A woman’s place
in the resistance

Starved of information as a child because the media was state owned, Kholoud Helmi helped set up a newspaper when the Arab Spring spread to Syria.

Hero image

Syrian journalist Kholoud Helmi has paid a heavy price for her fight for the truth. Since co-founding a newspaper in 2011 she has watched her hometown come under siege and lost friends and family at the hands of President Assad’s brutal regime. But her pursuit for the freedom and dignity of Syrian citizens is one she will never give up.

“Demanding something that we were not allowed – speaking up – it was like I was flying.”

Born in 1984, as a child growing up in Darayya, a suburb outside Damascus, Helmi was unaware of the atrocities the ruling government was capable of. Everything they knew was fed to them by the ruling Ba’ath regime, and nobody dared to speak against the government. It was these memories of growing up under state control that led Helmi to join the Arab Spring protests, and the injustices she witnessed shaped the course of her life as she found herself reporting from the frontline.

“We had one channel for TV, which was state-owned media. We watched all the same programmes. There’s something funny where all Syrians have all the same collective memory, as if we were all brought up in the same house where nothing could change,” she says.

Helmi’s transition from Syrian child to activist and journalist was gradual, informed by whispers of information she heard. When she was 11 a schoolfriend told her about her father, who had left Syria after he was accused of being affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time Helmi did not know anything about the group, or about the massacre in 1982, when government forces, under the orders of the country’s then president, Hafez al-Assad – father of the current leader – besieged the town of Hama for 27 days to quell an anti-government uprising.

The attack has been described as one of “the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East” but, growing up just a decade later, Helmi had no idea of the atrocities that had taken place.

But by 2011 Helmi had learned enough about the ruling regime to know she wanted change. Inspired by protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and Libya, she attended a demonstration in Damascus.

“I will never forget that day,” she says. “Demonstrations were so dangerous, so we relied on the trust groups. We would go to the neighbourhood and then we would receive another sign to direct us to a point, then when we got closer and the numbers were there, people would gather together and then we would start the demonstration for one minute.

“The first time we were just chanting. We chanted for freedom of expression and change. I will never forget what I was feeling. I felt like I was floating, not walking. Demanding something that we were not allowed to – speaking up – it was like I was flying. What I remember is that I was so happy to the extent that I was shedding tears the whole time, for no reason. I have never felt free, but that time I did.”

Protesters handed bottles of water to soldiers. Others gave them roses as a sign of peace, but it wasn’t long before soldiers then reacted with violence.

“We believed we were all brothers and sisters of the same nation, but it turned out that they arrested people anyway,” says Helmi, whose friend Islam Dabbas, a civil engineering student, handed soldiers water and roses and was arrested. Seven years on, Helmi does not know what has happened to him.

“You could mention thousands of names of people who have disappeared because they were peacefully protesting in the streets.”

The state-run media was keen to brush over the truth. TV cameras would turn up hours after the demonstrations had finished, denying that anything had happened.

“They would cover things that told people nothing was happening in the streets of Syria, but [meanwhile] my friends were arrested, killed, taken to prison, and the security forces were breaking into houses, arresting people, harassing women.”

Helmi and a group of friends decided to take matters into their own hands. In December 2011 they founded a newspaper.

“We had to tell the people why we protested and what we had been facing,” she says. “Darayya is 20 minutes from Damascus, but most of the people in Damascus didn’t know what was going on. We also wanted to reach the international media.”

In January 2012 the first issue of Enab Baladi was published. Helmi and colleagues knew they were risking their lives, so they had to devise a meticulous method of distributing the newspaper. They would gather the news, write it at home and send it to the designer. It was printed by another colleague, who would fold the newspapers and put them in bin bags outside his home. The group communicated through a secret Facebook group, and once the newspapers were ready people were assigned to go and collect them.

“People would come to my house and collect their editions,” says Helmi. “The people who came to me didn’t know that I worked for the newspaper. My own family didn’t know that I was a journalist and writing for the newspaper. They only discovered later on when I started to have huge loads of the newspaper in the house.

“I was afraid but the dream was so huge, to the point that we forgot that we were under danger. What we were aspiring for, freedom, freedom of expression, change, democracy – the dream was big and we had belief in the international community at that point.”

To distribute Enab Baladi as far as Damascus, Helmi would smuggle copies underneath her clothes and pass through army checkpoints.

“We had big dreams at that time and it really conquered our fear, but to tell you the truth many times I was really terrified. I would write the news or contact people and I knew for certain that security forces could break into my house or kill my parents.”

