28 May 2013
“You just have to come to peace with the fact that you can die at any moment.” This was the epiphany for South African reporter Yusuf Omar, who spent two weeks in war torn Syria in April, filming a documentary on the brutal conflict for eNCA. The 24 year old UK born journalist formed part of a media crew travelling with humanitarian NGO Gift of the Givers, who had established a hospital in the city of Darkoush in northern Syria.
The documentary ‘Working in a War Zone’, which first aired on Monday night, is a raw and gritty depiction of the 43 South African medics working deep within rebel territory. But while it mostly focuses on the painstaking and stressful work of the doctors at the hospital, it also looks at the human side of the war and how it has impacted the lives of ordinary civilians.
What’s more interesting is that the footage is a personal narrative of Omar’s experience in Syria, from a South African perspective. From interviews with surgeons in the midst of life saving operations, to tapping into the minds of rebel fighters and young children, Omar’s 30 minute piece leaves the viewer with a barrage of emotions. It is also an eye opening account of the realities of war.
Speaking to Drivetime on Tuesday, Omar said public response to had been “incredible”. With the accessibility of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, many people were able to directly engage with him on their feelings. “For the most part, it really hit home how graphic a war can be. We see the destruction all the time but for once, people could see South Africans in the war zone, scared for their lives. It brings a sense of realism to something that is otherwise very far removed from us.”
Omar described the Syrian conflict as a “complicated war” – used as a proxy for the world’s superpowers such the US, Russia, China and Iran, vying for some interest in the strategically based Middle Eastern country. But as the geo-politics continues, the Syrian people are being caught in a catastrophic situation, facing the brutality of military war-fare. While it might seem as though the Syrian people perceive the violence to be sectarian, they fully understand the international nature of the war.
“They [Syrians] asked me ‘why does everyone want a piece of our country?’ If this war was as simple as President Bashar Al Assad’s government against the rebels, it would be over a long time ago. There are a lot of countries supplying each side with weapons…really fuelling the war. The fact is that instability in the Middle East is quite good for some countries that benefit from it.”
The Syrian conflict has spanned more than two years, the longest war to have erupted from the so-called Arab Spring. While the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan uprisings saw dictatorships falling in a few months with much less casualties, the Syrian hostilities has resulted in more than 100 000 deaths. Millions of Syrians have fled their homes, becoming refugees in Internally Displaced Person’s camps (IDP’s) in neighbouring countries.
“Many Syrians told me that the regime was bad, but they would rather have lived through it than to see their people being killed and the country torn to the ground. There really is nothing left. Schools have been closed for the last two years and there is no service delivery. It’s an absolutely diabolical situation…” Omar lamented.
As a young journalist, Omar said his two week stint – the first as a foreign correspondent – had completely changed his worldview. It’s a thought provoking experience which he hopes to pen. “I could go in there parachuting into this completely unfamiliar circumstance, pumped up and filled with adrenalin and leave. I’m back in Joburg in the comfort and safety of my own home, but for Syrians who I stayed with and who fed and protected me, they go back to the front line. Their lives continue as normal.”
The entire media crew narrowly escaped severe cross fighting between the rebels and military. Ironically, just soon after the South African mission left Darkoush, the town, once a sleepy farm community far removed the conflict, became a combat zone. “When we came, we splashed the name of Darkoush hospital in the newspapers. We even did live crossings from the rooftops of the hospital…” he recalled.
“Twelve people have since died in the area and mortar bomb attacks have been more significant than ever before. I can’t help but wonder whether we did more bad than good [while visiting Darkoush]. We brought attention to the area, showing the government forces where the rebels are. Now they are at the frontline of the fighting…”
The difficulty of this story was that the media crews were based in rebel territory and were being fed the narrative from the rebel fighters. To achieve balance in conflict reporting, Omar believed there would have to be one media team stationed on each side of the battle lines. But this would be virtually impossible without getting injured in the line of fire.
