Millions have seen her reports showing life and death in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, but until now Waad Al-Kateab’s true identity had been kept secret to protect her from being targeted and silenced by regime forces.
Her dispatches to Channel 4 News from the last remaining hospital in Aleppo told the stories of civilians wounded or killed by bombs dropped by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces and Russian warplanes as they battled to retake the city from rebel groups in 2016.
Al-Kateab’s unflinching lens won her awards, including an Emmy and the foreign affairs prize at the British Journalism Awards, but also made her and her family a target, forcing her to remain hidden behind the camera and adopt the pseudonym Al-Kateab, which she continues to use for filming.
In her new documentary film For Sama, cut from more than 300 hours of footage (including drone shots) taken by Al-Kateab before she fled to safety in Turkey in December 2016 and claimed asylum in the UK one year ago, she finally steps into the limelight and tells her story.
The film spans five years from the first hopeful protests against President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011 as the Arab Spring took hold in Syria through to the sacking of Aleppo by regime forces in 2016.
It offers a deeply personal account of the Syrian conflict from Al-Kateab’s perspective – that of a university student (economics) turned activist and journalist whose camera records the highs of early protests and keeps rolling throughout the brutal crackdown that follows.
During this time Al-Kateab (pictured top), 28, marries Hamza, a doctor at Aleppo’s last hospital – the only one of nine not to have been destroyed by bombing – where they and a circle of friends take shelter and work to save lives.
They have a daughter together while under siege, the Sama of the title, to whom the film is addressed, narrated by Al-Kateab in her native Arabic. Sama is now three and has a sister, Taima, two (Al-Kateab was pregnant when she fled Syria).
The film won best documentary at this year’s Cannes film festival and has its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest this weekend before being released in cinemas and airing on Channel 4 and PBS in America in the autumn.
Speaking to Press Gazette (in English, which she has fast advanced since leaving Syria) Al-Kateab says she first began filming the protests to combat the lies being spread by Al-Assad who denied they were happening.
‘We wanted to have evidence about what was happening’
Early on foreign journalists were banned from entering Syria and the conflict later became too dangerous for western reporters to cover on the ground – Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and US freelance James Foley (who Al-Kateab met in Syria) were among the journalists who lost their lives covering the war.
“When the revolution started in Syria you can see protests in the street, but when you watch [state] TV there is nothing,” says Al-Kateab, who took part in demonstrations against President Al-Assad.
“They started to say first there is no revolution… [then] they started to say the protestors are terrorists, they are not Syrian and they have guns.
“Everything we can see [the regime says] that it’s the opposite. For me, as for many other activists, we wanted just to have some evidence about what was happening on the ground to deny what the regime was saying on the news.”
Filming was not without its dangers – protestors were beaten and arrested by security forces loyal to Al-Assad.
Al-Kateab’s own revolutionary excitement meant some of her earliest footage could not be used in news reports as she joined in the demonstrations and could be heard chanting along with protestors, putting her at risk of being identified by the regime and silenced.
At particular risk were her parents in Syria who could be arrested and held in a bid to force her to stop her activism, an old regime tactic (they have since fled, but Al-Kateab still keeps her exact origins a secret).
Marie Colvin – ‘they wanted to kill her’
“From the beginning anyone that makes the revolution clear, they were targeted, and until the end you can see the same. Marie Colvin’s situation was very clear… they wanted to kill her because she was in the place they don’t want any news to be out.
“When the news is from Syrians they can ignore this and say we are liars or terrorists or blah, blah, blah, but with Western journalists like Marie Colvin they can’t say that she’s a liar.”
Al-Kateab never met Colvin, who died in a rocket attack in Homs, a city some 125 miles north of Aleppo, in 2012, but says “all the Syrian people knew about her” when she came to report on the conflict.
Going through the hours of footage Al-Kateab had recorded, much of it seen for the first time in For Sama, was the job of Channel 4 News deputy editor Nevine Mabro and Emmy-winner Edward Watts, who directed the film along with Al-Kateab. Mabro and Channel 4 News editor Ben De Pear are both executive producers on For Sama.
The partnership between Al-Kateab and Channel 4 News is unique among UK news broadcasters covering Syria. Al-Kateab said in her own experience broadcasters could treat locals “as resources” and refuse to allow them a say on how their footage would be used in reports.
“This is what happened with many friends around me and this is what happened to me before working here [at Channel 4 News],” she says.
“I was part of the story, not just on the film [For Sama], because the film is very personal… but even with the news before I wasn’t just sending them the footage and they take it and do whatever they want, they were asking me: ‘What about this? See this? Let’s speak about this’.
“They were really respectful of me as a citizen journalist working on this, not just a resource [for] videos. I have no experience – and I know that – but they were trying to help me to develop myself during this time and work on this as a journalist not as someone who just caught this footage and that’s it.”
‘A very female perspective’
Mabro, who was Channel 4 News foreign editor when Al-Kateab was in Syria, tells Press Gazette the young journalist had “changed the way that people see the conflict” through her films.
