Editor of underground Syrian newspaper urges British journalists not to forget civilian survivors 'crying for freedom'

The founder and editor of an underground newspaper reporting from inside Syria has urged British journalists not to forget the story and plight of ordinary Syrians while focusing on the activities of Isis.

Kholoud Waleed spoke to Press Gazette over Skype, for security reasons, from an undisclosed location after being named as the winner of the 2015 Anna Politkovskaya award, given by the group Reach All Women in War.

She helped set up Enab Baladi (Grapes of My Country) in 2012 to chronicle the plight of ordinary Syrians.

She currently lives in exile outside Syria but editors of Enab Baladi pass in and out of the country. The paper also has a number of reporters inside the stricken country.

Three of the paper's editors have been killed and other staffers have been detained by the Syrian regime.The paper’s editors and journalists write under pseudonyms.

Waleed and a group of female friends began organising demonstrations calling for democracy and human rights in 2012 and then went on to found the newspaper which reports on daily life in Syria and seeks to expose war crimes against civilians.

It started with a print run of 300 and has since risen to 5,000 a week, printed in Turkey and smuggled into the country.

Asked where threats to the newspaper staff come from, Waleed says: “Everyone. We receive threats from the government and from the extremists. When we first started it was the security threat from the regime. They detained some of our colleagues and three of our colleagues were killed by the regime’s shelling.

“Sometimes we receive threats from the extremists because we are writing against them and they prevent the newspaper being distributed in areas which they control.

“We used to print the paper on house printers and distribute either at night or to our friends hand to hand or during demonstrations.”

Before founding the paper Waleed, 31, was a translator.

She says: “We were all amateurs. We just started this to document what was happening and to tell the rest of the world these are the things we witness every day. After three years we’ve got the training and we’ve got the expertise. We can call ourselves journalists now, I think.”

Asked what the biggest story Enab Baladi has covered is, she says: “In August 2012 the regime committed one of the most vicious atrocities in our home town of Daria, they committed a massacre there. They killed around 800 people in three days.

“We recorded everything there. We started to publish the photos of the people who were missing, killed or arrested by the regime. By doing that it was a way of recording the collective memory of something dreadful that happened.”

The massacre was covered by other media, but Waleed says her newspaper was able to provide a different take because: “We were there, we were in the same place – talking to the people and taking photos.”

Asked for her views on  Western media coverage of Syria, she says: “Nowadays when the extremists take control of some parts of Syria all the Western media concentrates on them as if there’s nothing in Syria other than extremists and cutting off heads.

“They forget everything about about the regime extremists, and the people who have survived the war – the amazing people who have resisted everything, resisted the regime and the extremists and are working on literacy projects and peace development projects. No one says anything about them. It is all about Isis and its crimes.

"They are not covering the other side or the regime atrocities: the forced resettlement, the continuous shelling by barrel bombs and continuous detention of young people, especially from rebel areas, the sieges and the killing.

“They forget the little tiny lives of the Syrians inside Syria who are facing the Assad regime, the extremists and now the Russians."

Few Western journalists are currently reporting from inside Syria, largely because of the threat of kidnapping.

Asked what her message is to British journalists, Waleed says: “Please don’t forget those people are still surviving and still crying to the world the need for freedom and change."

Speaking about the Anna Politkovskaya award, which was announced on the ninth anniversary of the campaigning Russian journalist's murder, Waleed said: “Ironically, her assassin has not been brought to justice yet, the same like the assassin of Syria is still ruling it, after five years of brutality against the Syrian people, who aspired for freedom and change.

“It is also painful to follow in the steps of Razan Zeitouneh, and be in her own place receiving this award, without having her by my side. Razan was kidnapped by the ‘Army of Islam’, who was supposed to protect us, the Syrians, but turned out that they too do not tolerate free voices, who are exposing the truth about the war crimes in Syria.

“This award comes at a time when the Russian government is openly involved in the crimes that the Assad regime commit daily against the Syrian people, and all evil powers have joined forces to kill the Syrians, who deserve the whole world to back them, not be partner in killing them, including ISIS, terrorists, Iranian mercenaries, Hizbullah, and who are supported by the silence of the international community.”

Elena Kudimova, Politkovskaya’s sister, is a member of the awards committee.

She said: “I believe that Anna would have been highly satisfied and proud with our choice of a recipient for this year’s award. This brave woman from Syria, Kholoud Waleed, is doing the same dangerous work as Anna did: against all odds and in the face of threats to her own life, keeps informing the Syrian people and the world about the life and the suffering of the civilians in war torn areas.

“The newspaper she runs is a rare source of truthful facts for the people in Syria, who are left either in an information vacuum or are subjected to heavy state propaganda. With this award we celebrate all courageous women journalists around the world who under no circumstances stop delivering the truth to their audience and the world.”

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