Reporting from the ground in times of war

Courageous endeavours of journalists in Aleppo deliver the news we hear today.

Aleppo residents prepare to get on to buses to take them out of the besieged city on December 15, 2016 [Malek al-Shimale/Al Jazeera]

It is said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend.” I would propose a caveat to this: the love is perhaps even greater when he is willing to risk his life for a stranger, just another fellow traveller in the human race.

In earlier acts of genocidal horror, often the world learned only of statistics, unable to witness the individual horror suffered by a 14-year-old boy, clinging on to the lifeless body of his infant brother.

In Aleppo, with its diminishing cast of traumatised civilian survivors, daily we learn their stories. And daily those who remain hope that their tears may move the pusillanimous hearts of far flung politicians who play, each day, with the pawns on the Middle Eastern chessboard.

When British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called on the Stop the War Coalition to protest outside the Russian Embassy, he said: “It’s up to us in government to show a lead.” It is well past time for a leadership, and yet we see very little.

The true leaders have been those who have risked their lives to report from Aleppo. Many civilians had no choice in the matter, finding themselves unwillingly between the Scylla of the rebel guns and the Charybdis of Bashar al-Assad and his bloodthirsty allies.

The journalists, on the other hand, made an active decision to put themselves in the path of danger in order to report the truth – normally an early casualty in warfare.

We are all in their debt. Who can fail to be moved by the pictures of the stunned child, shared with the world by filmmaker, Wa’ad al Ketab? Salah Ashkar, Lina Shamy and others have brought the truth into our living rooms.

Aleppo has seen the rise of the “citizen journalist”, including Zouhir Al Shimale, reporting on how he and others were “turned back” when they tried to evacuate.

Then there is the truly amateur journalist in the age of the mobile phone camera, epitomised by the anonymous medic who sent out the video of a five-year-old reciting Quranic verses while undergoing an operation without anaesthetic.

It has therefore been my privilege to have been working recently with Bilal Abdul Kareem, justifiably voted “Al Jazeera personality of the week” by a large margin.

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Bilal remains in the ruins of that once proud city, pumping out his media reports to the comfortable world. He is American, a stand-up comedian-turned war journalist who has been in Syria since 2012 reporting on the conflict from his independent network On the Ground News. Before that, he risked danger to filmed Torture Agreement, a documentary in post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya.

As he reports, the Russian barrel bombs periodically explode in the background. If there are only a handful of Syrians with operating generators in the dying city, they welcome Bilal in to charge his equipment, for they know that he speaks for them.

No doubt there are members of the Assad regime who hate a man who has interviewed members of the Free Syrian Army and carried their voice to the world.


When news outlets were declaring the Aleppo evacuation over, he continued to dispatch his footage, and describe the rockets descending on the remaining women and children: “There are thousands upon thousands of people who are still here,” he said. “They were so many, they look like ants.”

And yet, he makes jokes in times of despair, his humanity setting him far apart from stony faced analysts of war who prognosticate from their studios, coffee in hand.

Recently, Bilal was interviewing members of the Free Syrian Army. One said he reckoned they could get $20,000 for kidnapping an American journalist. He made light of it, saying that since he was the only African-American in Aleppo they had miscalculated – a black man was worth very little.

We have been urging him to join the evacuation, and we wait for news that he is safe. Yet, at the same time, Bilal has reported on refugees being shot dead and men being snatched away as they attempt to leave.

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No doubt there are members of the Assad regime who hate a man who has interviewed members of the Free Syrian Army and carried their voice to the world.

At the same time, there are misguided officials in the United States who think of Bilal as a traitor for interviewing members of al-Nusra Front. But the sane among us know that he represents the voice inside us all that we only wish we had the courage to let out.

Let it be known that the eyes of the world are watching over Bilal Abdul Kareem and his fellow journalists – professional and amateur – and we expect that they, and the other civilians in Aleppo, will be allowed a safe passage out.

Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of the legal action charity Reprieve.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.