of filming had his eyes gouged out—when his body finally surfaced it had no eyes!         

The Syrian regime is afraid of the truth coming out, which would expose the reality of their crimes. So they target journalists who write about the revolution as well as those who broadcast it by video; therefore their punishment is still worse, whether it comes to arrest or torture or bodily disfigurement. The Syrians are unmoved when they get turned into war reporters in the blink of an eye; they have no fear. They are guided by a rare courage to report the truth of their death, the truth of their demands and their revolution. The young men who appear every day on television screens the world over via recorded snippets on YouTube are constantly changing, their faces replaced from one day to the next, just barely benefiting from the expertise of some initial appearance, which was followed by a second, then a third…

Until this journalistic proficiency vanishes amid the dust and the bullets, lost along with their souls that take flight even as they report the truth.

Other young men will take over the assignment, with warm hearts renewed, reporting the event, before they, too, will fall.

And so forth and so on

The Syrians do not tire of becoming journalist martyrs.

They are born from the bullets but also from freedom, and their camera eyes never sleep, despite the bombing!

An extract from this dispatch was published in the English PEN member’s magazine in September 2012.

About the Author

Samar Yazbek
is a Syrian writer and journalist, born in Jableh in 1970. She is the author of several works of fiction. Her novel, Cinnamon, is to be published by Arabia Books later this year. An outspoken critic of the Assad regime, Yazbek has been deeply involved in the Syrian uprising since it broke out on 15 March 2011. Fearing for the life of her daughter she was forced to flee her country and now lives in hiding. Her book A Woman in the Crossfire published by Haus won an English PEN Writers in Translation award in 2012.

Read more about A Woman in the Crossfire  
from Haus Publishing.

Read about Samar’s event at the Frontline Club in London


About the Translator

Max Weiss
is the author of In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi’ism and the Making of Modern Lebanon (2010). He is also a noted translator of contemporary Arabic literature into English. His translation of Abbas Beydoun’s novel Blood Test won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in 2010.