ALEPPO, Syria – For Karam al-Masri, Agence France-Presse’s reporter, photographer and videojournalist in rebel-held Aleppo, the past 5 years have been a series of tragedies: detention by the regime, and then the Islamic State (ISIS) group, the death of his parents in an air strike, the siege of his hometown, hunger and bombardment.
Though it all, he has continued to report, with unwavering courage, the story of his ravaged city. This is his story.
Before the revolution in Syria began in 2011, my life was very simple. I was a law student at Aleppo University. But today, I’ve lost everything – my family, my university. I’m an only child. What I miss most is my family, my father, my mother. Particularly her. I think about her every day, I see her in my dreams. To this day, losing her hurts me. I live alone, I don’t have anyone. Most of my friends are gone, either dead or in exile.
My life since the beginning of the bombing in Aleppo has become about trying to stay alive. It is like I live in the jungle and I’m trying to survive until tomorrow. When the planes come, I try to shelter in a more secure building. When there is artillery fire, I go to the lower floors. I’m constantly fleeing. Before the siege, I relied on fast food places, but now everything is closed. I don’t know how to cook, and there are days when I only eat one meal, and others when I have none at all. Before the siege, I spent the day outside looking for stories to film. But since the siege, I’m hungry and weaker and I stay at home more.
When the uprising began in 2011, I was nearly 20 years old. Two or three months later, I was arrested by the regime’s political intelligence services. I spent a month in prison, including a week in complete isolation in a tiny cell. It was awful, but I was released during an amnesty in 2011. At the beginning of the uprising there were peaceful demonstrations. There was no bombing. There was nothing to fear except detention and snipers in the street.
Kidnapped by ISIS
The following year, in July 2012, Aleppo was divided into two, with the eastern side held by rebels and the western side by the regime. In November 2013, when I was 22, I was kidnapped by Daesh (the Islamic State group). They took me from an ambulance with my friends, a paramedic and a photographer. We were all taken to an unknown location. It was worse that the regime’s prisons. It was very, very tough.
The photographer and I were released 6 months later after an “amnesty” but our third friend, the paramedic, wasn’t as lucky. He was decapitated after 55 days in prison. They filmed it and showed us the video: “Look at your friend, that’s what will happen to you soon.” We were utterly terrified. I was constantly afraid. I thought “tomorrow it will be my turn, the day after tomorrow it will be my turn.”
I still remember every detail. The 165 days in ISIS detention are etched into my memory. In the first 45 days, they only fed us every 3 days. The food was a half portion of Arabic flatbread, or 3 olives or an egg. I didn’t see a single shabbih (pro-regime militant) – all those held with us were rebels, activists and journalists.
I was tortured during both detentions, but it was worse with the regime because they wanted me to confess who I was working with. With Daesh, the charges were set from the beginning – I had a camera and for them I was an infidel – so there was no need to interrogate me.
I lost my family at the beginning of 2014, when I was still being held by ISIS. A barrel bomb hit our building, killing all the residents inside, including both my parents. I only found out when I was released. My friends tried to persuade me not to go to my house and told me what had happened. I spent a month in complete despair. I knew nothing about my parents when I was in prison, and then when I was released, they were gone. They had been waiting for news about me, and in the end, they weren’t there to celebrate my release.
In 2016, the city came under siege. But for me the siege is less difficult than prison, and the loss of my parents.
Window to outside world
I got the idea of becoming a cameraman in 2012, when I filmed protests with my cellphone and uploaded the images online to show what was really happening, that it wasn’t just 10 people or just terrorists like the regime said. There were people who didn’t want the regime anymore, they wanted freedom, democracy, justice. In 2013, I started as a freelancer with Agence France-Presse and gradually I improved. I would watch reports on foreign channels and see how they filmed, what angles they used, and try to do the same.
I never thought about becoming a reporter, but over time I’ve come to like this job. I have enormous respect for journalism, and I’m honest in how I practice it. Even if I sympathize with the opposition and I live in opposition-held territory, even if I participated in anti-regime demonstrations, I avoid filming subjectively and taking the opposition’s side in my work. I think this job is sacred, and I’m very careful. If something is in doubt, or doesn’t seem real, I don’t film it.
Working with journalists abroad, or outside of the besieged areas is like a window for me to send a message to the outside world.
The massacres and the bombings have become normal, along with images of children under rubble, the injured, bodies torn to pieces. I’ve gotten used to it, not like before. At the end of 2012, during the first massacre, when I saw a man with his leg torn off, I felt ill and I fainted at the sight of blood, because it was the first time. Now it’s something normal to me.
The hardest thing for me would be going back to my family home. Until today, I haven’t had the strength to go. Since 2014, it’s the only area in Aleppo that I prefer to avoid, I can’t bear to. It would stir up old memories. I’m told the building has been destroyed…
For more about Karam’s life and work, including some of his pictures and videos, check Agence France-Presse’s Correspondent blog.