The “Gang Of Girls” Risks Their Lives To Report From Inside A War Zone
Amid the rubble of Syria, a band of women are risking prison, or worse, to report, write, and edit the civil war’s paper of record.
Kholoud Waleed* was startled awake by the sound of the front door being kicked in. Suddenly, her family’s apartment in Darayya, a prosperous suburb outside of Damascus, was filled with Syrian government soldiers shouting, “This is the house!” It was the spring of 2012. Waleed’s family—her father, mother, three brothers, and their wives and children—stumbled sleepily from their bedrooms and huddled together in the living room as soldiers rifled through drawers. Waleed was certain they had come for her.
A petite, soft-spoken 29-year-old with an English literature degree, she is a co-founder of the underground newspaper Enab Baladi, and one of only a handful of journalists left in a rapidly disintegrating Syria. The foreign press and aid workers had largely been barred from the country, and those who sneaked back in risked assassination at the hands of Bashar al-Assad loyalists or by ISIS and other radical Islamic gangs filling the vacuum. Amid the anarchy, most international news organizations kept their correspondents on the borders, and real news was hard to get.
In response, Waleed and a circle of 20-odd friends who’d met during the protests had started an underground newspaper to help inform Syrians, and anyone else who wanted to know, about the government’s atrocities. They swore one another to secrecy, wrote under pseudonyms, and filed stories on Facebook (many Syrians now get their news from the social media platform; Enab Baladi‘s Facebook page has 333,000 likes), using software to mask their computers’ IP addresses. These days the paper has a website that gets 200,000 hits a month, but in the beginning it had to be hand delivered, at night. Women were couriers, as they were less likely than men to be stopped and searched.
Waleed watched the soldiers disappear down the corridor to her bedroom, where 100 copies of Enab Baladi—which means “grapes of my country,” a reference to the vines that once grew abundantly in the gardens of Darayya—were stuffed under the frame of her twin bed. There was also a flag of the revolution. If the soldiers found this, she was sure they’d execute the family on the spot.
“At least let us go and cover ourselves,” she said as she stood in her pajamas, her dark hair loose around her shoulders. The commander nodded, and she fetched a hijab from her room—and checked to see if her bed had been touched by the soldiers. It had not. Waleed could barely breathe.
“We are looking for the student at Damascus University,” one of the soldiers said, and it was then that she realized they weren’t after her. They wanted her 23-year-old brother Mohammed, who’d been helping aid organizations deliver food and medical supplies to areas under siege by the regime. “It’s me,” she said, hoping to spare her brother.
“We know it is a man,” the soldier said. After a few eternal seconds, Mohammed stepped forward. They took his laptop and many other items, including Waleed’s watch. One of the armed men turned to her mother. “We’re going to kill him,” he said simply. Then they dragged Mohammed through the door.
“We’re the gang of girls. [Assad] would kill us, but he can’t find us,” Waleed says. The “gang of girls” she refers to are her colleagues at Enab Baladi; a little more than half the staff are women. Many of them are now refugees, in Turkey and Lebanon, and the rest are in hiding in Syria—reporting over sporadic Internet connections, giving new and urgent meaning to the phrase working remotely.
“To be a journalist in Syria is one of the most dangerous professions in the world,” says Sherif Mansour of the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists, himself a reader of Enab Baladi. Of the 24 founding staff members, three top editors have been killed in separate attacks. Eight reporters have been detained and tortured, and 12 have fled the country. In Waleed’s birthplace, Darayya, 75 percent of the population has been displaced. By the beginning of 2015, an estimated 200,000 people had been killed in the Syrian civil war, many of them civilians. The government has been accused of gassing entire towns, suffocating thousands. An ancient country famous for its Mediterranean coastline, medieval castles, and relics dating back to the Babylonian period is in ruins.
But Gaziantep, Turkey, where Waleed and other Enab Baladi staffers are holed up, is full of its own perils. More than a quarter million Syrian refugees have poured into this border town since the civil war began. A city of covered bazaars and wandering tea sellers and the domain over the centuries of the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, and Ottomans, Gaziantep has increasingly become a staging ground for all those trying to get into or away from Syria: ISIS jihadis, rebel fighters, arms contractors, U.S. intelligence operatives. Like a black hole, the civil war keeps expanding, sucking in anyone at its edges.
