Alex Rowell

A journalist’s life in Aleppo:
“A race with death”

NOW interviews Zaina Erhaim, an award-winning journalist and activist living full-time under daily bombardment in rebel-held Aleppo

Erhaim and other activists demonstrate in Aleppo on the first anniversary of the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks in Damascus.

With the world’s attention captivated by the tragic deaths of thousands of Syrian refugees trying to make their way into Europe, it may seem incredible that a Syrian living in London would opt to make the reverse journey; swapping the safety of Britain for the barrel bomb-raining skies of opposition-held Aleppo.


Yet that is precisely what 30-year-old journalist and activist Zaina Erhaim, originally from Idlib, chose to do in 2013, leaving a job at BBC Arabic to train Syrian citizen journalists and, in her spare time, report from the devastated, bloody frontlines herself. For her efforts, in August 2015 she received the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism, administered by Reporters Without Borders and Agence France-Presse. She is also Syria project coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). NOW spoke to Erhaim by email on Monday to learn more about her extraordinary story.


NOW: How would you summarize the situation in Aleppo today?


Zaina Erhaim: It's chaos, living by chance, expecting to be the target in any attack. When [Der Spiegel journalist] Christoph [Reuter] visited me in Aleppo he told me we all look like zombies to him, the only difference is we are living with death, not already dead.


Some superpower keeps civilians going on. They manage to survive the lack of water, the blackout of electricity (it comes two hours a day at best), even when ISIS stopped allowing fuel from coming and it became very expensive, we started seeing bicycles in the streets. It's amazing how humans can adapt with such unbearable circumstances.


Some cars just put an A4 paper on their sides, writing "Taxi," so it turns into one. Another one cut a 7up bottle and put an LED light in it, then made a hole at the back of the roof, so from a distance and in the night you see that a taxi is in the street.


There are minibuses full with passengers, although they are not only party damaged, but have no windows at all, even the driver’s one is broken. In general, most glass is broken and people replace it with plastic. I had some glass windows in my house, but now even the plastic is broken because of the latest bombing.


People go on in ‘their life’ [quotation marks in original – Ed.] until the helicopter/jet comes. Then everything stops, it's like a hysteria where everyone is looking up, drivers, walkers, shoppers. My friend says when a jet is in the sky you can pee in the middle of the street and no one would notice! As if knowing where it's bombing is going to make any difference! It won't. It's more horrifying to listen to the ‘watchers’’ channel on the walkie-talkie, hearing where it's going and whether it’s finished its bombing or still has some barrels to drop. It's too stressful, especially as the bomb that hits your building doesn't make any sound. So as long as you’re hearing sounds that means your chance of staying alive is higher.


NOW: How do you stay sane in such an environment?


Erhaim: I don't think any of us is sane, we are all insane and each is expressing this in a different way. Some do it positively, like working hard to accomplish their goals before being killed. It's like being in a race with death. This is the good side of the story, you always feel like you are in rush to finish what you’re doing because the next hour, you or the ones you’re working with could vanish.


For activists, friends are the main support. I have lived great, warm minutes in the last year [such as] I didn't feel in my entire life. I had my first surprise birthday party in a basement with about fifteen close friends attending. They did everything as if it were in a fancy restaurant, even buying decorations for the basement from Turkey. I hosted a friend's wedding in my house and we were dancing while mortars are falling, so we raised the volume of the music to forget about it.


When you are so close to death, you learn to enjoy life to its maximum. The luxury of postposing a minute of joy is not available.


NOW: In practical terms, how do you work? How can you travel, hold meetings, and publish work, etc., when there are bombs falling and almost no electricity or Internet connections?


Erhaim: I am lucky to work for a good international organization and get my salary in US dollars, not Syrian pounds, so I can have my own satellite Internet and can buy a generator, and extra batteries to stay connected most of the time.


I always travel with my husband or a trusted friend who knows the roads very well. Yes, we are always being shot at or the road is being bombed, but it's still safer than the city (there are fewer things to kill you with their shrapnel). We usually do meetings in houses or one of the few public spaces that we can use, which is the theatre, built in the basement of a school. [The puppet theatre group] Bread Way did a play in it last year and they are working on their second play now.


NOW: You have trained about 100 people in citizen journalism over the past two years. What sort of people are the trainees? Are they able to find work as citizen journalists?


Erhaim: For the male trainees, most of them are already citizen journalists by practice, and they want to get professional skills. For women, I just call all whom are interested in learning, so mostly housewives, teachers and those who work for local NGOs and I start with them from the very zero point. Some of them didn't even make it to their 12th grade, but they want to learn and they end up writing amazing features.


