Jan 17, 2013

The Eyes of Homs - By Amal Hanano




A loyal son of Homs braves planes and tanks to capture the destruction of his city. Courtesy of Shaam News Network, Aug. 14, 2012.

Abu Mohammed is stubborn. He knows every live broadcast risks exposing his location to regime forces. Still, he starts his days at dawn, loads his handgun – which is no match for the tanks, helicopters and planes targeting him – and gathers his gear to transmit long, unedited footage of life in Homs, where the deadly thuds of shelling intersperse with moments of serenity.

In a few hours the sun will climb higher in the sky, the shelling will slow down, and Abu Mohammed will pack up his laptop, tripods, and cameras, untangle the cords, and walk to whichever safe house he currently calls home. I’ve done my part: tweeted Bambuser livestream links, chatted with him in our broken translations, commented on his homslive feed, and found some relief knowing the rest of his work will be done inside, at his desk, uploading the footage into YouTube clips and speaking to the media. For today, Homs is still in the news. For today, he is still alive.

By placing severe restrictions on foreign journalists, the Assad regime thought it could shield its crimes from the world with its propaganda machine and sell the myth of armed gangs demolishing the very neighborhoods that gave them shelter by booby-trapping buildings and bombing roads. It’s the brave amateurs like Abu Mohammed who dispelled that narrative, clip by clip, live stream by live stream. As Homs was reduced to mountains of concrete slabs folded onto themselves, the cameras of Homs exposed the wanton destruction of Syria at the hands of its ruthless military.

Over the past year, as Abu Mohammed moved from Baba Amr to al-Khalediyeh to Juret el-Shiyah, al-Hamidiyeh and Old Homs, I learned the city’s neighborhoods and skylines through his lens. I know its streets and balconies, the sounds of the birds and roosters, and the endearing, exaggerated drawl of its people’s dialect. Over the past year, I’ve spoken to dozens of activists and fighters. You never know which one you will speak to only once, which one will become a trusted source, and which one will become a brother.

******

In early February, 2012, I interviewed the well-known citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed, known by his alias “Syrian Pioneer,” who was in Baba Amr in a room filled with muffled voices. At the time, Baba Amr was surrounded by Assad’s army and the soldiers were intent on rooting out the armed opposition there. Much of the working class neighborhood would be destroyed by the end of the month.


I became emotional at the end of the call when I heard sounds of shelling in the background as Rami patiently explained the exodus of residents of the nearby Inshaat neighborhood. I was not yet used to listening to the shelling that would eventually be Homs’ permanent soundtrack. Rami consoled me, confident everything was going to be okay. Of course both of us didn’t know that ten days later, Rami would be dead.

After a few days, Abu Mohammed messaged me. He was one of the men in the room and had overheard my conversation with Rami. He told me he was wounded from the shelling in al-Khalediyeh the week before. He had moved to Baba Amr to work at the [rebel] media office with Rami. He had read one of my articles on Homs and said he had a story for me. I asked him for details. He began to type:


My father was 52 years old. He used to work at a construction company in Homs. A few months into the revolution, he started working as a micro-bus (shared taxi) driver to support our large family of 13. One day, soldiers at a checkpoint stopped him and ordered him to transport shabiha [the regime sponsored militia] from al-Zaharaa to Fairuzeh. He was scared and obeyed them. A few days later, they asked him again and he obliged once more. The time after that he refused and told them he would be fired if he took more time off his route. They yelled at him and threatened to beat him. He ignored them and drove away. It was a Thursday. There was no work on Friday because of the protests. On Saturday, they stopped him at the checkpoint and ordered the passengers off the bus. It was 4:30 p.m. It was Ramadan and everyone was fasting. He was fasting. They took him into a nearby school they used as a base. They beat him and electrocuted him. They struck him with their rifles. He was dead within an hour. They transported his corpse to the Military Hospital that evening, and to the National Hospital after that. We received a call at 7:10 p.m. while we were breaking our fast: Come and pick up the body. It was the 27th of Ramadan.

His body was stained from the beatings. There was no place in his body that hadn’t been beaten. Even his jaw was displaced. He was trying to pray in his final moments by raising his right pointer finger to say a final shahadeh [bearing witness to God], so they burned his finger with an iron rod.

This is his body.

I filmed it.

