Syrians’ never-ending nightmare. Asmae Dachan, an Italian-Syrian freelance professional journalist reports on the voices collected by non-embedded journalist in Syria and the importance of unofficial storytelling
by Francesca Rizzo
Although she was born and raised in Italy, Asmae Dachan, an Italian-Syrian journalist, feels a strong bond with her home country, so much so that she has always nurtured a need to hear from her parents about what that mysterious land, which she never saw with her own eyes until 2013, looks like. The reticence of her relatives, opponents of the regime, fearful of uncovering what the journalist herself calls a “Pandora’s box,” accompanied her throughout her childhood-a way to protect the child Asmae from the stark reality of a country under dictatorship. It is the woman, journalist Asmae Dachan who decides to go beyond the stories, to delve into that stark reality. But uncovering it is not easy; one has to dig beyond the regime’s mystifications.
The wall of false and exploited information collapsed under the weight of the Arab Spring, an unprecedented wave of protest that swept across the Middle East. “What happens in 2011 is something that is historic for us Syrians: fear is defeated for the first time in almost fifty years. Fear is something terrible, fear is something that censors, something that limits, it is something that makes you hold back from denouncing.” Instead, complaints from journalists and activists, local and otherwise, are flooding in: they are joined by the voices of foreign reporters who cross Syria’s borders clandestinely to report the truth. One of them, Marie Colvin, lost her life in February 2012 while broadcasting live via satellite phone the siege of the city of Homs, where Syrian authorities are bombing civilians. This senseless death deeply marks Asmae Dachan, prompting her to leave to finally get to know, up close, Syria: “I was saying, ‘It is shameful that I, as a Syrian, am here telling from behind a screen, through these contacts, what is happening in Syria and that they, who are foreigners, are dying in Syria.'”
In 2013, the journalist first reached Syria, illegally entering the country from the Turkish border. The reality he has to face is something disconcerting: a tent city inhabited by displaced Syrians, lacking electricity and potable water. The only assistance the men, women and children receive is from humanitarian organizations moving along the border: as Asmae Dachan explained to the audience at the Mediterranean Women Journalists Forum, the tent cities within the state are not comparable to refugee camps across the border, do not fall under the auspices of the UN and therefore do not benefit from any aid from the organization.
There is a lack of hygiene, a lack of services, a lack of food: this is the context in which the lives of displaced Syrians take place every day. And what amazes Dachan most is the constant birth of children: “With what courage,” she wonders and asks those around her, “do these women, in a war situation, continue to bring children into the world? The strongest response came from one of those women, whom Asmae Dachan, using her ability to speak Arabic with Syrian inflection, was able to approach, “Do you want to take away our right to continue living, our right to continue hoping for life?”
In addition to gathering the voices of tent city residents, Asmae Dachan seeks to learn about conditions throughout the country. Visit Homs, the city where Marie Colvin died, and Aleppo. Here the repression against opponents, mostly young people, is extremely harsh: constant attacks and even roundups in hospitals to annihilate protesters injured during peaceful marches. Zero tolerance towards anyone who dares to protest, although there is a whiff of a greater danger in the air: the latent presence of the first Isis militiamen, who set up checkpoints in the city they soon succeed in conquering.
Listening to voices from within has always been Asmae Dachan’s working method. Even before she personally went to Syria, Dachan managed through the Net to gather voices opposed to the regime, recording the outbursts and acting as a sounding board across the border in the West. “Our work,” she says, “is a hand-off: gathering the truth, collecting testimonies and trying to expose.
The Syrian authorities’ desire to curb the illegal entry of foreign journalists into the country has led to increased controls since 2014. That is why Asmae Dachan and many other colleagues have involved Syrian citizens themselves, providing instructions and tools (drones, cameras) to get their authentic voices across the border: the citizen journalism showed tremendous potential already during the Arab Spring, when protesters exploited social networks, Twitter in particular, for real-time reporting of events. Putting logos on videos and photos, contextualizing videos by including in the opening where and when they were shot, are some tricks that give citizen reporters ‘ work the much-needed patina of veracity. Another method suggested by Asmae Dachan is not to unnecessarily emphasize news facts, falling into mystification: “If a bombing claimed two lives, there is no need to say twenty deaths to create hype: you say two deaths, period. There is no need to make a fuss.”
In a country already prostrated by years of dictatorship and civil war, citizens who continue to raise alarms are treated like terrorists, while terrorists act like authorities. The few U.N. convoys trying to provide relief to the displaced are being bombed: “It used to be,” Dachan comments, “you don’t bomb the Red Cross… yes you do: in Syria you also bomb the Red Cross.”