You may not have heard — but Bashar al-Assad has just been reelected president of Syria with 95 percent of the vote. Syrian politics is getting more competitive, Waad al-Kateab notes. When she was a girl, Assad won with more like 97 percent.
Sometimes gallows humor is the only humor available. Waad al-Kateab is a Syrian journalist and filmmaker in exile, working for Channel 4 News in London. She can laugh at Assad’s “reelection,” but it still galls. For example, the dictator went to the town of Douma to cast his “vote.” Douma was a bastion of opposition to him, before he bombed the town into submission, with chemical weapons as well as conventional.
Bashar al-Assad has ruled Syria since 2000. He succeeded his father, Hafez, who had ruled since 1970. You have to be about 60 to remember a Syria not ruled by one of these two men.
Until earlier this year, Cuba had been ruled by two Castros since 1959. How long will that dictatorship last, helmed by others? North Korea has been ruled by three Kims — grandfather, son, and grandson — since 1948.
For a few years after the current horrors in Syria began — in 2011 — that country was a great world concern. But world concern is hard to sustain. Shock wears off, the news seems repetitive, and the world is ready to move on.
Also, if people, or governments, are unwilling to do something about a problem — or think a problem is untreatable — they would probably rather not hear about it. In fact, they may get angry, when they hear about it. (I have seen this on more than one occasion.)
What many human-rights advocates face is apathy, and a sense of futility. Also the irritation of those who would rather not be bothered.
But on the matter of futility, specifically: Syria is not ravaged by earthquakes, hurricanes, or other natural phenomena, as Waad al-Kateab points out. It is ravaged by a dictatorship. Cannot men restrain it, dislodge it?
Let’s glance at the grim statistics. Before the war, Syria’s population was 22 million. Since 2011, between 500,000 and 600,000 people have been killed. About 12 million have been displaced. Roughly half of these have fled abroad, and the other half have been displaced internally. Abroad, a million refugee children have been born.
At home, an estimated 2.1 million civilians have been injured, some severely and permanently. This is not to mention all the rape, torture, psychosis, poverty, and starvation. Along with North Korea — a perennial — Syria is pretty much the most battered place on earth.
In my experience, Syrians are loath to refer to the war as a “civil war,” and Waad al-Kateab is no exception. She sees a revolution, a popular uprising, put down savagely by the dictatorship. Plus, she notes the international nature of the war: Russia is fighting alongside the government, and so is Iran.
Waad says something almost wry: You would think that, if the world’s governments didn’t mind the bombing and killing of Syrians, they would at least mind the Russian interference.
“Waad al-Kateab” is a pseudonym, adopted to protect the journalist’s family in Syria. She recently spoke at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy (an annual event sponsored by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations). I spoke with her via Zoom.
She was born in January 1991. In 2009, when she was 18, she moved to Aleppo, to study at the university there. Little could she have known that “siege of Aleppo” would enter the world’s vocabulary in coming years. She studied economics and marketing. What was her dream, her aspiration?
The same as other Syrians’, she says: to get out of the country and restart life elsewhere. She was taking German classes, with this aim in mind. There was no hope in Syria, she says, no opportunity. Corruption was endemic, along with dictatorship. You simply had to leave.
But then the revolution started, in March 2011. Suddenly, says Waad, she and others had a purpose. “For the first time, I felt like a human being, like someone who mattered.” It was possible to have a dream in Syria, and for Syria: one of freedom and dignity. “For the first time, we felt that we belonged to our country. Before, we hated Syria, and we even hated ourselves. We were just thinking about how we could leave.”
When she was growing up, kids were told, “Be careful what you say. Even the walls have ears.” (A North Korean refugee, Yeonmi Kim, told me that, when she was four, her mother admonished her, “Don’t even whisper. The birds and mice will hear you.”) Syria was a “republic of fear,” to borrow Kanan Makiya’s description of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In school, kids were taught that Bashar al-Assad was immortal, destined to rule over them forever.
In exile, Waad al-Kateab visited a Holocaust museum, and saw what German schools had been like: Children were made to honor and hail the Führer. “This is something we have lived through,” she says. “Even now, they have to do this every morning. Students cheer for the leader, saying, ‘We are his sons and daughters,’ ‘We are his soldiers.’”
When the Siege of Aleppo began, in 2012, Waad started to film: her own life, and life around her. (Life and death.) Why? To document. To record reality.
When there were protests, the regime denied that there had been protests. When people were killed, the regime denied that anyone had been killed. And so on and so forth.
Waad and other activists wanted to document everything, even to reassure themselves: Yes, this is really happening, before our very eyes.