This was his funeral.

He finished typing. But I didn’t respond.

A few minutes later he asked, “Do you have any questions?”

I replied, “I’m crying.”

He messaged back, “Me too.”

“Will you write it for my father?”

“Yes.”

His last message that first night before we separated: “I’m Aboud, son of Homs.”

Over the next days, as I watched, along with everyone else, Baba Amr slowly being destroyed by Assad’s tanks on our screens, I learned more about Aboud. Before March 15, 2011, he was a young man trying to start his own business after completing his mandatory military service. He had marched in the first protests of the revolution. Then he started filming protests with his cell phone. In the summer of 2011, he was surrounded by regime forces in the Bayada neighborhood. Soldiers were searching homes and arresting any man who was suspected to be participating in the protests against the Assad regime. He was trapped at home with a laptop, cell phone, and memory sticks filled with incriminating material. His aunt helped him cross the checkpoint, hiding his equipment within the folds of her coat. She passed easily (those days they didn’t search the women) while Aboud was searched thoroughly and found clean. After he crossed safely, he met his friend Adnan abd al-Dayem, the 27-year-old pioneer of citizen journalism in Homs. He was one of the first activists to film with a camera instead of a cell phone. He was also one of the first Syrians to die because of his camera. Adnan was shot by a sniper in the back of his head outside a mosque a few days later on the first night of Ramadan. Aboud lost his best friend and would lose his father before the holy month was over.


Smoke fills the skies of Homs. Shaam News Network and theSyrian Revolution Memory Project, June 14, 2012.

Aboud messaged me on February 21, 2012: Rami was wounded. I was at the dentist’s office, in the chair, mouth open, phone in hand, watching my Skype screen, and praying that the message I was dreading would not appear. But it did. Rami had bled to death. It was the most painful cleaning I ever had. Aboud was grieving alone at the media center with the large revolution flag they used in the protests — which would be known after as the “Baba Amr flag” — on the wall. He sent me footage of Rami to upload onto YouTube and it became my first revolution video. Rami had been counting the days he had spent away from his toddler daughter Maryam, and although he predicted the Skype message he posted hours before dying would be his last, I know he wanted to live.

At the end of the February, Aboud said the fighters were planning to retreat from Baba Amr, shielding the remaining citizens as they exited before Assad’s army stormed the neighborhood. He told me not to worry if I didn’t hear from him for a few days. But I did worry. And I asked other activists about him. No one had any news. Three days later, I received an email from him. I opened the attachments: pictures of Aboud in a Homs covered with a blanket of fresh snow. Like postcards. He was posing and smiling. He looked much younger than I had expected. Early twenties, perhaps younger. He called me later. It took them an entire day to cross the short distance from Baba Amr to a nearby neighborhood. They walked through the outskirts of the city, hiding from the shabiha and camouflaged by the snow — a 15-minute trip under normal circumstances. He had smuggled one item inside his shirt from the abandoned media center: the Baba Amr revolution flag.

Since then, I have received many pictures from Aboud and many Skype calls. He has called just to let me hear the call to prayer at dawn from the Khaled bin al-Walid Mosque, to show me the full moon over Homs, to flip his laptop camera so I could see the fresh artillery holes in the building on his street. And he calls to talk. We talk about being far from our families, about dreams for the future in Syria, about the dangers of sectarianism, about soccer while he watched the EuroCup matches (these were one-sided conversations), about the home-cooked meals he missed. But most of the time, we talk about death.

Sometimes, when he was frustrated with lack of action by the Arab and international nations to stop the atrocities that he filmed daily, he would talk about quitting his media work and joining the Free Syrian Army on the front lines to defend Homs. Every time I would emphasize the importance of the media, of his voice, of his broadcasts, and I would remind him that hundreds of thousands of people were watching his live streams. I felt the weight of my hypocrisy as I typed the words: Don’t fight. Don’t pick up a weapon. And I would leave out what I wanted to type but knew would anger him: You are supposed to live.

