This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.
The numbers alone tell a grim story. Since peaceful protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad began in Syria in 2011, around 400,000 people have been killed – including more than 12,000 children – with 5.6 million Syrians becoming refugees and 6.2 million now internally displaced. It is estimated that the government has executed between 5,000 and 13,000 of its citizens and tortured many more to death. The future of this shattered country remains uncertain while the final chapter in a ruinous decade-long civil war has yet to be written.
Amid the charnel house of Syria today is the city of Idlib, 328 kilometres northwest of the capital Damascus. It is the last remaining major city in Syria that has resisted the army of Mr. Assad.
The dominant rebel group governing Idlib and surrounding regions is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of the Al-Nusra Front, which had declared allegiance to al-Qaeda early in the war. Since 2016, HTS has tried to distance itself from its jihadist origins, but suspicions about its true ideological bent remain. While Canada no longer considers it a terrorist entity, the United States still does.
Idlib is home to Yakeen Bido, a 27-year-old freelance journalist and relentless chronicler of her country’s agony. Ms. Bido was only 18 when the Arab Spring first came to Syria. She had just begun her sociology studies at Tishreen University in Latakia, commuting from her family home in Idlib – a journey that became increasingly fraught as the civil unrest spread and the government’s responses turned more draconian.
The citizens of Idlib had joined the protests against the Assad regime, and Ms. Bido recalls the government soldiers manning multiple checkpoints along her route calling her a terrorist and threatening to burn Idlib and turn the verdant green of the region, brown, yellow and black. At one point, she was arrested and held for four hours, damned by association with the city of her birth. When government forces attacked Idlib in 2012, her family home was torched and one of her brothers and some cousins were briefly detained.
Syria’s descent into civil war brought a premature end to Ms. Bido’s university studies. Rather than bemoan a lost career, she saw the chance to reinvent herself in the seething mayhem of revolutionary life. Equipped with basic journalistic skills acquired during her aborted studies, she resolved to tell the stories of her fellow citizens who were being harassed and arrested – and who, in some cases, had disappeared.
Her background as a sociology student guided her choice of subjects at first, so she focused on the cultural and social aspects of the conflict. Her reportage has appeared on BBC-TV, France 24, Damascus Voice Radio, Al-Kul Radio and other notable media outlets.
The prolonged civil war has deprived a generation of Syrian children of their childhood. In a society at peace, the transition from child to adult – that watershed developmental period – is allowed time and space to progress.
War put an end to all of that for Ms. Bido’s generation in Syria. Robbed of her adolescence, she found herself overnight inhabiting the nightmare world of adults caught up inextricably in civil war.
Acutely aware of her lost years, Ms. Bido says it’s part of the reason why she is so determined to inform her fellow citizens and the world at large of the effects of aerial bombing and Russian artillery barrages on Idlib’s youth. “I was one of them,” she says.
A regime that has used chemical weapons multiple times on its own people is unlikely to welcome investigative reporting. For two consecutive years, Syria has ranked 174 out of 180 countries on an index of press freedom according to international NGO Reporters sans Frontières. In keeping with its pariah status, the Assad regime has sanctioned the targeted assassination of journalists – including, among others, the celebrated American correspondent Marie Colvin, killed while covering the siege of Homs for the Sunday Times in 2012.
Ms. Bido was aware a government brazen enough to kill a high-profile journalist such as Ms. Colvin would have little hesitancy going after someone such as her as well. Mindful of the danger, she initially adopted the nom de plume Mirna al-Hassan for her reporting. Such a simple ruse, however, was never going to dupe the ubiquitous ears and eyes of a police state, and she soon reverted to using her own name. As she anticipated, the attacks were not long in coming. “I am what they call ‘wanted’ by the Assad regime,” she says. “I have been targeted by all means possible.”
Criminal gangs and repressive regimes use a common playbook in their attempts to intimidate the press. The drug cartels of Mexico and the Ayatollahs of Iran, to mention but two incongruous bedfellows, try to break journalists by going after their families. The Syrian government is no different. A bomb was left at the entrance of the gas station owned by Ms. Bido’s father and one of her brothers. Neither was injured in the explosion, but the message was clear. That incident was followed by an attack on her car – while she wasn’t in the vehicle at the time, there was no mistaking the intent.
