Time.news – “When I think of all the trauma and pain I had to go through because of the war, I believe that only the actions I took made me feel that it was worth it”. It has been 10 years since the war in Syria began. We talk about it with Zaina Erhaim, Syrian journalist and feminist, who has taught hundreds of women to tell about the conflict, helping them in their condition and who every day continues to inform about her country also through her Twitter account @zainaerhaim. Erhaim is a guest of Internazionale in Ferrara, the weekly festival, on Saturday 13 March at 6pm in live streaming on the magazine’s facebook page.
In 2013, you returned to Syria to help document the ongoing uprising. When and why did you make this decision?
Actually I never planned to leave Syria: in 2010 I got a journalism scholarship in London, my intention was to go and come back. As the riot began and some of my closest friends were arrested, I got a job with the BBC. But after a year, while the rebels held northern Syria, I decided to return as soon as I was able to support my mother, who had been displaced to Turkey. Going back wasn’t a difficult decision to make, staying there was.
In previous interviews you said that what is happening in Syria is not a civil war, can you help us understand your point of view?
Before the Russian intervention and ISIS, it was a clear war on people, not between people. If there are militias that are organized, armed and pushed to fight people belonging to a different sect, it cannot be a civil war. There have certainly been many sectarian incidents across Syria, in which victims on all sides have lost their reason and with it all they believed, including the desire for revenge. Moderate voices are the first to be oppressed, and this has pushed the confrontation towards violence and extremism. And with the Capitol Hill incidents we have seen what populism and provocative personal ad policies can do even in the most democratic countries like the United States.
What do you mean?
It is not my intention to make a real comparison, because QAnon members weren’t bombed with explosive barrels while they slept, their children weren’t choked with chemical weapons, and they certainly don’t know what it means to be tortured in the government prison for dared to claim your basic human rights. In my personal opinion, and I am not an expert in legal terms, we experienced an uprising in 2011 that the regime turned into a war. Eventually it also stopped being an internal war and turned into an obvious “proxy war”. Now foreign armies, jihadists and air forces from other countries seem to be in command in Syria and Syrians are not even invited to talks about their future.
In recent years you have trained hundreds of citizen journalists in the field, in large part women
I was the only professional journalist in the rebel-held areas, so I felt compelled to pass on the knowledge and experience I gained from working on the BBC. When I was in Syria, I realized that there were no women in my journalism courses because they couldn’t work in public at the time. So I invited women interested in becoming citizen journalists to some training courses and was surprised that they were mostly housewives. Since the training courses were very practical and involved producing a service, I continued to be their mentor and facilitated the publication of their pieces.
Can you tell us the value of this experience?
The success was that some of the women I trained decided to pass the training on to other women. Whenever possible, I helped them connect with media outlets looking for journalists in Syria. When radio Fresh was founded in Edlib, it had more than 35 female journalists working, all of them trained by me and the first journalists I trained. And they all became heads of families and lived on journalism. If I had not been a woman, living the situations and background that I have from the inside, this would not have happened, as these women were not even able to travel to neighboring countries to be trained. When I think of all the trauma and pain I had to go through as a result of the war, I believe that only these actions I took made me feel that it was worth it.
Has this also served to change the conception of women in your own country?
As a feminist I definitely see the effects of the patriarchal society we live in, especially during the war where sexism and extremism hit women the most. Their stories have been cast aside or told in a traditional way of stereotypes, referring to them exclusively as “the great mother of the hero, the sister of a prisoner and so on”, women who have broken such taboos, gender roles , spoke or challenged the Patriarchal roles were rarely present, not to mention the extra hardships they face for who they are.
Do you think there is a boundary not to be crossed in recounting the atrocities of war?
As a supporter of freedom of expression and a Syrian who grew up in the communist regime, I believe there should be no borders to cover war, only ethical norms and a deep genuine respect for human rights. Many stories have not been told by one side or the other fearing that they would “damage” the part they are on. For me, and especially at this moment, I see that to get any chance for peace or reconciliation we should all stop doing it. I started by writing the testimonies that both sides do not approve of, because they challenge the two-sided dimension of war (good versus bad), and try to get away from big slogans, getting closer to people’s human lives.
What are the limits of the narrative that the Western media have made of the Syrian conflicts?
Traditional narratives have certainly helped to stereotype us Syrians and transform us into a monstrous wave of refugees that threatens the borders of the EU. But if and how they influenced the Syrians who remained in the country, I don’t know. Millions of Syrians hardly access the Internet, they do not speak other languages, so the media that influenced them, I imagine, will have been the Arab TV channels and not the international ones.
Ten years after the start of the conflicts, the situation on the ground has changed a lot, while that of civilians is increasingly dramatic, what are the prospects for the Syrian people?
I have no right to talk about the prospects of the Syrian people, what I know is that we, like everyone else, want justice from all those who have committed crimes, on all sides. This will surely be a huge step towards peace. We want to go back to living with dignity, to enjoy our basic rights in our homes, building a safe life for our children, without fear, in a free land to which we belong.