One morning in July, he was back at the tower. He loved that location because it gave him a 360 degree vantage point to film shelling from two opposite sides of Homs. Because the broadcasts are picked up live by satellite television channels, these locations are eventually exposed to the regime. A tank hit the wall behind him while he was filming. In the unreleased videos, Aboud and his friend are completely covered in dust in the aftermath of the explosion. Looking like moving stone statues, they pick their laptops and cameras out of the rubble. They walk back home, filming the entire way. Men on the street salute them. He appeared to be fine. But he didn’t leave his bed for days. After getting over the initial adrenaline rush, he realized his back was injured badly and there were no doctors, no medicine. His friend could not move at all and needed to be transported to Turkey for medical care. These videos angered me. Why did he go back to the tower even though he was targeted the last time? Why was it so important to keep filming for an oblivious world? How many more people need to die for the crime of holding up a camera? Hadn’t we seen enough?

Another morning I woke up to the urgent Skype message from Aboud: “My precious ones are gone… my precious friends are gone.” On May 27, 2012, the night after the Houla massacre, Sham News Network (SNN), one of the most prominent activist networks in Syria, had lost three of its citizen journalists from Homs, Abu Yasser, Abu Omar, and Al-Sabi`, during an ambush while they were in Damascus on a mission with the FSA.

When we spoke after the tragedy, he messaged: “I felt I was going to die.” I was numb and could focus on one thing only: I wanted him to leave Homs. “Enough. Haven’t you had enough?” He was defensive and as usual, stubborn. “I won’t stop. I need to finish what we started. I can’t betray my friends, my brothers, my mentors. I’m going to go to be with them. They left me alone in this dirty world. Don’t say these words to me, Amal. This life is not mine. It’s for the next generation to live and stand on our bodies to free Syria and stop the bloodshed.”


Explosion in Jouret Al Shayah, Homs. Shaam News Network and the Syrian Revolution Memory Project, July 21, 2012.

Aboud was promoted after the death of his friends and became the director of the SNN media center in Homs. The first thing Aboud requested after his promotion was a private Dropbox account to upload his pictures for his mother and sisters and aunts so they could see him. As he dictated the emails to share the folder with, he mentioned mine. The other SNN activists asked him, “Are you sure you want to include Amal? You don’t even know who she is.” He replied, “She’s family.”When we spoke after the tragedy, he messaged: “I felt was going to die.” I was numb and could focus on one thing only: I wanted him to leave Homs. “Enough. Haven’t you had enough?” He was defensive and as usual, stubborn, “I won’t stop. I need to finish what we started. I can’t betray my friends, my brothers, my mentors. I’m going to go to be with them. They left me alone in this dirty world. Don’t say these words to me, Amal. This life is not mine. It’s for the next generation to live and stand on our bodies to free Syria and stop the bloodshed.”

*****

He asked me to write his father’s story and I said yes, but I knew the father’s story could not be told without the son’s. Yet, Aboud was adamant that his story not be told. He would ask me every few weeks, what happened to the story? I would say I’m still working on it, which was true. He would joke, are you waiting until I die so you can have two martyrs’ stories in one?

One day last spring, Aboud said there was another journalist who wanted to tell his story. I was annoyed. Who was this journalist who had convinced Aboud to tell his story? That story belonged to me. He tried to soothe me, saying, “Don’t be upset, Amal. It’s your story, but each of you can tell it in your own way. He wants to make a film about my work in the revolution and the live broadcasts.” Reluctantly, I conceded. Later I found out that the filmmaker was the beloved Syrian activist Basel Shahadeh, who had left his Fullbright scholarship in the US to document the atrocities in Homs. Basel visited Aboud to console him after his friends were killed. He held Aboud’s hand and said, “We’ll make something for their memory. I’m coming back to see you tomorrow so we can plan it.” Basel was killed by sniper fire that day on his way home.

On August 17, the SNN Homs media center suffered yet another loss, the young teenager, Abu al-Izz, whose uncle, Abu Omar, had been killed in Damascus. SNN activists had begged him to leave Homs, to not work in the media, to help the revolution from outside Syria, but he refused. He wanted to continue his uncle’s legacy, and he wanted to die in Homs. That day a rocket ripped Abu al-Izz’s body apart and killed eight others, leaving left behind a gruesome scene of torn limbs and body parts that Aboud and his friends collected in plastic bags and buried together in a mass grave. He told me, “We found his hand later, and had to go back and bury it with the other parts.” And I thought to myself, what has become of us that our normal conversations are about burying body parts? Abu al-Izz had taken pictures a few days before he died. Empty scenes of a shell-shocked Homs. We received the other pictures from that day, after he died, except he was in the frames, his red shirt, his curly, black hair, his face in profile with a straight, beautiful nose and a pensive expression that was almost identical to his uncle’s. His name was Fayyad al-Sabbagh, but he had grown into his alias, he really was Abu al-Izz, a man of integrity.