Some of those trained work for AFP, Al Jazeera, Al-Aan TV, Al-Arabiya, Alkul radio, Fresh radio. But those whom I am most proud of are the women who didn't know how to write a diary, and now they are publishing not only in our website Damascus Bureau but also in Soar magazine, Dawdaa magazine, Al-Aan website and Rozana. Some of those who I trained (three specifically) asked for my presentation and supporting materials and gave the same training to fifteen other people, and those trained by them are also working now. Nothing is more joyful than reading their beautifully written stories!


NOW: Is this the same as your work for IWPR?


Erhaim: With IWPR I am the Syria project coordinator and trainer, so this is all part of my work with IWPR, but I also have different tasks. Three months ago I also established My Space center, which is a women-only Internet cafe.


[Ordinarily] they can't get into Internet cafes because they’re men-dominated, and the subscription is expensive, and even when they have access, they don't have anyone to guide them how to use it.


This mirrors the need to open the door of the Internet to local women, and for free. Getting Internet access wouldn't just widen the women's vision, but also help them get jobs by reaching the vacancies posted online, and empower them by having the tool of surfing out of their closed world.


NOW: The Turkish government is pushing the international community to establish a safe zone in northern Syria. Is this a popular idea in Aleppo and/or other areas you’ve visited in Syria recently?


Erhaim: The area suggested covers neither Aleppo city nor Idlib Province, so it won't affect the two most-inhabited areas. A family who are refugees in Turkey, for example, wouldn't go to Marea if it's applied because their house is in Idlib.


It's a safe space with no air strikes, so surely no one opposes it, especially those living in the camps inside Syria, but it only solve a small portion of the greater problem.


NOW: What has been people’s reaction on the ground to the recent activity in Europe regarding Syrian refugees (e.g. Germany taking in new refugees, other countries such as Hungary preventing them)?


Turkey has been closing its border completely with Syria for the last six month. Many were killed while trying to smuggle into it, so the refuge journey for those coming from Syria starts from their struggle to cross to Turkey before riding the sea. I know many families (lots of relatives of mine) made it to Europe illegally.


75% of them were already living securely in Turkey, but they want their kids to be registered (most of them are stateless) or their passports are expiring. They want stability and Turkey is a temporary refuge for us. And as they are not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel they decided to seek a final destination.


Compared to what's going on inside Syria, everything the refugees are going through is light and easy, so in general there is little sympathy for them from those living inside Syria. At least those are seeking a better life and dying for it.


NOW: US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that, although Assad should leave office eventually, he doesn’t need to leave “on day one, or month one, or whatever.” Kerry also seemed hopeful that Russia would do more in future to pressure Assad to step down. What kind of reaction do comments like that get in Aleppo?


Erhaim: Russia has been a clear enemy for us for four years now. We even call [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov the Syrian foreign minister. I personally feel stressed when I hear the Russian language while in London.


Giving them the lead of Syria means keeping the tyrant in power, maintaining the cleansing of Syria which will result in saving ISIS and what it is built on.


‘The whole world is against Sunnis considering them terrorists who deserve to be killed, while supporting the Shiite jihadi foreign militias such as the Iraqis and Hezbollah’ [quotation marks in original – Ed.], and ISIS is the main powerful monster claiming to be fighting that. Most of my friends and I believe that leaving Assad and the Shiite militias fighting on his side alone, while fighting ISIS and some other Islamist groups is only fueling terrorism and turning every Sunni Syrian into a potential extremist.


NOW: Finally, you’ve said before it annoys you when Western journalists ask you about fears of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist factions, when by far the biggest cause of death is Assad’s regime. But you’ve also said you fear one day you could be kidnapped like your colleague Razan Zaitouneh. So even if Islamists are not your number one concern, do you not also worry about them, and the impact they could have on Syria’s future?


Erhaim: I am so much into details, I can't see the bigger picture, nor see Syria in general not to mention its future. What I know now is that the sky is the main threat to me and to millions of civilians still living in the rebel-held areas. I might be killed in a hell of a lot of ways, like crossfire between two angry relatives, or by mistake when an armed man cleans his rifle, not to mention the shrapnel, bombing, assassination by those who don't like me, or a heart attack from fear.


When the sky is neutral and stops being the source of death, and the source of war (Assad and his clan) is gone, then many activists and civilians will be able to go back, and the civil workers’ educated opinion leaders won't be as few as they are now. Then they can apply pressure on the extremists. People are tired of war, they will stand with those demanding disarming and trying to apply peace.


Before that, I don't see any hope.


This interview has been edited and condensed for space reasons.


Alex Rowell tweets @disgraceofgod

Erhaim has narrowly evaded death several times since moving to Aleppo in 2013. (Source: Zaina Erhaim/Instagram)

don't think any of us is sane, we are all insane and each is expressing this in a different way. Some do it positively, like working hard to accomplish their goals before being killed.

  • andré101

    To me, an non-Syrian, Zaina is one of the important heros in this conflict, contributing as she can to help Syrians survive this chaos.

    September 23, 2015