Q&A with Zaina Erhaim

Syrian reporter Zaina Erhaim on training citizen reporters and the importance of documenting the Assad regime’s atrocities. Interview by Anton Mukhamedov

Zaina Erhaim
Zaina Erhaim. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation

Zaina Erhaim studied journalism at Damascus University and then at City, University of London. She returned to Syria in 2013 to help cover life in rebel-held areas and train citizen journalists, who had been documenting the uprising since the start in places where Western reporters had no access. She worked there until 2016, mostly based in Aleppo, under daily bombings by the Assad regime and its Russian ally. This interview took place in Paris, while Erhaim was participating in a seminar on Syria at Université Paris-Diderot.

In 2013, you returned to Syria to help report on the ongoing uprising. When and why did you make the decision to report on the Syrian civil war?

I don’t think that ‘civil war’ is the right name to give it. It was an uprising, a revolution until maybe 2013. For me, a civil war is when two tribes or civilian groups hold up arms against each other, but in this case it was a regime crackdown. I prefer the term ‘war against the people’, instead of a war between people. It’s not even a domestic war at this point, since there are plenty of foreign parties who’re participating such as the Russian soldiers, the Shi’a militias, Hezbollah, Iranian forces. When I went back in 2013, it was to help other citizen journalists report. I was working with an international organization on media development (Institute for War and Peace Reporting). I trained more than 150 [people]. Instead of doing the work on my own, I try to plant the ability to do it in others, who are already there doing it but don’t have the academic background to be able to be more professional in their reporting.

Half of the journalists you trained were women. Are there particular challenges that female reporters faced?

Definitely. But you cannot generalize, not even when you speak of nearby towns. Women in each town faced different challenges. Speaking about the areas where I was, which were already conservative areas with mostly masculine public spaces, none of the women that I trained had had any experience in journalism beforehand. Many were housewives: very few had university degrees. For them, journalism was a new adventure. Some enjoyed it, and they thought they had the potential to continue. More than 10 are now writing frequently, not just for Syrian, but also for British and Arabic media. These women decided to make a career out of it.

They do have extra challenges above what their male colleagues face – mainly the fact that mixing with men and interviewing men is very challenging. To be seen with a male stranger is impossible, so they’d have to use the help of their husbands or do the interview via Skype. There are challenges after that, too: once their article is published, they’re going to be attacked, but not in the same way as men. They’ll be called ‘whore’ or their honour will be insulted.

What was the reason they decided to go into journalism?

I think in 2011, the main reason was to report what was happening, thinking that reporting was going to prevent the escalation of the tragedy. They thought that if we told the world what was happening in Syria, there would be a reaction. I think this attitude changed after the largest chemical attacks: after that, some thought that whatever they reported wouldn’t change anything anymore. Some kept doing the work, believing that it was the only thing left to do. Others were earning money from it. Others still were trying to document the abuses, hoping that one day they would be able to take the regime to the International Criminal Court.

At the beginning, the women were curious to learn what journalism was. Then, many decided to join since they thought that the stories that they wanted to read and to get out there were not being reported, because male journalists were either uninterested or had difficult access to women’s spaces. Because of the gender segregation in their societies, they felt women’s issues and stories went unreported or were not well reported.

What are the implications of YouTube’s deletion of videos documenting the Assad regime’s atrocities?

Our proof and documentation of crimes is being deleted. Maybe it is violent and so violates regulations, but it isn’t used to create horror movies, but to document the reality. So we need to further discuss how we can keep the documents safe without violating social media regulations. Don’t forget that there are 12-14-year olds who are getting access to this. Should they be able to view such material? How do we protect it? For example, Facebook introduced a feature where it tells you that aggressive content is ahead, which might work. It’s really frustrating that we’re going through this pain, and when trying to show it, we’re being suppressed again.

You were reluctant to leave Syria until 2016 – what changed? Aleppo being reconquered by Assad and his allies?

I left before the siege. I was pregnant then and went on two tours, in the Netherlands and then in the US. As I left the US, the routes were really dangerous, and as I had a baby, I decided not to go back.

Your passport was confiscated at Heathrow airport…

I was told that my passport had been reported as being stolen by my government. I responded that I had no government – that it was a regime – and that I wasn’t a citizen, but rather a journalist. So they weren’t standing up for the rule of law, but instead standing by a dictatorial regime against a journalist. They didn’t care, after all the system is the system. I didn’t get the passport back. I had to pay $1,500 to get a new one, only valid for two years. I don’t know when it’s going to be reported and I’m going to be stuck again.

Do you face other obstacles to your work?

Besides being harassed at all the airports through which I pass, besides being treated as a terrorist suspect, interrogated, constantly put aside for new passport checks – although my passport is completely in order and has plenty of visas – besides that, everything is fine. [She laughs.]

Do you still believe in the possibility of the fall of the Assad regime?

Not anymore. If I had said anything like that years ago, it must have been because I was too scared and trying to keep my hope alive. I feel now Syria is just going from bad to worse. It’s not even Syria anymore, just a part-Russian, part-Turkish and part-Iranian colony, with no land for Syrians.

If the Assad regime stays, do you think that the majority of refugees won’t be able to go home?

Most of those who fled, especially at the beginning, in 2011 and 2012, weren’t just escaping war: many of them didn’t face it, and instead fled arrest or forced military conscription. Military service in Syria is very long and horrible: some men, instead of two-and-a-half years, had to spend five or six years. For them, there is definitely no way to go back.

Some refugees live in miserable camps in Lebanon and are not wanted by the regime – they are not that many, but they’ll be able to go back if there’s some kind of truce. However, all the others – I’m thinking of my family, my mother, my aunts – they think they are going to be buried in Turkey.

Do you believe international conferences like this one could change something?

I stopped demanding a reaction a very long time ago. Last year, I toured high schools in Barcelona. I spoke to students about life inside Syria, what it meant to demand freedom and the kind of backlash we were facing. I definitely didn’t expect the students to help us topple the regime. But just giving the new generation a different perspective on the story – the opportunity to hear it from a Syrian who has experienced it first-hand, instead of some news reporter who would have gotten it from another reporter – is very powerful. Eventually, the young generation will be choosing their own politicians and I just hope they will choose the right ones to make this world less horrible.

Anton Mukhamedov is a freelance journalist based in France.