A Syrian Native Reports From Inside the War’s Second Front
Journalist Muhammad Ali was seriously injured by government shelling on a reporting trip to Syria one year ago.
That didn’t stop him from going back.
He’s one of only a few reporters to make it in and out of Syria in recent months, and in Syria’s Second Front, he shares what he saw firsthand: Rebel forces are no longer simply fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, they’re also fighting a “war within a war” against a notoriously brutal Islamist group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
Ali — who helped to report FRONTLINE’s previous Syria documentaries, but is an on-camera correspondent for the first time in Syria’s Second Front — shares his story below.
Where in Syria did you grow up? Why did you decide to start covering the war?
I lived in Damascus for most of my life — from when I was born, up through university. I began working as a professional journalist there in 2005, initially focusing on the economy and the stock market. But I wrote about politics as well, and under a dictatorship, journalists become the enemy. I left Syria in 2010 and covered the 2011 uprising for the BBC and others from Beirut and then Lebanon.
I’ve been abducted by an armed group aligned with Hezbollah, and injured in a tank attack by regime forces. But I’m covering the war because the only way to solve this dilemma in Syria is to reveal what’s really happening. That’s the job of the journalist.
Is that why you keep returning to the war zone, despite the risks, and despite being injured?
It’s risky, for sure. When you walk the city and try to film, you don’t know when the artillery will start shelling. That’s happened many times in front of me.
But ultimately, getting injured or kidnapped or abducted or sometimes tortured — that just pushes you to continue on, more than ever, because you want to defy the darkness in this world. By your work, by reporting the story, you can shine a light and make everything white and clear. So when you go in again, you aren’t afraid — instead, you are even more encouraged to go on.
You crossed into Syria to live and film with the rebels as they tried to unify and take back an ISIS-controlled town. What was it like to be a journalist in that situation?
I had to be very secretive with my camera near the ISIS-held town of Al-Atareb. I couldn’t get many wide, pan shots — because if the ISIS fighters saw me with a camera standing on the top of some building, they would shoot me!
But ordinary civilians were also suspicious of Western media. For example, when I was staying with the rebels, a car bomb went off nearby at about 2 a.m. while we were sleeping. The rebels told me, “It’s OK to come outside with us and see what has happened — but don’t bring your camera. People will be very angry to see you with that.”
Even though I grew up in Syria, they’d know from my look and my accent that I wasn’t a local. And there would be anger toward me: Many of the Syrian people I spoke with feel that the West has forgotten the war. When they heard in January that the United Nations had stopped counting the death toll, they told me that they felt betrayed. They said they feel that the world has stopped talking about the casualties, the air strikes, and the fact that people are suffering.
What has surprised you the most in covering this war?
The level of the brutality. There are people in competition to rule the country, but it’s as if there’s also a competition for who can be the most brutal — how much you can show you are not human. From the regime sending out aircrafts to shell towns full of civilians, to ISIS executing people in cold blood, it’s shocking.
But it was also surprising and powerful, in a good way, to see people who are resisting and believing in life. I’ve seen many people lose their friends and families completely. Their houses have been destroyed, and they’ve been forced to leave. But they still believe in rebuilding their country one day.
FRONTLINE’s Syria’s Second Front premieres Tuesday, February 11, 2014 on PBS (check local listings) and online.