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‘Death is Always the Hardest Part’ – Q&A with Zein al-Rifai

Britain’s Rory Peck Trust, which honors the best freelance journalists around the world, has given an award to 28-year-old Zein al-Rifai of Aleppo for his coverage of his home city. Syria Deeply spoke to him about his work and the struggles of journalists in Syria’s most dangerous city.

Written by Mais Istanbelli Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Last week, a young Syrian video journalist from Aleppo won an award for his coverage of the violent conflict in his home city.

The Rory Peck Trust, based in London, honored Zein al-Rifai of Aleppo for his videos published with Agence France Presse from the opposition-controlled areas of Syria’s northernmost city between February 2014 and February 2015.

Zein, now 28, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French literature in 2011 and joined the protests against the Syrian government during the early days of the Syrian uprising. He initially started out as a media activist, videotaping protests using his cellphone and posting them to YouTube.

After founding the Aleppo Media Center, he’s been in the streets with a camera ever since, putting himself in great danger to cover the critical moments of the struggle in his steadily crumbling city. In August 2015, he was seriously injured while covering battles between opposition forces and government troops north of Aleppo.

Syria Deeply spoke with Zein over Skype in order to learn more about his work and his life in Aleppo.

Syria Deeply: What was Aleppo like during the first year of the revolution?

Zein al-Rifai: Aleppo was one of the first cities to hold protests, and the demonstrations that took place at Aleppo University were significant, but unfortunately the media did not cover Aleppo at that time and the early protests were not well documented.

Syria Deeply: How did you get involved in media activism?

Zein al-Rifai: A group of activists and myself used to videotape the demonstrations during the early days of the revolution. Later on, when the Free Syrian Army was formed, we met with some of its members and informed them of our plans to establish the Aleppo Media Center. The center was founded in August 2012 and it has since become a mecca for foreign journalists and local activists. It was then, I would say, that my professional career began. My colleagues and friends at the center, like Youssef Siddiq and Aqeel Hussain, who were already well-established professional journalists, supported me and taught me a lot. In the beginning, the center had more than 52 members, but unfortunately it now consists of only 30, since many activists have either been killed or forced to quit for one reason or another.

Syria Deeply: How do you feel about winning the Rory Peck award?

Zein al-Rifai: This award is a source of pride for me and all Syrian activists who have worked hard to help the world see what has been happening in Syria. I’ve dedicated it to all detainees in the regime’s prisons and to all Syrians.

Syria Deeply: So could you tell us about your injury? What happened?

Zein al-Rifai: I was hit by one of the regime’s artillery shells on August 25th of this year, during a battle between the regime and the opposition factions. Both my legs were broken in different places, and my left leg’s bone was crushed. I also had shrapnel in my abdomen. I’ve had five different surgeries— one to extract the shrapnel, three for my left leg, one for my right leg – and I still need more surgery. I am currently in Istanbul, where I’ve been receiving treatment because we lack the equipment and the expertise in Aleppo.

Syria Deeply: What about your family? Where are they?

Zein al-Rifai: I was married five months ago, and we had lived in Aleppo up until recently. We never thought of leaving, until I got injured that is … My family left Aleppo late last year, after the regime intensified its attacks with explosive barrels. But as soon as I’m completely healed, my wife and I are going back to Aleppo.

Syria Deeply: Of all of your coverage in Aleppo over the last few years, what is the most memorable event?

Zein al-Rifai: There are many things. In late 2013, for example, when the regime was bombing Aleppo with explosive barrels, one activist and I headed toward a neighborhood that had just been bombed. When we arrived, another explosive barrel hit the place – only 100 meters from us. It was such a dramatic and confusing moment. The relief crew usually needs at least 10 minutes to arrive and we were there at the moment the barrel landed. I didn’t know whether to do my work as a journalist and document the regime’s crimes or help those who were injured. There were so many injured people, we had no choice but to help until the relief crew arrived.

Syria Deeply: Aleppo has been called one of the most dangerous cities in the world. What is the hardest part of your work as a media activist in the deadly city?

Zein al-Rifai: The constant fear of losing a friend or a family member is the hardest part. All other difficulties are marginal compared to this one. Death is the hardest thing to face.

Syria Deeply: How do you coordinate with the many different opposition factions operating in Aleppo? And what about the fundamentalist factions, like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State?

Zein al-Rifai: We maintain good relationships with most of the opposition factions. We all share the same goal: to liberate Syria from tyranny, but each of us has taken his or her own path to achieve it. Some work in relief aid, others in the educational field and others decided to fight. The civilians, on the other hand, challenge our work sometimes because they worry that having their faces revealed on the Internet might put their lives in danger, if the regime were to regain control over their areas.

We have covered areas controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra in both Aleppo and Idlib. They did not bother us at all. As for ISIS, we try to avoid them as much as possible because there is always the possibility of getting kidnapped or even killed. ISIS’s headquarters is in a neighborhood adjacent to ours. We are always worried, but they have not bothered us so far.

Syria Deeply: Has the situation on the ground changed since the Russian intervention? If so, how?

Zein al-Rifai: The bombing has become more barbaric. Between the regime’s attacks, ISIS’s advancement in the area and the Kurdish separation, the opposition factions have lost power and land. At some point, the opposition factions had liberated more that 80 percent of the city and the rural areas of Aleppo, but now they are back to controlling only about 25 percent. On a personal level, I’ve lost many friends and loved ones because of the regime’s bombardment of Aleppo, while many others have left the country, even my own family. This is always that hardest part.

Syria Deeply: In your opinion, what is missing from the media coverage of the conflict in Syria?

Zein al-Rifai: Local media has covered everything in Aleppo: the destruction, the bombardment and the dead bodies. Western media, on the other hand, in my opinion, does not care about the bigger picture. Many Western media outlets labeled what was happening in Syria as a civil war from the very beginning. As a Syrian who went out in the streets to protest against a dictator, labeling my struggle and my people’s struggle against our oppressor as a civil war made me and all Syrians feel bitter, and it made it harder for Syrians to trust Western media.

We, as journalists working from inside Syria, try our best to cover and document as much as we can, so that our people’s voices are heard and their stories are documented.

Syria Deeply: Would you consider leaving Syria at some point?

Zein al-Rifai: There is a sentence that is written on many walls in Aleppo. It says: “Don’t leave! Everybody is gone.” We are the only voice that Syria has. This war has eaten up everything and someone must continue showing the world what is happening in Syria. I will not leave, even if that means that I might be imprisoned, kidnapped or even killed.

Syria Deeply: Do you think of your future?

Zein al-Rifai: Of course I do, especially now that I have a wife. Now I feel responsible for her. When I am at work, I cannot stop thinking about her and how worried she is about me. That said, when I see the kids playing and laughing despite all the destruction, I feel a little bit better. They provide me with hope and strength.

Syria Deeply: Will there ever be an end to the war in Syria?

Zein al-Rifai: In my opinion, the only way to end the violence in Syria is to get rid of al-Assad. My goal and the goal of all the young men and women who have been active in this revolution is to get rid of both ISIS and the regime. We are now paying for the silence of the older generations, and we will not stop until we make sure that the coming generations live in a free and democratic country.

Top image: Freelance photographer Zein al-Rifai, pictured April 27, 2014 at work among medics rescuing wounded following government airstrikes in Aleppo, was awarded the UK’s Rory Peck Trust award for his coverage. (Photo courtesy of Zeif al-Rifai)

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