Celebrating the Work of ‘Enab Baladi’, Citizen Chroniclers of the Syrian Revolution

Screenshot of Enab Baladi's latest cover. The headline reads: . Source: Syrian Prints Archive.
Screenshot of Enab Baladi’s latest cover. The headline reads: Russia uses veto against Syrians for the fifth time. Source: Syrian Prints Archive.

Between August 20 and August 25, 2012, hundreds of women, men and children were rounded up and killed in cold blood by regime forces in the liberated city of Daraya. To this day, it remains one of the worst massacres perpetrated in Syria since the beginning of the uprising in March of 2011.

The Wikipedia entry for this massacre portrays the responsibility for the event as contested, citing sources of supposed ‘two sides’ of the story who blame each other for the bloodshed. The only problem with that is that the ‘two sides’ are not objectively as valuable.

The English version of the entry mainly relies on Western sources. In fact, the ‘other side of the story’, the regime’s side, relies on a single source only: British journalist Robert Fisk. Fisk visited Daraya a few days after the massacre while embedded with Syrian government forces. The testimonies he gathered there came from local residents who were speaking close to, and sometimes in the very presence of, regime soldiers.

The end result of much of the coverage, symptomatic of a much larger problem, is a feeling of doubt and uncertainty, as if we were talking about an unverifiable atrocity carried out somewhere in the chaos of war.

But that narrative was contested by various Syrians as well as non-Syrians. The famous journalist Janine Di Giovanni, for example, also went to Daraya after the massacre but without being embedded with the regime army, unlike Fisk. None of the witnesses she spoke to corroborated Fisk’s story and neither did Human Rights Watch nor Daraya’s local coordination committee, which explicitly criticized Fisk. Giovanni’s Syrian visa was revoked by the government following her article at the time, while Fisk’s remains intact to this day, four years later.

Among the many Syrians who criticized Fisk for his coverage of the Daraya massacre were just ordinary citizens from Daraya running a humble news service while the massacre was happening. 

The news service is called Enab Baladi (عنب بلدي), which means ‘the Grapes of my Country’ in Arabic. It was founded in January 2012 and is largely women-run. They’ve been publishing weekly since 2012 with only one two week break: the week of the Daraya massacre, during which their office was destroyed by the Syrian army.

Copies of Enab Baladi on the floor after regime soldiers destroyed their office. Image source: Raw in War.
Copies of Enab Baladi on the floor after regime soldiers destroyed their office. Image source: Raw in War.

Regarding the Daraya massacre itself, Enab Baladi has released several statements since August 2012 saying that the perpetrators were Assad’s forces. For example, on Sunday, August 25, 2016, they published:

The publication of Enab Baladi’s 79th issue coincides with the first anniversary of the Daraya Massacre, which was carried out by regime forces last August. It was one of the bloodiest massacres in the contemporary history. Casualties exceeded 700 deaths, and hundreds of injuries,

Enab Baladi also released a video about a particular episode during the Daraya massacre, the so-called “Basement massacre”, when regime forces murdered over 70 unarmed civilians. The sole survivor of that massacre, who lost his whole family, recalled the episode.

Why Daraya Matters

The Daraya Massacre perfectly illustrates the utter disdain for Syrian voices that permeates much of Western (and other) media and political analyses.

Following classical Orientalist footsteps, this deafening, systematic silencing of indigenous voices amounts to denying non-Western agents the very concept of their own agency, always portraying ordinary protesters as imperialist tools guided by greater dynamics and geopolitical decision making.

As Global Voices contributor Marcell Shehwaro recently asked while commenting on another article on Syria written by a Westerner: “where are the Syrians?

The Daraya massacre was an early sign that only ‘qualified’, often meaning white, interpreters like Fisk are able to provide a reliable account that illuminates, even if transiently, the passive lives and deaths of non-Western full-time victims in need of being saved –even their mutilated corpses– by a Western authorized narrative.

Enab Baladi: Citizen Chronicles of the Syrian Revolution

As it happened for so many years with Palestinian voices, this deliberate and widespread silencing of Syrian voices remains perhaps the primary challenge for all people of conscience who embrace the Syrian revolutionaries and their democratic demands. And this is why embracing and amplifying Enab Baladi’s citizen journalism should be regarded as an essential step for such a direction.

As previously mentioned, since January 2012 Enab Baladi’s weekly newspaper has been chronicling the rising of a nascent Syrian civil society, giving voice to the voiceless and keeping a detailed record of the non-stop atrocities committed by Assad’s regime and by any other group.

Enab Baladi was founded and is run, written and distributed by ordinary Syrian women and men who risk their lives in doing so. Three of the founders perished in different attacks by the regime before the Daraya massacre. Other staff members have been detained and tortured. Some went to exile.

Far from being a locally focused endeavor, a thick network of reporters on the ground soon enabled Enab Baladi to cover the entire territory of Syria. Much of that coverage was done under extremely risky circumstances within regime-held and Daesh-held areas.

Hard copies are printed in Turkey, where some of the Enab members have ended up as refugees, and then smuggled into Syria. Once read, these printed copies are usually burnt by the readers for fear of being caught with them.

As for the diverse spectrum of difficulties experienced by Enab team, here are their comments. One writer told Global Voices that:

Enab Baladi has been able to sustain its operations despite lack of normal functioning situation. However, this comes with a lot of challenges, among them operating teams inside and outside Syria, lack of stable funding streams, and the worsening security situation for journalists and reporters both inside and outside Syria.

The recent fall of Daraya to the regime has dealt a heavy blow that they’re still trying to overcome:

The two reporters who were based in Daraya have been evacuated to Idlib, we provided them with support and we are trying to help them in this difficult transition. Not a single person lives in Daraya now. Daraya will fade out from the news and its people are disbursed inside and outside Syria. It’s so sad”.

As a genuine Syrian civil society’s endeavor, women have always played a prominent role in Enab Baladi, comprising at times more than a half of the staff.

In the words of Jawad Sharbaji, editor at Enab Baladi:

Women have been a big part of Enab Baladi since the beginning, and most say it’s their resilience that’s kept the paper going (…) They have easier access inside people’s homes, and they can travel more easily and get to places where men cannot go

Kholoud Waleed is perhaps the most renowned face of Enab Baladi since she won the 2015 Anna Politkovskaya Award for journalism. Here’s a video of her speaking in a short documentary by Chloe Fairweather entitled “Grapes of my Country: Reporting from Inside Syria”.

GRAPES OF MY COUNTRY – REPORTING FROM INSIDE SYRIA from Chloe Fairweather on Vimeo.

Enab Baladi, the (free) book: a crowdfunding campaign in support of Syrian voices

At the moment of writing this piece, I also find myself running an international crowdfunding campaign, via Namlebee or Indiegogo, in support of Enab Baladi and Syrian voices.

As a simple human being with a conscience, I find it mandatory to support peoples’ voices calling for human rights, democracy and freedom regardless of where they come from or the geopolitical role played by the dictators they are subjected to. Even if those voices are not as progressive as we would like them to be on every issue. Essential demands for basic human rights should always be honored with solidarity and respect by all those who still believe in the chance of a better world.

That’s why we’re working on a free book, in English and Spanish, to tell the story of the Syrian revolution through the chronicles written by Syrian citizen journalists and published by Enab Baladi, whose editors will select the articles to be included in the book.

Here is the campaign video, wonderfully edited by Enab Baladi team:

One third of the money raised will go directly to Enab Baladi. Other funds will cover the heavy translation costs, creating the book and promotion activities such as inviting Enab Baladi’s staff members to participate in panels and presentations.

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