Interview

“The feeling in Syria is that we are going to be in war forever”

Zaina Erhaim

Syrian reporter and activist

Zaina Erhaim.
Zaina Erhaim. Author: Antonio García Iglesias.
Zaina Erhaim risks her life as she suffers censorship and repression from the Syrian regime to provide the world a first-hand version of the civil war in her country. After completing an MA in International Journalism in London, just when the conflict broke out, Erhaim went back to Aleppo to train one hundred people, mostly women, to turn them into conflict reporters. Now she is the Institute for War and Peace Reporting Syria project coordinator, and has published her work in the BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, Newsweek, Eye Middle East, Orient TV, Al-Hayat and Syria-News, a task for which she has achieved international praise and several awards.

Nationalia: You have trained a lot of people in the past years into the world of journalism. In what sense do you think that it has most importantly contributed to the empowerment of women in Syria?

Zaina Erhaim: Well, I wish I could have trained more people… In terms of empowering women, for example, there is this woman called Hadia. She has five kids. She had never written before, not even a diary, before attending the training. She was really excited about the training, she was actually brilliant and she did a great piece at the end of the course. Then she started to write for our Damascus Bureau website. Her husband got kicked out of his job because he couldn’t go to the regime’s area to get his salary, so he started encouraging her as she had become the person financially supporting her family. She was very active, we couldn’t even cope with the amount of stories she was sending, so I introduced her to a radio and TV channel, so she started writing for their websites. She won an award from a woman’s magazine and, currently, she is writing at least for three or four different websites and magazines. She passed the training to another 15 women, and those who are trained by her are also writing for our website. I believe Hadia is a determined person, she only needed a chance and I was able and happy to offer her that. She is empowered and what is so great about her is that she is also trying to help other women to get also empowered by following her path.

N: It has been known that some women are also reporting from territories controlled by the Islamic State. How do they manage to do their work and share information in such areas?

Z. E.: All the women that I trained and worked with who were living in ISIS territories left, none is still there. We only had one woman blogger who was working for us, but I’m not communicating with her anymore for her safety.

N: The position of women may depend a lot on what territory of Syria we speak about. For instance, their legal status within the Kurdish region has improved through the last years. In 2014, some practices such as the female gender mutilation were outlawed. We have also seen that they have organized themselves to confront ISIS, contributing in the rescue of the Yazidis in Mount Sinjar or playing a leading role in the defence of Kobanê.

Z. E.: From the general, the very general picture, and not an insider point of view, I believe the Kurdish women are empowered, because they are powerful. They have been given equal legal rights, but, at the same time, I think their authorities are also violating human rights. They are dragging them to military service against their will, even while they are minors. We are hearing lots of stories about that... I wouldn’t call that empowering or an achievement on women’s rights. We’ve heard also lots of activists’ detentions and that they have been shutting down broadcasting in different local languages… If any authority is violating human rights, I wouldn’t consider them caring about women’s rights.

«If the end is Al-Assad staying in power, we will not have reconciliation at all because the main cause of all this mess is he still being in power »

N: Part of the complexity of the Syrian conflict is related to the huge diversity of peoples and religious groups sharing the territory. To what extent do you have hope in achieving the solution for these breaches between groups? Do you think that reconciliation is possible in the future?

Z. E.: It depends. If the end is [Syrian president] Bashar [Al-Assad] staying in power, we will not have reconciliation at all because the main cause of all this mess is he still being in power. I think that even if the rebels took over the country at some point, we wouldn’t be having a reconciliation because the minorities who supported the regime won’t be able to defend themselves, because they stood with the regime until the very end and they accepted all the atrocities that he was committing. If somehow a miracle happened and we could find some kind of political solution, and the very big leaders and warlords were taken to the International Criminal Court, then, only then, I think we could count on the local NGOs to do this filling of the gaps between ethnicities and groups, and then we could hope to be able to still live together in peace.

N: The popular feeling, in general, among these ethnic groups, is of possible tolerance?

Z. E.: No... you can’t tolerate people that are killing you. The feeling is that we are going to be in war forever.

N: So what is your feeling as regards future generations?

Z. E.: Right now, the young ones are seeing the fathers of other young guys bombing them. This is what they are witnessing, and this is also what their families are telling them. They are pretty much isolated, they don’t have people from other ethnicities in school to communicate with, no common ground or communication. They only receive bombs from these people on the other side. We, our generation, had classmates from different groups and we had some kind of connection and base, but for the next generation if the problem is not solved really quickly –because the “war generation” are becoming teenagers– and it continues, it will be much worse.

N: Within Syria, for example in your hometown Idlib, a Christian Arab community exists, which has been reported to have links with the current Syrian government and its elite, that it has provided them with arms; but, that at the same time, some Christian Arab voices have claimed to avoid taking sides in the conflict. According to your experience, what are the current dynamics regarding them?

Z. E.: It happened in some areas. I think this is the main strategy for the regime since the beginning. Many didn’t want to go into war, they just wanted peace and to live with their neighbours. But Bashar kept threatening the two parties, telling each of them that the other was planning to attack, fuelling this war. They armed the minorities under this strategy, which meant a declaration of war for the majorities. He used those groups and he is still using them to lead this war and, by inviting Hezbollah and all those Iraqi Shia militias, he is turning the war more and more into a Shia vs Sunni conflict, which is what he wanted from the very beginning.

