Kholoud Helmi, activist who challenges Syrian regime with journalism
‘Four years ago we started our bid for freedom. Now, all are dead or in prison’, Kholoud Helmi said. She is a journalist and Human Rights Activist who participated in the Syrian Revolution from the beginning, in 2011. She found the best way to face oppression was by creating an underground newspaper, Enab Baladi, which is still being printed and distributed in Syria today.
By Sergio Mañero
Last November, Kholoud Helmi entered a room at Vilnius University. When she started to speak to the audience that gathered there, it was difficult not to notice the tremble of her voice as she described terrible stories about the killing and displacement of Syrians. These stories touch her directly. ‘’Whenever I open my Facebook, I learn that somebody has died. Always‘, said Kholoud.
Kholoud said that she is not only fighting the Bashar al-Ásad regime, but also the institutional paralysis of the International Community. ‘Politicians did nothing for us for six years‘, she said. Although Enab Baladi’s journalists record and document the killings, detailing the names of the victims, and send these records to international organizations like the UN, no political decision has been made. Moreover, there has been an ironic situation whereby the UN distributed aid through the regime.
Kholoud believes that the USA is helping to stop the radicals, but that the country is not facing Russia to stop the killings. According to her, these two countries have the key to peace, but now, ‘they are playing chess-games‘, she said.
The silence of media triggered the creation of Enab Baladi
Before the war, Kholoud was an activist fighting against the al-Ásad regime. The country was being ruled by repression and fear. To illustrate that, she described the case of one woman who cried so much that she went blind, after her son was sent to jail and remained there for 25 years. ‘We wanted fundamental rights, free speech‘ said Kholoud. Then, in 2011, the new winds spreading all over Northern African and Arabic Countries arrived to Syria. The revolution bursted.
Massive numbers of people went to the streets to protest peacefully against the Syrian regime. She, along with thousands of people, went to demonstrations where they gave roses and water to the soldiers that were in charge of security. In that situation, tension was so high, that a massacre could have happened. At that time, the regime was imprisoning everyone who opposed its ideology: ‘If you were a communist, or belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, or opposed the party, you were sent to jail‘, she said.
In April 2011, the army started to repress the demonstration with violence, committing killings. Kholoud was shocked by the silence that had taken possession of the media, ‘as the international media was not allowed to get into the country and national media was telling that nothing had happened‘, she said.
Then, she thought that more than ever Syrian society needed an alternative voice. In 2011, she, along with a group of citizen journalists and activists from Daraya, a Syrian town in the suburbs of Damascus, created a network of reporters inside Syria through personal relations. That is how Enab Baladi was created.
The beginnings were difficult. Two months after the creation of the publication, the government sent rockets to the newspaper’s headquarters, but the journalists survived. Not much later things got worse. The war started. In August 2011, the army went to Daraya. Enab Baladi reported 700 executions of husbands and sons of every house. The army came a second time and 25,000 people were evacuated, settled in camps, without food, medical supplies or water. Among them, were 8,000 newborn children. ‘Nowadays, nobody remains there, everybody went‘ said Khaloud.
Women have a leading role in Syrian resistance, sustaining local structure and negotiating
Kholoud described the current situation of Syrian society as a story of resistance, where women have a leading role. There are groups of organised women all over Syria who are opening centres to help people in the communities. Sometimes, radicals set the centres on fire, but they come back and rebuild them. As Helmi said, they resist because they are respected by the community, that protects them.
These women have a leading role because they are ensuring economical sustainability with their work. ‘Communities respect them because they want to eat and drink‘ Kholoud said. Some women are taking part in the military resistance too, not only fighting, but also nursing and carrying weapons.
According to Helmi, women are taking part in negotiations among the different factions that participate in the Syrian war. She said that there is a difference between the way men and women negotiate. When men negotiate in a patriarchal way, they do it in terms of power. Women, instead, negotiate in terms of survival. She assured that in the chaotic current situation, where there’s no state ruling, the way to preserve Syria is through the survival of local level structure. ‘When governments fall, communities will not’, she said.
‘Bakeries work, children return back to schools… it is not hell, local structures and local projects still work‘, she said. People have learnt to live with fear. Kholoud explained how some parents did not allow their children to play in the streets, as they were afraid of their exposure to bombs. Instead, preferring they play in basements. But when they started to be attacked by special missiles that broke through the ground surface seeking for subterranean shelters, they started to let them play in the street. They realised that it was better letting them to enjoy, as any missile, on and under the ground, could kill them at any moment.
Enab Baladi today is trusted source of information for media around the world
Now, Kholoud is living in Turkey, where she still works for Enab Baladi, which publishes stories written by journalists who still remain in Syria. Enab Baladi publishes the stories in two different channels: one is directed to the international community, through the newspaper’s english version: and the other is published for Syrian public, as one printed version is distributed back in Syria.
Despite all their difficulties, Enab Baladi currently prints around 7,000 copies every week and distributes them secretly in northern parts of Syria (Aleppo and suburbs, Latakia and suburbs, and Idlib and suburbs) and in Turkey to Syrian refugees.
The newspaper has now become a source of information for media around the world and has attracted international attention and recognition. Last year, Kholoud was given the The Anna Politkovskaya Award 2015. This prize honours women human rights defenders from war and conflict zones, and was created to remember the Russian journalist, killed in 2006, who published the atrocities against civilians during the war in Chechnya.
When asked about what we as individuals could do for Syrian people, Kholoud answered with another question: ‘Do you have refugees in Lithuania?‘. She proposed to act at the local level, contributing to their integration in Lithuanian society, through events and cultural campaigns to prevent violence.
Before Kholoud Helmi left the room, she sent a message to the audience that could be also extended to people that are observing the Syrian Human Rights violations as passive spectators: ‘Do not forget Syrians in your prayers. Pressure your government and EU institutions in order to prevent Russian participation‘ Kholoud said. And she added, ‘Millions of refugees want to go back to a free Syria, but if Ásad stays in power or if the radicals take over Syria, they will not go back’. In that scenario, the people supporting freedom in Syria would have lost five years of deaths and resistance.