In the ensuing void of order and information, Enab Baladi has become one of the most prominent independent publications of the war. That it’s largely female-staffed is extraordinary. Women are barely represented in the government or in opposition groups—and certainly not in the Islamist gangs that control large swaths of the country. Yet the female editors and reporters have driven deeper coverage of how war affects civilians, families, and day-to-day life for millions of Syrians. “Women have been a big part of Enab Baladi since the beginning, and most say it’s their resilience that’s kept the paper going,” says Jawad Sharbaji, a man and one of the publication’s veteran editors. “They have easier access inside people’s homes, and they can travel more easily and get to places where men cannot go.”
The staff produces 7,000 hard copies twice a month, printed in Turkey; 5,000 of them are distributed in Turkey and 2,000 smuggled into Syria. (Readers often burn the paper as soon as they’ve read it, for fear of being caught with it.) Enab Baladi has an e-mail distribution list of about 1,000: Subscribers include foreign correspondents, fixers who work for such major news organizations as the BBC andThe New York Times, Middle East specialists at think tanks and in the U.S. government, and workers at aid organizations. For years the paper was all-volunteer, but the U.S. Agency for International Development recently began helping fund it through a grant administered by one of its subcontractors, so now there is a small amount of money to pay staff.
“It’s impossible to get news out of Syria,” says Mariam Jalabi, director of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ Representative Office to the United Nations, a leading opposition group. “Even when we call family members, they can’t speak [freely], because they are fearful the phones are tapped. Enab Baladi has become an important news source for us.”
“This is my command center,” Waleed says. She’s the news editor of the paper, but this is not much of a newsroom. It’s her bedroom, in the rental house she shares with other refugees on the outskirts of Gaziantep. She is driven by the hope that history will credit the reporting she and her staff are doing. “Many times I lose my optimism,” she says, perched on a twin bed with flowery sheets; one dangling, exposed bulb lights the room. “But being pessimistic is like a crime against the friends I have lost.”
She flips open her laptop and checks her two cell phones. Her eyes dart back and forth as she toggles among Facebook Chat, WhatsApp, Skype, and Trello to check the status of her reporters, seven in all. It’s 10 p.m., and she will edit through the night. During the day she works as a translator for a Syrian- relief nongovernmental organization to earn money for her family.
With a pretty, round face framed by her hijab, and a predilection in her former existence for pink scarves and designer handbag knockoffs, Waleed can barely believe the turn her life has taken since 2011, when she was a recent college graduate teaching in an elementary school, the child of liberal-minded parents—her mother worked as a schoolteacher, her father as a calligrapher—who supported her ambition to attend university and work.
Here is how it all began. It was early 2011, and Arab Spring uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt were shaking the Middle East. Waleed and her girlfriends joined the crowds of hundreds of thousands forming across Syria, singing the anthem of the revolution, the title of which translates as “Come On, Bashar, Leave.” They used Twitter and Facebook to coordinate more rallies, calling for democratic re- forms and expecting that the government—which over the past 40 years had built up one of the world’s worst human rights records, crushing dissent, torturing prisoners, detaining and spying on critics, fostering endemic corruption, and creating widespread poverty—would fall or make concessions under pressure from the international community.
But their calculations were wrong, and backing from the United States was weak. The Assad regime immediately cast the protesters as dangerous Islamists and foreign terrorists. Within weeks of the first demonstrations, government tanks rolled into city centers, opening fire on the people. Journalists and artists were detained or killed. The man rumored to have written “Come On, Bashar, Leave” was found dead in a river, his vocal cords ripped out. Assad controlled the airwaves, which spouted only propaganda. Worse would come: Over the next year, as the resistance militarized in response, rebel groups formed, and weapons from neighboring countries flooded the streets. Civil society began to dissolve; gangs formed, and women were driven into their homes for fear of being abducted or raped.
The staff of Enab Baladi was dedicated to nonviolent civil disobedience and to documenting the catastrophic losses, and through friends they recruited reporters from across the country. There was Jenin, in her late twenties, writing from downtown Damascus, and Leyan and Hannah, both mothers in their early forties, sending in eyewitness accounts from cities in the north. With Waleed in Darayya was her friend Judi, an outspoken activist in her thirties. Throughout the summer of 2012 Syria continued to spiral into greater violence. Often Waleed stayed up all night, writing and editing articles about the atrocities of the day, but also about how Syrian women were starting schools in their homes, crossing enemy lines to try to negotiate cease-fires, and learning to administer first aid. Women’s active roles in mediating conflict were all but ignored by the mainstream press—and contrasted sharply with the public face of the war, which was all male aggression. “What we were doing was more powerful than a bullet or a bomb,” says Sharbaji. Indeed, the regime soon caught wind of the paper, and Waleed learned that detainees were being interrogated about it.
