Making waves: Kholoud Waleed
In 2011, a Syrian woman with hazel eyes framed by her hijab left the primary-school classroom where she taught, took out a notebook and pen and decided to tell the truth about the Syrian revolution. Months later, she founded a weekly independent newspaper to report on the crimes committed by President Bashar al-Assad. Wanted by the regime, she fled the country and changed her name. Everybody now calls her Kholoud Waleed.
‘My life changed completely,’ she explains. ‘When the revolution started, I quit my job and participated in peaceful demonstrations against the regime. My life changed because I wanted to change my country.’
Along with her friends, Waleed founded Enab Baladi (The Grapes of my Country). ‘We started to think about creating this newspaper in late 2011,’ she explains. ‘We were a group of young Syrian activists organizing demonstrations calling for democracy, free elections and human rights. But at that time the regime’s media didn’t say a word about what was really happening in Syria.’
The first edition of Enab Baladi was published in January 2012. Since then, its popularity has grown week by week and it is now one of Syria’s most prominent independent newspapers. It is currently printed in Turkey, where around 7,000 copies are cranked out every week; 2,000 are smuggled into Syria.
On 7 October 2015 Kholoud Waleed was honoured with the 2015 Anna Politkovskaya Award by Reach All Women in WAR, an NGO which supports women human rights defenders working in war-torn countries. The organization remarked that Waleed ‘bravely reports to the world and to the people in Syria about the atrocities of the conflict, despite the dangers she and her colleagues face every day’.
‘When we printed the first edition in January 2012,’ says Waleed, ‘the situation in Syria was getting worse. We thought: Syrians don’t know what is going on around the country! Even we didn’t know whether demonstrations were taking place elsewhere in the country because not everyone had access to the internet, which had been blocked by the regime. So we decided to convey the truth, to show what the regime was doing.’
Waleed thinks that winning the award will help her promote her cause: ‘Now, people know there are some Syrian journalists who convey stories about Syria, despite the dangers. If they don’t know it yet, they will know it soon; if they know it, this will remind them that it has been four years since the revolution started.’
Enab Baladi has around 20 to 25 reporters; 14 of them are in Syria, reporting from cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Latakia and Homs, as well as from Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State. All of them publish under a pseudonym, living their lives undercover.
‘We mainly publish local news. We focus our articles on humanitarian issues that happen in Syria and in the countries which are hosting Syrian refugees. Our stories are about people who have survived the war, how they lived during the shelling, how they moved from one place to another, and how they dealt with the situation,’ says Waleed. ‘Enab Baladi is dependent on donations; several NGOs provide us with small grants to help us survive.’
Waleed and the Enab Baladi reporters are pursuing a battle for freedom of speech, one of the most important issues of the revolution. ‘Our mission is to tell the people what is going on in Syria,’ she explains. ‘Otherwise I would consider myself a traitor.’
Since the start of the revolution, she has lost many friends and relatives. ‘Sometimes, we lose hope and we cry; we feel helpless and hopeless. But then you feel you have to continue, you have to tell the people that we are being killed by the regime. It is our job to go on.’