Citizen Journalist Killed In Syria

Originally published on July 9, 2013 3:46 pm

Fidaa al-Baali was a trusted source for international journalists.  He used his video camera to document the Syrian war and anti-government protests. Baali died last Friday.

We talk about his contributions, and have an update of the continuing upheaval in his country.

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New York Times “Even as the Syrian war took bigger and bigger bites out of his life, Fidaa al-Baali never stopped trying to document the conflict — not when his brother, a rebel fighter, died in battle; not when security officials, trying to pressure him, arrested his father; not even when the rebel battalion he was embedded with unleashed a mortar attack that killed his fiancée.”


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It's HERE AND NOW. A massive explosion in Lebanon rocked a stronghold neighborhood of the militant group Hezbollah today. Hezbollah backs the government of Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria. That government saw a shakeup this week, as did the opposition, which also saw a grave loss. Fidaa al-Baali died last Friday of injuries suffered a few weeks ago in a battle outside Damascus. He was in his 20s, an anti-government activist who also documented the civil war from a very intimate perspective.

New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard joins us on Skype from Beirut in Lebanon for a look at Fidaa's life and the cause he died for in Syria. And, Anne, you have a lot of Syrian citizen journalists you trusted. What made Fidaa stand out?

ANNE BARNARD: He was one who also shared some of his personal thoughts and doubts. He would talk about things that were frustrating. He talked about a particular tragedy where, you know, like so many Syrians, came face to face with the idea that even if he had started idealistically, this revolution is not completely clean. What happened to him was that he lost his fiance when a battalion that he had been embedded with and covering mortared Damascus indiscriminately and killed her.

YOUNG: Yeah. And this was a group of rebels, again, who he sided with politically, was covering and watched as his fiance was killed. And didn't he post another video in which he's sitting next to his brother, a rebel, who was killed?

BARNARD: Yes. Earlier, he posted a very brief video of himself next to the body, bending down, sort of wordlessly stroking his brother's face and kissing him on the forehead.

YOUNG: Yeah. So he suffered his own losses, and he tried to get people to look at the losses of others. You talk about a time when U.N. observers were coming through and you can see him begging them to pay more attention to the hard-hit areas.

BARNARD: It's a particularly poignant moment because he talks almost like haranguing the official, telling them you have to pay attention. You have to come when things are hot here, not just when the government wants you to come. And they start to seem like they should get out of there. And one to them suddenly steps forward and grabs him and kisses him on the forehead while he's in the middle of talking. And he just pauses with this look of utter surprise, and then he keeps talking. And he keeps talking as they walk away.

YOUNG: Well, and that really struck me. They walk away. Is his death perhaps metaphor for a larger story? His death went largely unnoticed, if not for your article. The Syrian conflict has been pushed off the front pages by Egypt.

BARNARD: Well, I think this is one of the things that we've seen in relationships over time with people in Syria, both opposition members and just regular people and even government supporters; just nobody expected this conflict to be going on for this long and nobody sees their side as being 100 percent good anymore, and people are disappointed that there hasn't been an effective way either to win or to come to a settlement. And I think that people like Fidaa were trying to keep the story on the agenda, and they still are.

And one of the things that's unusual about singling him out is just how very many people there are who are still trying to do what he does. If you will look at YouTube and if you look at The New York Times feature watching Syria's war, there will never be a shortage of people that are doing what he's doing. I think the setback is more that they increasingly feel that it doesn't make a difference. Today, Homs is under intense government attack. The rebels have some strongholds there.

They've been completely destroyed. The people who lived there have largely fled. And there is just a sense that maybe these areas of the city are going to be completely obliterated, and nobody is doing anything about it. I mean there just doesn't seem to be any hope for a cease-fire. There doesn't seem to be any realistic hope for peace talks, and it just continues.

YOUNG: Yeah. And put the recent government shakeups in this context. You have, as you write today, the Syrian government ousting a vice president who maybe criticized the government's handling of the uprising, and at the same time yesterday, a leader of the opposition's interim government resigned. That, as you write, was a setback for the main exile opposition group.

BARNARD: Well, I was talking to one political analyst who jokes that it was two equally irrelevant bodies shuffling their leadership. The exile opposition leadership is - continues to be divorced from the people, like Fidaa, on the ground who were suffering and dying, to some extent, they ignore the shuffling of the death chairs within the opposition. On the other side, the case in the Syrian government, the vice president hasn't been ejected from his post, but he has been removed from the regional command of the Baath Party, which is the ruling party in Syria.

He has said that the government is not going to be able to win this one militarily. Now, in fact, the government right now does seem to be taking a hard line pressing for the military solution, and perhaps they thought this was a time to take away his symbolic pulpit as a member of the highest ranks of the Baath Party.

YOUNG: Yeah. So a hardening perhaps on the government side, as they do seem to be gaining the upper hand militarily, helped by Hezbollah, the militants from Lebanon. Do you draw a line from the bombing in the Hezbollah neighborhood today in Lebanon to Hezbollah's backing of the Assad government in Syria?

BARNARD: Well, leaders here in Lebanon have urged people not to jump to conclusions and fuel the sectarian and political divisions here. But there has been a longstanding fear that Hezbollah would face attacks over its role in the Syrian conflict. It seemed like an attempt to hit right at the heart of Hezbollah, but no one has claimed responsibility. And, in fact, Hezbollah and its supporters were quick to say that this was done by Israel.

They have claimed that the Syrian rebels are effectively allied with Israel. So it's almost as if the Lebanese don't want to look at the possibility that this could be a Sunni-Shia divide within Lebanon. That's almost too scary to discuss.

YOUNG: Well, as you remind us how complicated it is, it makes it even sadder when we think of one young 20-something who was trying to affect change when it just seems like there are just so many more elements than any one person can deal with.

BARNARD: That's right. And actually, he had started out as a very cheerful guy who would always be joking. And in his last conversations with my colleague, he became more and more grim, and he would say things like, we have nothing but our fellow rebels and God. And even after his fiance was killed, he was speechless, which was uncharacteristic for him. He said, I - the people I trusted my life with have now killed my fiance. I just don't know what to say.

YOUNG: Yeah. That's Anne Barnard, New York Times Beirut bureau chief, helping us to understand the passing of Fidaa al-Baali, a citizen journalist in the Syrian opposition who died from shrapnel wounds. Anne, thank you so much.

BARNARD: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: A very dispiriting conversation. We're going to take a break. When we come back, Jeremy's going to speak with an author who wants young people to still think about social change using the Internet. That's in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.