Waad has great admiration for her countrymen. If government agents arrested 50 people at a protest one day, there would be 100 protesting the next. If they arrested 100, there would soon be 1,000. Waad has a strong sense of national pride.
Eventually, she reported on the conflict for Channel 4 in Britain, working as a citizen journalist. This was during the siege itself. Now, as you know, she works for the network as an exile in London.
She married a doctor, Hamza. Their first daughter, Sama, was born in 2015. Their second, Taima, was born in 2017. “Sama” means “sky,” and “Taima” refers to a deep, fervent love. (It’s hard to translate, says Waad.) “Waad,” incidentally, means “promise.”
As government forces and their Russian partners bore down on Aleppo at the end of 2016, Waad and her family had to flee the country, like so many others. They had withstood shelling for five years, says Waad. She didn’t mind being killed. That would have been a “privilege,” she says — compared with being arrested. They do things like torture you in front of your family.
“We were fine to be attacked and bombed and shelled; we were not fine to be arrested.” This is how Waad puts it.
She spent a year and a half in Turkey, before gaining asylum in Britain.
She had 500 hours of film, from Aleppo. Out of these 500 hours, she made a 95-minute documentary: For Sama. She did so with a veteran documentarian, Edward Watts. For Sama tells the story of the siege, and manifold stories within the general story. This film is not for the fainthearted or weak-stomached. Neither is Syria.
For Sama and Waad al-Kateab have won a slew of awards. The documentary won the top prize in its category at the Cannes Film Festival, and also at the British Academy Film Awards. It was nominated for an Oscar, but that prize was awarded to a different documentary, American Factory.
Waad runs an “advocacy campaign” called “Action for Sama.” It gets the public’s attention, or tries to, with simple messages such as “Stop Bombing Hospitals.” That seems very little to ask. The Assad regime and its foreign partners, chiefly Russia, make a practice of bombing health facilities. This is one of the most dispiriting of all bombings, if you can rank them.
I ask Waad a question I have asked many who have seen and experienced nightmarish things: How do you keep your sanity? She says, in essence, that she can’t entertain the question: It would break faith with those who have died in the struggle. Given their sacrifice, how can she think of her own state of mind? Sometimes she breaks down, yes — but then she gets back up and keeps working. She has a cause to be faithful to: the cause of the liberation of Syria from the grip of dictatorship.
She mentions that we are speaking on the anniversary of the death of Bassel Shehadeh. He was a young Syrian filmmaker who had won a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States. He was at Syracuse University. But he returned to Syria after the revolution started, not wanting to be apart from this cause. He was killed in 2012, in a bombing of the city of Homs.
Does Waad al-Kateab feel safe abroad? She is a major foe of the regime, a public figure — and someone who embarrasses the regime. She mentions that Russian agents have poisoned people, even on British soil. But her attitude is a mixture of defiance and indifference.
“Personally, I kind of, like, don’t care. For sure, I don’t want to be killed, and don’t want harm to my family. But . . .” But what? Here is the answer: Waad lived through five years of constant bombing, with death and horror all around her. From the first day of the revolt, the Assad dictatorship has wanted people like her to keep their mouths shut. This, she cannot give them, no matter the cost.
She notes something about the Syrian diaspora. At home, the government has taken care to fan divisions: ethnic and religious divisions, tribes against tribes, and sub-tribes against sub-tribes. The Syrians abroad feel unified, bound together by a common experience and a common cause.
In Syria, there are many heroes, starting with the “White Helmets,” the nickname for the members of the Syria Civil Defense, who do what they can to help people, particularly after bombings. They try to rescue people from the rubble. Sometimes they are bombed as they attempt the rescue. And they are the subject of constant propaganda, from Damascus and Moscow.
As kids elsewhere think of Superman, Spiderman, and Batman, says Waad al-Kateab, Syrian kids — and not just kids — think of the White Helmets. Only the White Helmets are real. Indeed, says Waad, one of the reasons she stayed in Aleppo for as long as she did — until the last possible second — was the knowledge that the White Helmets stood by, “to try their best to get me out of the rubble, for example.”
There are also others: “doctors, nurses, even normal grocers, who try to keep life going.” Teachers, retreating to basements as the bombs fall, trying to teach children something, regardless. They too are “trying to keep life going,” says Waad. This is the quiet, everyday — and largely unknown — heroism in Syria.
Waad is doing all she can, in exile, trying to rally support for her country, trying to draw attention to its plight. She hopes to go back, when Bashar al-Assad is no longer in power. When he faces a “fair and just trial,” she says. Once, she dreamed of leaving; now she dreams of returning.