*****

Months have passed since February, and I became superstitious about this story as men continued to die around Aboud. In my mind, by keeping it in perpetual drafts, the story, and Aboud, remained alive. On the day the tower was shelled, I thought, what if he had died? My selfishness eventually outweighed my superstitions – I couldn’t live with yet another unfulfilled promise to a dead man. My unpublished story would not protect him from the stories he released every day. His stories were the ones that had the power to kill him.

To me, Homs was once just a place on the way from Aleppo to Damascus, a source of funny jokes and exquisite eggplant. But Homs became something else through the lens of revolution. It was resistance and determination. It was unity and loyalty. It was destruction and death. And most of all, to me, it was Aboud. When I watched his live broadcasts I was no longer mesmerized by the horrific scenes or frightening sounds, I was thinking about this young man who stood bravely facing a shooting tank with his unflinching camera.

Aboud’s folder on my Dropbox still feels like opening postcards from another world. He poses with his friends in their city, now in ruins. Many times their expressions are at odds with their grim reality. They look happy and proud; the opposite of humiliation. They are survivors and they know it.

Like most Syrians, I wasn’t prepared for this revolution or for my role in it. I wasn’t ready to experience the excruciating wait between “Rami has been injured” and “Rami is a martyr.” Not ready to recognize Abu al-Izz’s face in reverse, mentally connecting his blown-off head, frozen in a scream, to his handsome face in the photographs that were released after he was killed. Not ready to have to live with the shame of being jealous of Basel Shehadeh over a story he could have told much better than me. If he were still alive.

But Aboud was not ready either. He was not ready to film his father’s bruised corpse or pick Abu al-Izz’s body parts off the street. Not ready to protect the children playing soccer in the street with his gun, when a few months ago, he would’ve joined them for a game. Not ready to be the only one left in Homs with a camera, documenting the bloody truth. Not ready to ask a woman he’s never met, across the world, “Do you think it’s better to die a martyr or marry a girl from Homs?” And I would always reply, simply but not without pain, “It’s better to live.”

The soft-spoken young man who was wounded and listening that first night in a room of men who were older and bolder than him, has slowly emerged as one of Homs’ surviving witnesses. He refused to retreat to Lebanon and promised to never leave Homs because, as he says, if he leaves, who will continue after him? And he repeats his constant vow, “I will only leave victorious or a martyr.”

This was supposed to be the story of Aboud’s father alone. Aboud insisted he was not to be included with the real heroes, the martyrs. He wondered why he continued to be wounded but not killed. He wondered whether he was even worthy of martyrdom. But the story became larger than a murdered father and his heroic son. It became the story of Homs’ eyes behind the lenses. It’s the story that Basel didn’t have the chance to tell. The story of Abu-al-Izz and his uncle Abu Omar, of Rami al-Sayed and his cousin Basel al-Sayed, of Adnan abd al-Dayem and Abu Suleiman, of Ahmad Hamadeh who captured his own death while filming Homs, and dozens of unnamed citizen journalists, including 22 of SNN’s own men, who have fallen in Syria to tell the story of the revolution. Our lives have been entangled and implicated by their lenses.


Aboud sets up his camera to capture the destruction in his city. Courtesy of Shaam News Network and the Syrian Revolution Memory Project, July 24, 2012.

When we speak now, I no longer ask Aboud to leave Homs. I know he will never leave Homs. So we watch together as bombs fall over his city and we talk about other things, about our families, about life, and, as always, about death. But as I take in the smoky skyline in front of his lens and listen to the exploding sounds, sometimes near, sometimes far away, my refrain to Aboud silently repeats in my mind: Isn’t it enough? Haven’t you had enough? Haven’t you filmed enough?

It repeats relentlessly, thudding in my head in rhythm with the thuds inside Homs, until I no longer know who these words are for. Are they for the people behind the lens or the ones in firing in front of it, or are they directed towards the ones watching it?

Haven’t you watched enough? Haven’t you seen enough? Isn’t it enough?

Enough.

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