Risking her life to run an undercover newspaper from within Syria, we're completely in awe of Kholoud Waleed...
Sometimes somebody comes along and makes you sit up straight in your seat, lift your eyes from your phone screen and make a noise in the back of your throat that’s half ‘wow’, and half a four-letter-long swearword which rhymes with ‘duck’.
It doesn’t happen very often. It happened for Malala, (because obviously – it’s Malala). And it happened for Amber Amour, who live-blogged her rape, because she was so tired of feeling like it was something she needed to feel ashamed of.
And now it’s happening for 31-year-old Kholoud Waleed, too.
The co-founder of underground Syrian newspaper Enab Baladi, Kholoud (that’s a pseudonym, by the way) began risking her life in 2012, when she and a group of female friends decided to start reporting on the violence taking place across their home country. As an English Literature graduate, she was working as a teacher, and had no experience of journalism – but the foreign press was leaving by the day, and the Syrian media was being shut down. Kholoud felt like she had no choice.
Undercover and in danger of being caught at any moment, Kholoud and her friends began gathering stories. They talked to neighbours and family members to find out what was happening in other parts of the country. They checked Facebook to see which towns were under siege – and who was attacking which cities. And together, they created Enab Baladi – meaning ‘Grapes of my Country’ – printing hundreds of copies in secret and distributing them carefully: aware that if they were stopped, they’d likely be killed on the spot.
‘We lost many friends,’ Kholoud explains – adding that in the space of three years, three of the newspapers’ male editors have been killed, and another three reporters placed in detention. She tried to stay in Syria, but after it became increasingly likely that she’d be caught, she fled to Turkey – continuing her role as Editor from her bedroom across the border.
‘If we stop, no one is going to care about the little stories, about amazing people surviving the war,’ she explained this week, in an interview with Reuters. ‘If we stop, no history will be recorded, and only the loud voices will be heard – the voices of the most powerful, whether it’s the regime or the extremists. If we stop, no one is going to hear the voice of the vulnerable.’
Now operating largely online (and with a facebook group of over 600,000), Enab Baladi continues to produce 7000 hard copies every month – distributing 5000 in Turkey, and smuggling 2000 back into Syria. Readers are so fearful of being caught with it, it’s not uncommon for them to set fire to the pages as soon as it’s finished, but refugees across Europe continue to read its website faithfully – explaining that since their families are so fearful of their phones being tapped, this is the only means they have to find out what’s actually going on.
Meanwhile in Syria, the team remains largely female – in part, believes Kholoud, because women face less day-to-day danger of being stopped in the street. But it’s also because the war has left Syria’s population depleted, and 70 per cent of those who remain are the mothers, sisters and wives of refugees and soldiers.
Either way, her reporters continue to ask questions, take photographs, and file copy using VPN software to disguise their IP addresses.
And Kholoud continues to risk her life to publish it.
Kholoud won the Raw In War 2015 Anna Politskovskaya award at WOW festival this weekend. You can find out more about the award here.