Monica G. Prieto / Translation Blanca G. Bertolaza
Ali Othman became responsible for the Baba Amr media center, the most active in Syria, and devoted himself to filming the military offensive and to promoting his own and his colleagues’ recordings so the world could see what was happening in Homs. And he was arrested as such on Wednesday the 28th in the city of Aleppo, where he had gone fleeing the capital of the Syrian revolt: according to his colleagues, “he is being put through the worst kinds of torture since his arrest”. “We, the members of the media center, call on all NGOs, as well as the Federation of Arab Journalists and the United Nations to act immediately and save the life of journalist and activist Ali Othman. We hold Assad’s regime fully responsible of any harm caused to him”, reads a press release from the Baba Amr information center.
Ali’s name was changed to Eyyed in the article The eyes of the revolution to protect his true identity- like the other Syrian activists, he did not want to give his true name fearing arrest. This 34 year old fruit salesman, born in Baba Amr, married and with five small children, decided to stay in Homs’ martyr neighborhood even when the troops of the Syrian Army’s 4th Division entered the neighborhood in February, after almost a month of constant bombings. He turned down the escape routes used by his colleagues as well as a significant part of the civilian population and the Free Syrian Army fighters due to his convictions. “How can I go when there are people who cannot leave the neighborhood? If they stay, I stay. Somebody needs to witness what is happening”, he argued during the last conversation we had, via Skype, hours before the fall of the neighborhood.
In the weeks that followed, his account was deactivated, but his colleagues were not bothered. “Jeddo knows Baba Amr like the palm of his hand. He knows how to hide”, explained Abu Ala, one of the members of the press center. Ten days ago, he showed up online again. During a short conversation, Ali said he was “safe in Aleppo”. He seemed to be in a good mood: his only worry during our chat was knowing about the foreign journalists he had helped evacuate from Baba Amr hours before the fall of the neighborhood.
Periodismo Humano correspondent Mónica G. Prieto and Jeddo dodge bullets from Assad’s army as they try to cross a street in Homs under fire from snipers and soldiers against anyone in sight.
Ali Othman played a key role in the broadcast of information about what was happening in the neighborhood, not just in the social networks. Jeddo was the head of the team of citizen journalists –he set it up along with four other neighbors- and also helped the foreign journalists: facilitating entering and leaving the neighborhood, providing them with shelter, a satellite Internet connection and his own working material if necessary, and accompanying them personally where they wanted to guide them safely along the besieged neighborhood.
He got personally involved with each visit, and suffered with each death he witnessed, especially when it was one of the members of his team. His van, which carried crates of fruits and vegetables before the revolution, became used to rescue injured people and corpses: the back was usually filled with bloodstains. He even argued, in moments when tensions were running high, with the defectors from the Free Syrian Army, who accused him of ruining their military strategy when he filmed the combats. “We have nothing to hide, we are fighting for freedom”, he argued.
Jeddo was a self-made man. As a man of humble origins, he had never had access to a camera until the uprising started, nor did he have a computer at home. “The closest thing I had done was recording my children’s birthdays on my cell phone”, he explained, laughing, last December. When he decided to get involved, with the support of his family, in the coverage of the events in Homs, he taught himself about images. He got hold of his inseparable camera and a laptop and learned to surf the Internet quite skillfully. “I learn watching videos and reading things on the Internet, and each time a journalist comes I pay attention to how they record, which kinds of shots they film, how they place themselves. You are my teachers”, he said in December. He, for his part, would become the teacher of his team of citizen reporters.
Jeddo always chose the riskiest shots. He was not the only one: none of the citizen cameramen of the Baba Amr press center refused Ali’s assignments as the attacks against the neighborhood grew. For months, he had kept his face away from the cameras to keep his identity safe, but as the military offensive grew worse, he decided not to remain anonymous and to appear in his recordings to explain, in Arabic, the attacks from Assad’s Army. That way he stood out even more in denouncing the crimes of the Syrian dictatorship, taking on a role his colleagues feared and admired at the same time.
But the public would not have known either his name or his case had he not played a key role in the escape of the Western journalists in February, after the attack on the press center on February 22nd. He was in the apartment at the time of the attack, along with a dozen other Syrian cameramen, and he was the first one to record the corpses of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik at the building’s entrance. He used his beat-up van to evacuate the injured to the field hospital and lead, along with Abu Hanin –another one of the founders of the press center- the journalists’ escape from Homs when the entrance of the Army on the ground was only hours away. One of them was British photographer Paul Conroy, who considers the only crime Damascus can attribute to Othman is “having used a camera”.
His conduct during Conroy’s evacuation has led the British Foreign Office to issue a press release about Othman. “I am very concerned by reports that Ali Mahmoud Othman, the head of the Media Centre in Homs where Marie Colvin, Paul Conroy and other journalists were based, has been captured by the Syrian regime. There are also reports that some of Othman’s colleagues have also been detained. There are reports that Mr. Othman has already been tortured and maltreated. I call on the Syrian authorities to release Mr. Othman and other political prisoners immediately”.
The Baba Amr team of citizen reporters is now dispersed inside and outside the Syrian borders after the Army entered the neighborhood and feeling devastated. “He is being tortured, he was forced to call one of us to ask to meet him in Damascus”, where he was taken two days after his arrest, explains Omar Shakir over the phone. The regime ignored that news of his arrest had already spread and that his colleagues had been warned of the risk. Abu Ala, another activist, states that “they are forcing him to give up information about his contacts and blacklisting them. They are already begun to arrest them. We do not have the exact information but there are at least five other arrests we know about. The problem is that we cannot talk to all the boys and girls who remain in Syria”.
Some activists consider Othman’s arrest as the regime’s attempt to squash the Baba Amr information office, the most active of the Syrian revolution, to scare other citizen journalists in the rest of the country. Countless amateur reporters have been murdered by snipers or have died in bombings since the uprising began. Since last November, eight reporters have died in Syria, which according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which makes the Arab country the world’s most dangerous for the press.
Jeddo’s arrest puts directly at risk the fifteen or so young citizens who decided to become the eyes of the revolution because of the difficulties the regime imposed on journalists to access Baba Amr. And indirectly the dozens of activists in Homs they were in contact with. However, Abu Ala thinks that that is not the worst thing that can happen to the members of the press office. “The worst would be that they finish him off once they have gotten everything out of him”.