(mis)understanding The syria story:

From citizen journalism to key reporter

   Loubna Mrie has been reporting on the Syrian crisis since she was twenty years old. Her writing and photographs have been published in an exhaustive list of international publications. She has become a key resource in documenting the evolving crisis in Syria.

 

Born in 1991, Loubna grew up in Latakia, Syria. She is vocally anti-Assad and has been actively speaking and acting against the Assad regime since she was a teenager. She comes from family that is highly linked to the Syrian government. Her father and uncles worked closely with high officials in the Syrian Air Force intelligence. Her uncle, Wahib, had funded local militias and was the President of Tartus Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Loubna spoke out in opposition to her family on her father’s side, and the Assad regime at a young age.

 

Loubna is considered by her father to be a traitor. On August 11 of 2012, Loubna’s mother was abducted and never heard from again. Shortly afterward, Loubna’s father released a warrant for Loubna’s arrest. She had also heard that her mother’s murder was at the hands of her father. Loubna fled to Turkey later that month.

 

In the wake of personal and national crisis, Loubna vowed to take her views to the public. After fleeing government-controlled areas in 2012, she  started working as a media trainer between Turkey and Syria for ‘Ark’, a group that supported Syrian activists in documenting and narrating the ongoing conflict and its toll on people. In addition to running workshops and trainings in opposition-controlled areas in Syria, Loubna produced reports that aired on BBC Arabic, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, among others.  Loubna also worked as a photojournalist with Reuters, reporting from the frontlines in Syria. She covered battles between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups in Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, and Hama. She also covered clashes between ISIS and Kurdish YPG forces in Qamishle.

 

The city of Idlib became a focus for protests and fighting in the early phases of the Syrian war and has since become the a key stronghold at different times for both the rebel and government forces. In 2014, at age 22 Loubna was taking photos on a frontline in Idlib and other parts of the country.  

 

“It was later seized by the government and most of the rebels there were killed. I look back and I don’t know why life isn’t fair. I wish I had a normal early twenties and normal life. War is ugly . . . so ugly that it changes you forever and you spend the rest of your life trying to be normal and sane again.”

A 2014 instagram post of Loubna’s shows a Free Syria army member using a sling shot to deliver a grenade to the nearby building where the regime fighters are garrisoned. Loubna’s work continues to illuminate the circumstances of Syrians in war time in a way that the popular news networks do not or cannot. Loubna wrote once, “for the majority of news outlets, clips and pitches from Syria only matter if they are of geopolitical or international significance. The lives of ordinary Syrians remain of secondary importance.”

 

Loubna has taken evocative photographs illuminating the fighting and dismay in various regions of Syria, including her photo collection of East Aleppo. On assignment with Reuters in 2013, Loubna writes about East Aleppo, “This is the east of Aleppo where the fight was wall to wall, building to building. A city where you don’t know where the snipers are until someone dies, so the street will be marked as “marsood,” the Arabic word for “targeted”. The bodies which marked such streets were mostly left there because they can’t be reached. The snipers of course, don’t distinguish man from woman. Every time you cross, the possibility of death looms over you. And even if you stay home, you are not safe . . .”

 

In 2013, Loubna takes a series of photos in a series titled “The Battle for Rojava.” “These photos were taken during the first battle between ISIS and the YPG in winter 2013,” she writes. The Rojava conflict refers to a political upheaval and military conflict in Northern Syria. In 2012, a Kurdish-dominated coalition sought to establish a new constitution and government in this region. Women played an increased role both in the battle and the new constitution- giving women more political voices and freedoms. The goal was to to capture Kurdish areas from the Arab Islamist rebels and strengthen the autonomy of the region. Loubna captured this in her photo series.

 

Photos from Loubna’s 2015 series titled “The Crossing” were exhibited in the International centre of Photography in November-December 2016 where she graduated earlier that year. These photos depict the city of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city and is nestled on the Aegean coast. Izmir is known for its beautiful scenery, its vacations, and its port- where thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and more fill the streets “making arrangements with one of the hundreds of human smugglers that are thought to operate the city.” The hope is that these human smugglers will assist in relocating these refugees to a new home.

Loubna’s photographs from Syria and Turkey have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and many other international news outlets. In 2014, she was awarded the Magnum Foundation Human Rights and Photography Fellowship in New York. Later that year, she was accepted at the International Centre of Photography where she completed a degree in photojournalism and documentary photography. Her work has been part of many exhibitions and shows around New York City.

 

Loubna has also contributed to the commentary and reporting on the Syrian crisis in her writing as well. Often, Loubna chooses to focus not just on the hard facts of the evolving crisis but on its aftermath, the experience of Syrians at home, and the humanitarian needs that have emerged from the fighting’s rubble.

 

Loubna’s writing has been published in  Time Magazine, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Nation, The Atlantic Council, Quartz, Vice, The National and Newsweek. In 2014, she was awarded the New America Foundation Carnegie Fellowship, with which she investigated local public support for armed groups in Syria, including Al-Qaeda. The article was published for The Week, entitled “Why Rebels Have Failed in Syria.” She was also awarded the Atlantic Fellowship and worked at Quartz in 2015 and 2016.

 

Recently, Loubna completed a Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies from New York University where she focused on human rights issues in the Middle East and the socio-political history of Syria.

 

In addition to journalistic and research experience, she regularly participates in panels held by various organizations on the Syrian conflict and refugee issues. Invited to the Aspen Ideas Festival, The United Nations, Harvard University, Columbia University, and New York University, she has speaks on a wide range of issues such as refugees rights, regime repression, local activism, and media censorship.

