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Pixels of War: One Student’s Path to Photography in Eastern Aleppo

In the second installment of “Pixels of War,” our diary series on Syrian photographers, Yehya Alrejjo recounts how the Syrian uprising and war transformed him from a student of chemistry to a photographer with the opposition in the besieged and fiercely contested city of Aleppo.

Written by Yehya Alrejjo Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Buildings destroyed by airstrikes in eastern Aleppo. Yehya Alrejjo

ALEPPO, Syria – When the uprising began, I was still a student of chemistry at Aleppo University. Today, I am a photographer, documenting the siege and war in my city. This is my story.

I was born in 1992 in Aleppo, one of the most important Syrian governorates, and the former economic capital of the country. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Aleppo has become a destroyed city. The eastern side is now besieged by the regime and its allies. I was raised in a middle-class family. I attended middle and high school in Aleppo, and then enrolled in the city’s well-known university – every high-schooler’s dream.

My activism with the opposition began in 2011, when I joined the anti-government demonstrations. All of our protests were organized from the Aleppo University campus. Female students designed and wrote signs and sewed flags for us to carry during the protests. We chose a different flag from the Syrian one, because we didn’t believe that the red in the official flag represented the blood of those who died for their country, but rather the blood of those who were being killed and tortured in the Syrian regime’s prisons.

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Our protests were big – at times reaching 5,000 students from most of the university’s colleges and departments. When we left campus, we hid the flags under our clothes, so security officers would not notice them. We also covered our faces with winter scarfs, so they could not identify us. But soon after, the security officers began their campaign of arbitrary arrests.

As the Syrian regime intensified its arrest campaign, state-run media framed protesters as terrorists aiming to spread chaos and destroy the country. They intentionally obscured the fact that protesters were simply fed up with the Syrian regime’s oppression, corruption and brutality. They were fed up with being denied their simplest rights as human beings.

I wanted to get the truth out, so I carried my cellphone and documented many of the protests and the sit-ins, publishing my photos and videos on social media. I was arrested for my work for the first time at Umayyad Mosque Square during a massive protest on March 15, 2012 – the first anniversary of the Syrian revolution. The security police found many videos on my cellphone, including footage from the funerals of friends, relatives and many college students who had been killed by the Syrian regime. Many of my friends and university peers were arrested that day.

I was detained for 20 days, during which time I was transferred to many different security branches. At each of these transfers, I was accused of something new and more dangerous. My family has a history of opposing the Syrian regime, and that certainly made my case even worse.

When I was released, I continued to document what was happening on the streets – even though I knew the security police were monitoring me. Two months later, I was arrested again for filming a massive protest at Aleppo University during a visit by international observers.

This time, pro-regime militiamen arrested me.They put me in a car and beat me up all the way to the Baath Party headquarters in Aleppo, where they kept detainees. Luckily, my cellphone was broken during the beating and they could not prove that I was documenting the protests. I was released later that day, after a sit-in at the gate of the party’s headquarters, where protesters demanded the release of those arrested. As soon as we were freed, we joined the sit-in. But this time, because my phone had been broken, I could not take any photos or video.

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I got a digital camera, and devoted all my time to covering the uprising at the university and Aleppo. The hardest part was to keep the regime’s militias and officers from discovering my camera. They were everywhere, sparking horror in people’s hearts.

I moved between the opposition-controlled part of the city and the regime-controlled part every day to attend classes, until January 2013. One day, one of my professors who used to help us organize protests told me that the security police had been surveilling me, and that an officer had come to campus looking for me. A few days later, Aleppo University was targeted by the regime’s air force. I was caught filming the damage in the university’s dorms. Security police officers and pro-regime thugs chased me, but they did not catch me. That was my last day in government-controlled Aleppo, but it is inscribed in my mind and in my heart.

I promised myself to continue with the revolution until I see the entire divided city of Aleppo liberated from the regime. I turned my attention to the eastern, rebel-held side of the city, and documented the arbitrary bombardment of civilians, hospitals and markets. I also documented battles between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regime, and many humanitarian issues in opposition-controlled areas and in camps for internally displaced people near the borders.

In early 2014, my foot and my back were injured when Aleppo’s old quarter was targeted. Due to my injury, I was not able to work for four months, and when I returned, it was too hard for me to be on the front lines.

I joined the Aleppo News Network, and on March 20, 2015 was voted president of the Media Personnel Union in Aleppo and its rural areas. During my time serving as president, I brought many projects to fruition in the city and organized many media training sessions, despite the fact that the regime targeted the union headquarters. I also opened channels of communication with media organizations in Turkey, so they could help Syrian reporters reach the world.

On Feb. 3, 2016 I was injured again while covering battles between the FSA and the regime in northern Aleppo, and was treated in a hospital in Azaz, a city on the Syrian border with Turkey. After healing, I reported on the effects of the harsh winter on Syrian families in the camps, and my photos reached many international media channels.

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There, I also met my 11-year-old friend Rami. He loves photography and dreams of becoming a photographer one day. I had him join me in my photo-reporting in the camps.

I was in al-Ansari neighborhood in Aleppo, documenting the destruction carried out by military aviation strikes, when one of the planes came back and attacked the area again to ensure that no one survived. Civilians, journalists and paramedics were hit. I was injured again, but I was still determined to continue with my work.

I then worked as a freelance photographer for NBC News, and documented the humanitarian situation in the besieged part of Aleppo. I also joined the Center for Documenting Violations in Syria, and worked with their team to record those killed, detained or kidnapped by the Syrian regime, which continues to bomb Aleppo viciously.

I covered many areas, but the closest to my heart has always been the old quarter in Aleppo, which represents Syrian history and our rich heritage. That is why I also worked as a photographer with the Association for the Preservation of Archaeology in Syria, so that we could document all the ancient cultural sites in the city, before the Syrian regime and the Russian air force destroy them.

My dream is to continue my work, and to always carry my camera – it has shared so many great and terrible moments with me.

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