“It’s a very unique perspective… it’s somebody who’s from the region, who’s living the experience. It’s impossible for somebody from the outside to ever capture those moments because they are never involved in the same way, living it in the same way.
“Even though Marie Colvin obviously was there, she experienced all the fear and unfortunately died, she was always in and out of places.”
She adds: “The other thing I think is really interesting about what Waad did was the choice of what she filmed.
“The baby born scene (above) is the one that everybody remembers and tells you everything about war – who would have filmed that? I don’t know any journalist who, one, would have been able to get access and, two, even if they did get access, would film that rather than going and chasing frontline stuff or trying to get where the latest bomb was hit.
“Waad was staying in the hospital and actually what she ended up getting – the choice of what she filmed – was very different to anything I’d seen before. And a very female perspective, but also just very different types of interviews with people. I think that’s what’s powerful about it.”
‘Any moment you can… be killed’
The fear of being killed at any moment and the uniqueness of such an existence led to a sense that it was “really important to record everything around you,” says Al-Kateab, who filmed incessantly, to the annoyance of her small circle of friends also living at the hospital.
But she says their attitude changed when one of their number, Gaith, who had trained as a medical student before the war, was killed by a bomb.
“When he was killed we were just watching all this footage together – us eating, fighting, laughing and all this – and we felt how it’s really important, because in any moment you can… be killed, anyone around you can be killed, this life really should be saved and should be saved as evidence that life under the war is really important and unique. You expect sometimes to cry but you are laughing, sometimes you expect to be really moved but [you’re] not,” she says.
“So when we’ve seen that Gaith was killed we were watching this and we felt how important this footage was. Since that moment, all the people around me never said turn the camera off. Sometimes they [would] come to me and say film us dancing, or something like this.
“It was really a feeling of how important this life is and how easy it could be for it to end. So just for this I was filming everything, every day, sometimes with no reason – sometimes just the garden.”
In For Sama, we see the moment Al-Kateab discovers she is pregnant with her first daughter. “The camera was really part of my life there,” she says, “It was like a friend, it’s just part of you all the time.” She adds: “It’s something that gives you strength because when you are there for a reason and you are doing something.”
‘This camera can be a survivor’
Al-Kateab’s camera rarely shies away from the harrowing and heartbreaking scenes taking place before it. In the hospital, wounded civilians are brought in for emergency treatment and families are torn apart by death.
“There are many moments where you feel that there is no reason for you to be here, you do nothing, it’s just filming things and all this film will be destroyed in one moment and it makes no difference,” she says.
“But also there are other moments…”
She points to a scene in For Sama where a woman is crying out over the loss of her child. The woman looks to the camera and asks Al-Kateab if she is filming. “I went to turn the camera off because I thought she was angry, then she said: ‘Film this.’”
She adds: “This feeling, it gives you responsibility… and this woman even if she now has lost her child, she is thinking that this camera can be a survivor or something to help us or just a place to send a message to.
“In other places… sometimes I feel like I can’t do that anymore, like the baby born [film]. I was filming just to document that for the hospital because it’s something really important…
“I wanted to turn off [my camera] many times because I’ve seen that he’s dead and that’s it, I shouldn’t be just filming. In many moments I wanted to turn it off and then I don’t know why but I stayed and then that moment [when the baby opens its eyes] happened.
“To catch this moment I was feeling that this is one of the big reasons why we are there, because the hope is always happening in this place and people are really very strong and stronger than the aircrafts and the bombing and all these things.
“Me, as a journalist, I’m there because I should save this moment and make it reach out to make a difference. Small moments like this, very different moments, [show] you how important you are there. If this footage wasn’t taken, these stories all die and that’s it.”
‘I survived for a reason… to speak out and share the story’
Al-Kateab says she doesn’t regret her decision to stay in Aleppo during the siege while others fled. “I have a lot of things which I really feel that it was worth what I did, all the risk and all the difficulties.” For Sama is in part her way of explaining to her daughter her decision to remain behind.
She says she considers herself to have been a “witness of something really important”, adding: “I could have been killed at any moment inside [Aleppo].
“I survived for a reason and this reason is to speak out and share the story… and try to destroy all the regime [has said] about who we are… I’m here and I’m out now and this is my responsibility, after everything, to say what happened and get all the details out.”
One message Al-Kateab is keen to convey is that right now in Idlib, Syria, some 40 miles west of Aleppo, as regime and Russian forces close in on the last remaining rebel stronghold, others are going through the same thing she and her friends and family went through in Aleppo.
“It’s another city, but the same experience exactly,” she says.
The success of For Sama so far has taken Al-Kateab’s attention away from the newsroom, where she is now employed as a producer, work she is keen to return to as soon as possible.
“Now I’m just trying to travel with the film around the world and tell the story again and try to compare what was happening [in Aleppo] with what’s happening now in Idlib.
“I don’t know if that will make a difference now but this is the only thing I can do now. The story it ends, but it’s still going on…You can’t just continue your life and ignore everything that’s happening.”
For Sama is produced by Channel 4 News/ITN Productions for Channel 4 and Frontline PBS.