 

Loubna has taken the time to explain more about her views on journalism, her rebuke of foreign headlines hijacking the Syrian conversation, and the portrayal of the Syrian crisis through foreign headlines.

interview WITH Loubna Mrie

You began reporting and sharing media about Syria without any formal training on journalism. Can you tell us about your studies and what your experience has been with journalism in and outside of the classroom.

 

I got my masters in Near Eastern Studies. However, I took two classes in Journalism, and both were great. I took a class with Anand Giridharadas and I would say that Anand changed how I look at stories and how I approach people and ask questions. And I definitely learned a lot in his classroom: Things I wouldn’t learn in the field. I can not speak about journalism in Academia as a whole because Anand, my professor, did not come from academic background and yet he has been a journalist most of his life. I wouldn’t say there is something missing in Academia. I would say that classes- or what you learn in the class room- will never be enough if it is not combined with field experience.

 

Many American and British journalists have reported on “the conflict in Syria.” In your mind, what have these reporters and news outlets gotten wrong? In your opinion, what key concepts should our readers be focused on?

 

My main problem with so many journalists is that their reporting focuses so much on the geopolitical angle, which is understandable since they want to make it relevant for their audience back home. Like, if I was an American, I'd want to know what my country is doing there and how we are involved. But, unfortunately, this approach has hurt the Syrian cause immensely. Today many people think that what happened in Syria is all about foreign/international powers. They forget that it all started because there was a true organic uprising in the country which was repressed brutally and that what led to this bloodbath. "Asaad or we burn the country" was the main slogan for government supporters in the early days of the uprising. So if one thing I want readers to understand, is the timeline of this conflict and how it began. Of course, the foreign money and powers played a role, but the main problem is the Syrian government. 

 

What do you see as the purpose of journalism? What do you attempt to do in your coverage and reporting specifically? 

 

To tell stories and let people speak. To offer a platform for those who can not reach a wider audience. People often say the cliche: “be the voice of the voiceless,” which I find disturbing.  Syrians do have a voice. They only need the platform. Today most of the coverage of Syria lacks the Syrian perspective. It's full of foreign journalists telling you what you have to think about this war- as if Syrians are not even part of the picture.  Syrians can speak for themselves- let them speak. 

 

In your Opinion Piece for Al-Jazeera, “The Problem with leftist myths about Syria,” you attempt t  break down the main arguments that de-legitmize Syrian uprisings against the regime under Bashar Al-Assad. You wrote, 

 

“We couldn't care less where the US stood on our struggle. Regime change when it's demanded by people, who suffered under authoritarianism, is legitimate. That various powers, like the US and its allies in the Gulf and Turkey, have gotten involved in the conflict (and in fact, militarized it) does not de-legitimize our struggle. And we expect international leftist movements to support us, not ignore or mock us.”

 

Who exactly are the international leftist movements you refer to and what does the support of international leftist movements look like?

 

The problem with their approach is that they are convinced that what is happening in Syria is a conspiracy plotted in the US. This is very dangerous because it strips Syrians from all their agency and portrays them as puppets to the West. Imagine someone telling me that I faced live bullets in protests in 2011 because the U.S. wanted us to . . . This is ridiculous. The idea that this is a U.S. war against the Syrian government is popular and widely believed because it offers a simple, easy way to understand a complicated narrative. It’s ridiculous how many people believe that the U.S. rules the planet and has power over everyone and everything, and that whatever happens in the world is plotted by the US. 

The struggle and fight against dictatorships and authoritarianism should be supported, not made fun of.

 

What would you like to tell someone like me about Syria that I may not understand? What do you empirically know that someone like myself cannot?

 

If I could say one thing, it would be to understand that the war- the Syrian war- started because there was a true uprising in the country. An uprising that demanded change and freedom for all Syrians. It started because people like myself had the courage to face live bullets and tell the police forces that we won’t backdown. Having a dictator in power, chanting every morning in school for his immortality, being brainwashed from very early age into believing that you are alive and breathing because this particular person is in power, believing the walls have ears and you can't even make fun of the president even within your own head, is something no one can understand unless they lived in place like Syria. People often talk about Syria after 2011, but to understand the conflict you have to understand how Syria was before 2011. 

 

You’ve had a lot of experience in the heart of Syrian conflict during your time in both Aleppo - and idlib ? What is one thing that continuously went through your head during all of your reporting?

 

War is ugly. I struggle a lot to remember anything nice from Syria before 2011. It's as if my memories about my country are all dominated by the feeling of guilt that I survived but others did not. This paralyzes me sometimes and makes it feel impossible to move forward. I cannot stop thinking about how desensitized people are to death and blood- and it's horrifying. I remember one time I was taking photos in Eastern Aleppo in a neighborhood called Bustan al-Qasr after a government airstrike which killed 16 people and the whole building collapsed. Two children came and stood right next to me, waiting to see what the civil defense are going to pull next. A dead body was pulled. It was a small body- I would say a 10 year-old boy. I held my breathe and I felt like I was going to vomit. . His whole head was completely smashed and the patches of bloodied scalp was falling apart. I looked at the children, and they were gathering around his head as if they were examining something interesting with no signs of disgust. Minutes later they got bored and left. It was one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.  That was in 2013. I wonder where these children are and if they ever going to forget that image. I hope they will. 

 

What gets you inspired about the future of Syria?

 

I would say what inspires me about the future of the region in general, not only Syria, is all the activist and journalists who fight everyday to speak out. Hundreds of activist from Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are fighting back and challenging the narrative from their countries. Dictators like SISI from Egypt, Bashar al-Assad or Muhammad bin Silman in Saudi Arabia are trying to write their own version of the story. But many are trying to get the facts straight despite all the horror they are facing, and  this is inspiring.