Online abuse came next: the Assad regime claimed Ms. Bido had been raped, and that her father had expelled her from the family as a result. This smear, playing into deeply held traditional beliefs about a woman’s “honour,” was meant to shame not only Ms. Bido, but her entire family as well. While the attempt failed on both accounts, by bringing sex into the intended shaming, it highlighted not only Ms. Bido’s vulnerability as a woman in a war zone, but also her unique profile as one of the few local female journalists covering the Syrian revolution.
Ms. Bido is the only woman who has been reporting uninterruptedly from within Idlib since 2015, when the city was retaken from the Assad regime. Other Syrian female journalists have come to Idlib to report the war but left. She alone has stayed, apart from a three-month period in 2015 when her neighbourhood came under intense shelling and she and her family had to take refuge in a nearby village.
Ms. Bido has also used her presence to refute the Assad government’s propaganda that Idlib is controlled by Islamists. She recalls the battle for the village of Saraqib, 16 kilometres from Idlib. When the village was captured by the Free Syrian Army, she made and broadcast a video standing alongside her male colleagues – something, she points out, that would not have been sanctioned by a fundamentalist movement such as ISIS or al-Qaeda. “I am a thorn in the throat of the Assad regime,” she says.
More than a third of Ms. Bido’s young life has been under the shadow of war amid the barrel bombs, artillery barrages and indiscriminate shelling of Mr. Assad’s army and his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah proxies. Describing the emotional effects of such prolonged exposure to extreme violence, she is at pains to underscore the collective nature of suffering in Idlib.
“Yes, I have nightmares all the time,” she confides. “But not only me! I see nightmares at night and nightmares during the day. We in Idlib have gotten used to this. It is the sounds of shelling and air raids that cannot escape my ears. Yes, Idlib is free now, but we live in constant fear of Assad and his Russians. There are so many martyrs, so many in jail – who will be next? The people of Idlib live in constant agony over their past, present and future,” she adds. “We worry constantly. Therefore, we hardly sleep.”
Ms. Bido is relentless in her coverage of the conflict and how it has pummelled her hometown. “Death is at my doorstep,” she tells me. “I do not think about it a lot. It is our fate.” Remarkable words from a person so young. One must have endured much to reach such an acceptance, which also explains why her hopes for the future are expressed in such visceral, lacerating language. “I dream of the day when we get rid of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, the snake in the body of every Syrian.”
When explaining what motivates her to continue pursuing such dangerous work, it is clear Ms. Bido strongly identifies with her fellow citizens in their struggle. This intense drive for freedom is one part of the antidote to her periods of depression. The other is her need to bear witness. At times, she says, she feels overwhelmed by the magnitude of suffering she has seen: “the blood on people’s faces after a massacre, all the body parts, the screaming of the women during the shelling.” But such horror is also her spur to action, she explains. People tell her that her coverage is important and necessary. “They never stop encouraging me,” she says, adding that helps pull her out of despondency and despair.
When asked if she had ever considered leaving Syria, her immediate, incandescent response is revealing: “I will never leave, because I do not want to miss the smell of the graves – the smell of the dead, the pictures of the dead, of the dear ones who we have lost in this revolution. If I leave, then the hope of keeping Idlib free will disappear. For the hope of others – and my own hope – I must stay with my neighbours, with my family.”
Ms. Bido sees her journalism as her contribution to the continuing struggle of everyday Syrians. Like her fellow citizens, she has lost too much to change course. A beloved brother was killed – “martyred by the Assad regime” – is how she describes his death, declining to elaborate, as reliving the incident is simply too painful.
As our interview drew to a close, I chose a question that I thought would evoke a different reply from her – a softer one perhaps, recalling happier memories of things past. I wanted to know what life had been like in Idlib during her childhood, before the revolution. Her answer was not what I expected.
“Yes, Idlib had been peaceful once,” she recalls. “A small, simple city, ignored – families living together; an agricultural sector that was quite prosperous. I saw happiness.” That was as far as nostalgia went. To Ms. Bido, the Idlib of today – under siege, bombed relentlessly, home to so much death and destruction and personal heartbreak – is “much nicer than the Idlib I remember as a child. Idlib is economically developed. Idlib is now a free area. People know about it now because it is free from the dictatorial regime.”
In this response from a young journalist who once had hoped to become a sociologist, we see why dictators are ultimately toppled and repressive regimes overthrown.
Moral Courage: About the series
Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.
Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.
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