“It’s not as simple as Western media will have us believe…that it’s a straight up Shi’a versus Sunni war. It’s actually much more complicated and yet so simple: if you live in rebel territory, then you are seen as a rebel; if you live in Damascus under government control, then you support the government. It’s survival really…”
The wealthier and educated class was able to swiftly escape the violence however the working class, such as farmers and manual labourers has been left behind, most of them taking up arms against the military. If the Assad regime does collapse, there is a fear that things may be far worse. Omar said the threat of militants such as Al Qaeda and other separatist rebel groups will in all likelihood result in a “vacuum” for power, which could see them fighting each other.
Born in the UK, raised in Australia and educated in the US, Omar’s life on the move was a good foundation for the making of a foreign correspondent, which he had aspired to be. However, the reality of conflict reporting was completely different. Omar’s documentary shows the physical risks for journalists working in danger zones and the far-fetched means in which they would go to exposing the brutality of war.
“As a journalist, there is absolutely nothing romantic about being a foreign correspondent. It may be one of the worst jobs in the world in many respects. As a human being, to actually be in a war zone is extremely terrifying. You think you can outrun the bullets or the missiles, but most of these things from miles away from someone you would never ever meet. It’s so unpredictable…”
Omar said the impact of war on journalists is felt long after they have left a conflict zone. Warfare creates a continuous and heightened sense of awareness all the time. A reaction to loud noises, for example, are one of the most common symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, as result of exposure to war. “Fear is an incredible emotion. It can make you very irrational and make you think in ways that you never otherwise would. When a cameraman sees an explosion, while everyone is running away from it, they are running towards it. It’s a bizarre, bizarre landscape to operate in.”
The documentary will be repeated on eNCA on DSTV channel 403 everyday for the rest of this week. VOC (Tasneem Adams)
29 May 2013 | The Review : Pic: Attendees listening attentively to Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman
Benoni Spurs Football Club hosted Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of the Gift of the Givers Foundation on Tuesday evening, 28 May 2013, at the Buzme Adab Hall in Actonville. The soccer club handed over a cheque of R100 000 to the foundation to assist with their relief efforts in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.
Dr. Sooliman expounded on the various initiatives underway in Gaza saying that they have spent in excessive of R30 million already on various projects that included the setting up of a rehabilitation centre for widows and orphans in the heart of the impoverished coastal sliver. The territory has suffered from debilitating attacks and blockades by the Israeli government.
Sooliman also provided a report back on the Foundation’s work in Syria where they have set up a hospital in the town of Darkoush in the Idlib province close to the southern Turkish border.
“I thought Syrians were being taken care of,” he told the audience. “We thought Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the Arab world were looking after Syrians. I was so wrong.”
He said that on his initial visit to Syria in October last year to assess the needs of the people, he visited the Atmah refugee camp. “I walked into the plantation and it was so bad, I can guarantee you, a pig would say I can’t stay here. “
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that over 1.4 million people have left Syria and are refugees in neighbouring countries. Millions more are internally displaced and close to 100 000 have been brutally killed in the civil war that has lasted over four years.
In March 2011, Syrian people took to the streets in various cities calling for reform and democracy after living under a dictatorship run by President Bashar Al Assad. He used his powerful security agencies to quell the uprising resulting in Syrian citizens picking up arms against their government. On the other hand, Assad has been supported by Iran, Russia, the Lebanese based armed group, Hezbollah, as well as China to a lesser degree.
While acknowledging that western nations have tried to take advantage of the chaos, Sooliman said the focus needed to remain on the dire situation that the Syrian people have found themselves in.
“I was with President (Jacob) Zuma, face to face. I said Mr. President, I know Russia is part of BRICS and South Africa as well. I know China is part of BRICS. I know Iran and South Africa have oil deals and I know it’s difficult for you to get involved in Syria. I know Syria is South Africa’s friend. But you know me Mr. President, I say it like it is. Legally or illegally I will enter Syria. He didn’t say a thing.”
The foundation has since set up the medical facility in Darkoush to the tune of over R10 million and has taken a contingent of 52 doctors and 16 journalists into the country. Sooliman appealed to South Africans to continue supporting the cause of the Syrian people.
He ended his talk with a supplication by the Syrian people to the people of South Africa. “We have only one prayer for you. What happened to us must never happen to you or your people or your country. We offer you no other prayer because this is not what anyone wants to go through.”