N: Is there a general awareness about all those strategies?

Z. E.: Even if they know, on the ground they are still seeing these groups getting arms and attacking them. So even if they know the regime is the one providing those arms, even if you are aware that they are the regime’s tools, they are still the ones you see killing you and your beloved ones.

N: So does that mean that there is a really low chance for forgiveness?

Z. E.: I don’t know, but it also depends on how the conflict ends. Maybe if they saw Al-Assad and all other criminals be taken to court they might be able to say, okay we will forgive for the sake of our country. But if those people ran away or they were kept in power, it is going to be impossible.

N: Refugees who manage to settle into new places face discrimination and insecurity after having suffered a lot during their whole journey. Taking also into account all the criticism that the EU refugee quotas have received, it sometimes seems that for a large Western population it is difficult to acknowledge that refugees are basically running away from an oppressive dictatorship, from jihadists and from bombs that are also thrown by Western powers. Where do you think this lack of empathy is coming from? Or fostered by whom? Are the media playing a big role in fuelling this image?

Z. E.: The media are playing a huge role in that. Some very unique journalists try to put faces to the refugees. Only that makes a real difference in the people’s conception. We all know that, when they started publishing stories of refugees, how much impact they made, and this is only because they were not speaking about numbers, but about their own personal stories that we all humans can relate to.

«The war against ISIS did nothing but to help turning the conflict more aggressive »

In Germany they have started some theatre between German and Syrian actors. Such things would really help to fill this gap. But refugees are still thrown into camps in very poor conditions. They are kept separated from the world, isolated, with language and culture barriers; obviously the product from media will be reports on how aggressive they get sometimes –which is also understandable, as they are running away from bombs and terrorists, they are traumatized, rejected and left alone, and we haven’t been raised or taught to be nice under such conditions.

N: What do you think about the performance of Western countries in Syria? And of Russia and Iran?

Z. E.: They are not performing. Who is performing?

N: Well, they do. Maybe in a negative way.

Z. E.: Well, when they decide to act, they just bomb, which is the easiest thing. But, bombing whom? And what for? I think the [US-led] coalition has been bombing Syria for three years. Russia has been doing so for one year now, so it seems that whenever [Russian president Vladimir Putin] gets angry or his wife burns the cooking he would just go and bomb Syria. What for? You are just killing civilians, you are scaring them out, you are fuelling refugee waves, and not even accepting them in your countries… Specially the US, the main player. They decided to bomb, they killed civilians, the war against ISIS did nothing but to help turning the conflict more aggressive, and they are not dealing with the consequences, they are not helping refugees, they are not willing to take refugees into their countries, they are refusing all kinds of visas, they are not treating activists well, whenever you are flying to their airports they will interrogate you for a couple of hours, even if you are someone that has worked for a company based in their country for many years…

N: Exactly this has actually happened to you lately…

Z. E.: Yes! And it is frustrating! But I’m kind of used to it, I’m kind of surprised when I pass easily. I passed the Barcelona airport really easily… And I was like, “Are you sure you are not gonna interrogate me?”. For me that was a really good thing, they just saw that I have a visa, they stamped my passport and that’s all!

N: Do you think that the fact that they cancelled your US visa, or that you found out in Heathrow Airport (UK) that your passport was reported as “stolen”, is due to a direct influence coming from Bashar Al-Assad’s government?

Z. E.: The visa issue is related to the governments themselves, because they are now treating all Syrians as potential terrorists. But seizing my passport was clearly, as the officer told me, upon a request done by my government.

N: And how did you solve this?

Z. E.: I haven’t… I don’t have my passport back yet, and I don’t know if I will have it back. I was supposed to go back to Turkey, but I have to go back to the UK because I might be captured by the Turkish authorities since I don’t have my exit stamp, which is on my seized passport. A couple organizations, including Reporters Without Borders and Index, are trying to do something for me. It’s really complicated, what the UK has done was the last hit on my face. They got a report from a criminal regime against a recognized journalist, who has done her master’s degree in London with a scholarship from the UK and who has also worked for the BBC. My company is currently based in the UK, so I am used to go in and out of the country twice or three times a year… They completely know everything about me.

«Al-Assad gave Syria to Putin on a golden plate. They have signed treaties where Al-Assad was really selling Syria to the Russians.»

N: Western media tend to provide a good image of the US-led coalition intervening in Syria, but nevertheless it is also true that their bombings have hit civilian areas. Has this come as a surprise for Syrians on the ground? Has this fuelled popular disappointment with Western powers?

Z. E.: I think we didn’t ever have a good image or trust much the US, because of the brainwash from the regime. But at the same time we were very much disappointed when the US got committed with some ideas and afterwards they completely ignored them. This is specially the case with [US president Barack] Obama’s red line about the chemical weapons, which are still being used and no one is doing anything about it. What can we expect? I think that, at this point, maybe the EU is the only ship left, because we won’t reach any point if we are left in the hands of the Americans or the Russians.

N: What do you think are Putin's underlying interests in supporting Bashar Al-Assad?

Z. E.: Bashar gave Syria to Putin on a golden plate. They have signed treaties where Bashar was really selling Syria to the Russians. I’m not a really good person speaking about politics, I’m very far from this matters, but what I do know is that Iran, for example, is also fighting for its own interests alongside the regime, and it is definitely not for religious matters, as they are trying to pretend.

An interview by Ada Domingo.