One morning in late August, she was having breakfast at her family’s apartment in Darayya when the house shook. She rushed to the balcony to see her neighbors pouring into the alley. Minutes later, in almost the same location, there was another explosion. Waleed had grown accustomed to the occasional sound of rockets or mortars landing, as the rebels were hiding close by, on farms in the outskirts of the city. This was different. The shelling intensified, and the next morning the Waleed family fled to a relative’s apartment, but as they arrived, a mortar hit the building, sending them all sprawling. The city was under attack. They ran for their cars, driving to the home of a family friend outside of town.
For the next three days, one of the worst massacres of the Syrian war took place inside Darayya. According to reporting from Enab Baladi, which still had staffers there, the regime’s soldiers sealed off all roads entering and exiting the city shortly before mortars landed.
Then, according to first-person accounts reported by Enab Baladi, soldiers went door to door, lining up men in mosques and shooting them execution style and burning homes and schools. In one particularly gruesome example, neighbors told Waleed that they’d found an entire family dead in their basement, where they had presumably been hiding. During the rampage, Waleed stayed out in the country, along with 100 others sleeping side by side in a crowded house. With no electricity or Internet access, she had no idea of the whereabouts of her team. This was the only time Enab Baladimissed an edition.
As soon as the violence eased, Waleed, Sharbaji, and other staff began reporting what they saw. They spoke to doctors in hospitals and visited morgues and freshly dug graves. Photos published in the paper showed a trench filled with dozens of the dead, with flowers placed on top of the pile of bodies. Waleed and others filed stories about women who were raped, then forced into arranged marriages or killed by distraught family members who couldn’t bear the shame. They collected reports from inside government detention centers, where some of the worst abuses took place, including sexual attacks and humiliation of women.
Enab Baladi‘s articles spared no one, exposing the brutality of the rebel fighters, the looters, and the government. In a recent article, a teenager from Aleppo confessed to joining one of the sectarian Shia gangs that had sprung up in the lawlessness of the war and to raping and killing Sunni girls, often in front of their families.
Eventually Enab Baladi earned enemies on all three of its editors, all men, were killed in separate incidents. Waleed’s colleague Judi was stopped at a checkpoint, where police confiscated her video camera and phone and imprisoned her on suspicion of working for Enab Baladi. Waleed, who knew her number and contact information were in Judi’s cell phone, turned off her own phone and destroyed its SIM card to avoid having her location traced. As she and other editors discussed on Facebook and Skype what their next move should be, two more female reporters were arrested and accused of working for the paper. Waleed and her family agreed that she had to leave immediately. She packed her bags and drove to the Lebanese border. It was the beginning of a six-month odyssey in which she shuttled among Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan before finally finding refuge in Turkey, where her family joined her. She realizes it may be years before she returns to Darayya, if ever.
Last January Waleed traveled to the United States and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and while in Cambridge she participated in the Institute for Inclusive Security’s 16th annual colloquium honoring women leaders from high-conflict parts of the world. It was the first time she’d left the Middle East. The IIS is a prestigious think tank, and Waleed spoke at the conference and sat alongside women leaders from Nigeria to Myanmar to Pakistan, many of whom had lost family to conflict and lived under death threats. But you won’t find any mention of her in the press materials for the event. She asked the organizers not to use her name. She still holds out hope that her brother is alive in prison; if she assumes too large a public profile, she worries, he’ll be tortured or killed. She has not heard from or of Mohammed since the night the Syrian soldiers took him away.
And even in Cambridge Massachusetts, she continues to work remotely. Each evening, after spending her day sitting on panels with diplomats and senators, Waleed went back to her hotel room, opened her laptop, and began editing the latest batch of articles for Enab Baladi.
Filmed and directed by Chloe Fairweather; Executive Producer Christina Asquith
* The names of the Enab Baladi staff interviewed or mentioned in this article have been changed or abridged to protect their identities.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ELLE.