In May 2012 Helmi’s worst fears came true. Security forces broke into her home and arrested her brother Ahmad. She has never seen or heard from him since. Three months later the regime arrived in Darayya and massacred over 1,000 people in 15 nights.

“We were besieged and bombarded,” says Helmi. “The army left the town and left it on fire.

“We stopped issuing the newspaper for two weeks, but we had to keep up the work, so Enab Baladi was issued and we told the world what happened during the massacre: the raping of the women, the killing of the men and women, the suffocating of kids, everything.”

At the beginning of 2013 Helmi decided to leave Syria for Lebanon. Meanwhile, some of her colleagues on the newspaper were incarcerated.

“Some were arrested for 10 months and released, so they started to tell the stories of what the prison was like and how they had been tortured in prison and all these horrible stories. The bad things that happened added to the diversity of the newspaper. When I went to Lebanon I started to report on how life was for Syrians in Lebanon while others moved to Amman, so they started to write about how life was for Syrians in Amman. We started to be the voice of Syrians in diaspora, not only inside Syria.

“We were so fragile in the hosting communities. No one knew who we were. It was so dangerous to continue so we stopped printing the newspaper when we left, but it was online instead.

In the following months, four of Helmi’s colleagues were killed.

“The first one we lost was the CEO, Mohammad Quraitem. He took the decision to stay in my hometown after we left and he was killed by a missile that hit his home. Then we lost a reporter from Darayya one month later. Then within the period of two or three months we lost the managing editor, Ahmad Shihadeh. Then in 2015 one of our co-founders, Nabil Shurbaji, was killed under torture in prison after he was arrested in February 2012. He was the only journalist among us. The rest of us were amateurs.

“We only learned that he had been killed two years later. Other people are still in prison. We paid a very heavy price.”

In 2014 Turkish authorities granted them a licence to open an office and the newspaper returned to print soon after. As its readership grew, so did its team of reporters. It now has anonymous citizen journalists based throughout Syria, including in Raqqa, a former Isis stronghold. The newspaper is considered one of the most prominent Syrian media organisations and publishes 7,000 print copies a week.

In 2015 Helmi was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award for her services to journalism. The prize honours female human rights defenders from war and conflict zones. Helmi believes her role as a female journalist gave her a unique advantage in leading the resistance, as she was able to reach areas her male colleagues couldn’t.

“Women have a unique role in leading the resistance in Syria,” says Helmi. “First of all because of the culture in Syria the army were afraid to trespass the cultural norms at the very beginning of the Syrian revolution where it was taboo to touch a woman or to take her to jail, but shortly afterwards they stopped abiding by anything.

“The other thing is that being a woman I was able to tell the stories of other women. I could speak to ordinary Syrian women and see how they were suffering, whereas it would be more difficult for men to enter a house and interview women and ask them what’s going on.

“During the massacre in August 2012 they raped women. One of my colleagues went to the houses and she created that trust circle with a number of these girls. She listened to their testimony and wrote an article and it went viral.

“We had access to many places, we could easily interview women, we could deal with delicate stories of kids who had been burned or suffering. It was easier for us women to deal with these stories than men.”

Has the global community failed Syrians. “Yes,” she says sadly. “Unfortunately. I mentioned before that we used to have big dreams and big expectations, but these expectations only remained until 2013. We kept those high expectations until the minute Assad used chemical weapons against people in Eastern Ghouta. To wake up in the morning, open your eyes, go on Facebook and to see all the images of the kids who had been killed just because they were breathing, it literally suffocated me. I thought: ‘I am breathing and I am alive, but these kids had been breathing to die.’

“I was so naïve. I thought that the whole universe was going to shake. But nothing happened. Since then we lost all our belief and all our faith in the international community.”

In response to the UK’s recent air strikes against Assad, Helmi says it is too little, too late.

“It would have meant fewer casualties and less forced eviction if such an action, but a real serious one, happened in 2012, or 2013 when the first chemical attacks occurred. I know it did nothing, Assad is still there, still bombarding people and forcing them to leave their homes and towns. The attacks resulted in nothing serious.”

Helmi is now studying for a masters degree in the UK. When she graduates she plans to reunite with her parents, but for now, she wants to continue the work of her Enab Baladi comrades.

She says: “I am not arrested yet, but my friends are. And I am not dead, but my friends are. I think I have to carry the burden of their messages to tell the world what is going on.”

Main photo: Taylor Jewell/Shutterstock

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to A woman’s place in the resistance

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.